Emmylou Harris on Songwriting: "If You Don't Follow Your Heart, Then You're Going to Pay"
Photo by Rocky Schenck
Just as seasons change, so do musical fads. What is stylish eventually grows passé before becoming cool again.
However, legendary singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris has never paid any mind to waves of popularity. Over the course of her four-decade career, she has been too concerned with staying true to herself, no matter who wished to define her music as country or folk, cool or uncool.
"You know, they just came up with this Americana moniker, which is good, but I don't know if I ever saw myself as being in style," she tells Crossfade, in a voice as earnest and charming as one of her ballads.
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Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris grew up in North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, where she spent her teenage years and began a love affair with music. "I was about 16 when the folk revival happened," she recalls. "I was in high school and I heard Joan Baez."
As valedictorian of her high-school class, young Emmylou decided to go to college and study drama. But she quickly realized her talents laid elsewhere. "I did go to drama school and I was not very good. I was playing music too, and I realized I was much more calm and unselfconscious playing music."
Thus began her search for authenticity through song. As a young mother, Harris gradually rose to prominence, