Possessing one of the most ethereally beautiful voices in country music, if not popular music as a whole, Emmylou Harris was a singer-songwriter whose lovely interpretations of country and pop-rock material made her one of the most respected figures on the music scene. She began her career as a protégé and muse of Gram Parsons, who found in Harris the perfect voice for his vision of a hybrid country-rock sound. His 1973 death haunted Harris for the rest of her career, but also provided her with some of her most moving original songs, including "Boulder to Birmingham" and the 1985 concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose. But Harris also blossomed into her own artist, which saw chart-topping albums in the 1970s and celebrated ventures into traditional country in the 1980s. Her music found little purchase in the 1990s country scene, so Harris re-invented herself as an independent performer, free of genre allegiance, with the gorgeous Wrecking Ball (1995). In its wake, she became one of country and alternative music's most respected figures, lending decades of artistic talent and credibility to a wide variety of projects, including the massively successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Harris' four-decade career, filled with artistic and commercial high points, was a gold standard for musicians of all genres to study and emulate for their own efforts.
Emmylou Harris was born April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, AL. She was the daughter of Marine Corps officer Walter Harris, who spent 10 months as a prisoner of war in Korea, and his wife, Eugenia. She spent her childhood and teen years in North Carolina and Virginia, where she was valedictorian of her high school class. After winning a dramatic scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she began to develop a serious interest in music, especially the folk songs of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. After teaming with fellow student Tim Williams, she quit school and headed for New York City, where she began playing at Greenwich Village coffeehouses. The famed Gerde's Folk City club became her home away from home, and there, she met and befriended such established musicians as David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker. In 1969, she married songwriter Tom Slocum, with whom she had a daughter named Haille. The following year, Harris released her debut album, The Gilding Bird, which featured a title track by her husband and covers of songs by Dylan, Hank Williams and Fred Neil that would show the first inklings of her talent as an interpreter of other artists' songs. However, the album's label, Jubilee Records, went bankrupt shortly after its release, which prevented her LP from receiving any significant distribution or promotion. Harris, who would later disown the album due to her experience with Jubilee, was disheartened by its failure, so moved with Slocum to Nashville in an attempt to make a name among its legion of songwriters. The relocation sounded a death knell for her marriage, and after divorcing Slocum, she took her daughter to live with her parents at a farm outside of Washington, D.C.
By 1971, Harris had returned to performing, now as part of a trio with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. While playing at an area club, she was approached by Chris Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds who had left the group to lead the pioneering country-rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers. Hillman was so taken by Harris' voice that he briefly considered asking her to join the group. However, Hillman's own status in the Burrito Brothers was short-lived, and before leaving them to join Stephen Stills in Manassas, he recommended Harris to former Burrito Brother leader, the eclectic singer-songwriter Gram Parsons. Harris soon became a key member of Parsons' group, the Grievous Angels, and a grounding force in his life, which up to that point had been plagued by personal problems, including an unchecked drug and alcohol addiction. Their harmonies on Parsons' solo debut GP (1971) and on tour in 1972 were gorgeous evocations of the pure, unfettered vocal joy heard from such country legends as the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers. Parsons had schooled Harris on country music during the recording of GP, and her enthusiastic response inspired him to provide some of his most moving songs and vocals. After completing work on a second album, Grievous Angel (1973), Parsons died of a drug overdose in Joshua Tree National Park in September 1973. His death left Harris devastated. Though they were often rumored to be romantically involved, the relationship between Harris and Parsons ran along spiritual levels, with both individuals providing knowledge and inspiration that would have a profound impact on their careers. He was a crucial element in establishing her musical identity, and she was instrumental in crafting the apotheosis of his ideas of a country-rock hybrid he called "cosmic American music." Harris would later be largely responsible for keeping Parsons' legacy alive in the decades following his death.
In 1975, Harris reteamed with Tom Guidera to form the Angel Band, which would back her on what she would later consider to be her debut album, Pieces of the Sky. The record contained all the elements of Harris' subsequent albums: a eclectic collection of covers in its track listing, from the Louvins' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" to the Beatles' "For No One;" an ace backing band that included legendary guitarist James Burton, who played with Elvis Presley, as well as Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles' Bernie Leadon; and a handful of original songs that showed the simple beauty of her songwriting. For many, the record's standout track was "Boulder to Birmingham," a tribute to Parsons that mourned his loss with aching emotion. Harris scored a Top Five hit on the Billboard country charts with "If I Could Only Win Your Love," which generated interest from Warner Bros., who had released her independently recorded debut through their Reprise label. Their one requirement was that Harris assemble a "hot band," so for her sophomore release, 1975's Elite Hotel, she was backed by the Hot Band, which counted Burton, Ronstadt and Leadon among its members, as well as such country-rock talents as pianist Glen D. Hardin, Bill Payne of Little Feat, the Desert Rose Band's Herb Pederson, Willie Nelson's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Rodney Crowell, who would provide the same level of inspiration to Harris as she had for Parsons. Their impeccable playing complimented Harris' choice of songs, which included covers of Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Patsy Cline's iconic "Sweet Dreams," both of which went to No. 1 on the country charts. Elite Hotel would not only reach the top of the country album charts, but also earn a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, and provide a rare and crucial link to rock and pop audiences through its cover of the Beatles "Here, There and Everywhere."
Harris' newfound star status allowed her to collaborate with some of her heroes, including Bob Dylan on his 1977 album Desire, though her vocal contributions went uncredited. She also appeared in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" (1977), singing "Evangeline" with The Band as they celebrated their final performance, before returning to the studio to record her third album for Reprise, Luxury Liner Burton was unable to participate on the record due to his work with Presley, and was replaced by English guitarist Albert Lee. The album generated two Top 10 singles with covers of Chuck Berry's "(You Never Can Tell) C'est la vie" and Kitty Wells' "Making Believe," as well as an early rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty," which would become a huge hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Shortly after the album's release, Crowell would leave the Hot Band to pursue his own career, and would be replaced by bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs. After marrying her longtime producer Brian Ahern in 1977, Harris began work on a fourth album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), which would be a marked departure from her previous efforts. Its track listing was largely comprised of newer songs by Crowell and such writers as Dolly Parton, Delbert McClinton and Jesse Winchester. The new direction was warmly received by her fans, which sent the McClinton tune, "Two More Bottles of Wine," to No. 1, and Parton's "To Daddy" to No. 3. After giving birth to a daughter, Meghann, in 1979, Harris released an acoustic Christmas album, Light of the Stable, which featured backing vocals by longtime friend Neil Young as well as Linda Ronstadt and Parton. All three women would also begin work on a trio album during this period that would go unfinished for the next decade.
As country music began to move closer to the slick, pop-oriented sound of the "Urban Cowboy" (1979) soundtrack, Harris' music hewed closer to traditional country and classic standards, which surprised many by yielding exceptionally popular results. She released a bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow in 1980, which went to No. 2 on the country charts. A single from that year, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," which featured rockabilly pioneer Roy Orbison, reached the Top 10 on both the country and adult contemporary charts and earned a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Even a cover of the 1950s pop song "Mister Sandman," with Harris providing three-part harmony, went Top 10 country and Top 40 pop. Following the release of Evangeline, the Hot Band began to go its separate ways, with Skaggs embarking on a solo career shortly before the last original member, drummer John Ware, took his leave. Harris' marriage to Brian Ahern had also fallen apart, and after releasing an uneven collection of outtakes, 1981's Cimarron, she and her children headed for Nashville, where she recorded the most offbeat album of her career. White Shoes (1983) that featured covers of Donna Summer's "On the Radio" and a rock-influenced cover of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," as well as a Top 10 cover of the Johnny Ace R&B weeper "Pledging My Love."
In 1985, Harris embarked on an ambitious record project: a concept album penned entirely by her and English musician Paul Kennerly - who would become her third husband that year - called The Ballad of Sally Rose. Based in part on her relationship with Gram Parsons, the album's song cycle told the story of the title character, whose lover-mentor, a hard-living singer, is killed while on tour. Though it netted a Grammy nomination, the album did not enjoy the same reception as her previous efforts, and Harris would come to regard it as a disaster. She would regain her footing with her thirteenth release, aptly titled Thirteen (1986), which was largely comprised of songs by Bruce Springsteen, Doc Watson. The following year saw the release of Trio, the long-gestating joint effort between Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Buoyed by the pristine harmonies and writing talents of three of American music's most accomplished female artists, the album was the biggest hit of Harris' career, reaching No.1 on the country album charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. Its lead single, a cover of the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him is to Love Him," also reached No. 1 and earned two Grammy awards. Its success spurred Warner Bros. to release 1990's Duets, a compilation album of previously released songs that featured Harris with other well-known artists, including Neil Young, Willie Nelson, George Jones and her famed take on "Love Hurts" with Parsons. It would be her final success for the label.
Harris' grip on the country music industry began to weaken in the late 1980s and 1990s. Her traditionalist leanings were in direct conflict with superstar acts like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus, whose music hewed closer to arena rock than the simpler sounds of their forebears. Her albums continued to reap critical praise, but her songs found no home on country radio. In response, Harris began to take decisive action in regard to her career. She dissolved the second version of the Hot Band in 1991, and recorded a live album, At the Ryman (1992), with her new group, the Nash Ramblers, which drew much needed attention to the facility, the former home of the Grand Old Opry. The following year, she severed ties with both Warner Bros. and Paul Kennelly, and set to work on a new record for Elektra.
The result was Wrecking Ball (1995), a lush, hypnotic album produced by Daniel Lanois, who was best known for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel, as well as reviving Bob Dylan's recording career. Sonically, it hewed closer to alternative rock in its sound and production, and showed Harris' interpretive powers could also work wonders with material like Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" as well as material from the growing alt-country scene, like "Orphan Girl," a plaintive traditional ballad by Gillian Welch, whose Appalachian-influenced sound and strong independent streak was reminiscent of Harris' own career path. Wrecking Ball did little to improve Harris' standing in country music circles, but it did much to re-position her as an independent artist with an extraordinary past and exemplary credits, on par with such country iconoclasts as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. She forged her own path for the rest of the 1990s, touring with the Lilith Fair in 1997 and 1998 and reuniting with Parton and Ronstadt for Trio 2 (1999), which also netted a Grammy. She and Ronstadt then reteamed for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, which saw high placement on both the country and pop charts and generated a popular joint tour. Harris closed out the 20th century by paying homage to Gram Parsons by producing Return of the Grievous Angel, a collection of Parsons songs performed by the likes of Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, Sheryl Crow and his old bandmate, Chris Hillman.
She launched the new millennium with Red Dirt Girl (2000), her first album of new material in nearly a half-decade. Produced by Daniel Lanois' protégé, Malcolm Burn, it surprised many by featuring a track list mainly comprised of original songs by Harris. Another critical smash, Red Dirt Girl also re-established Harris on the country charts by vaulting to No. 3 and winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2001. That same year, she was featured on the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), a collection of traditional folk and country tunes performed by Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley of the legendary Stanley Brothers, Alison Krauss and other independent-minded country artists. It was one of the year's biggest selling and most praised albums, netting top honors from the Grammys and Country Music Awards, and generated a tour and concert film, "Down from the Mountain" (2002).
Harris' winning streak continued with her 20th album, Stumble Into Grace (2003), which again featured a majority of original songs, several of which were co-written by Canadian folk icons Kate and Anna McGarrigle. From there, she collaborated with a wide variety of music figures, from alt-rock darlings Bright Eyes to Elvis Costello and Neil Young, whom she joined in the Jonathan Demme-directed documentary "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" (2006). That same year, she teamed with former Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler for All the Roadrunning, which broke the Top 20 in the U.S. In 2008, she released All I Intended to Be, another Top Five country album and Top 20 pop album, and toured with a new group, the Red Dirt Boys. The following year, she joined folk favorites Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin, as well as country singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, for an informal tour titled "Three Girls and their Buddy," which featured all four artists collaborating on their respective material. Her 2011 release, Hard Bargain, performed even better than its predecessor, delivering her highest chart debut in over 20 years. Though Harris had established herself as one of country's most acclaimed solo artists, she still found time to pay tribute to the Gram Parsons on the song "The Road."
By Paul Gaita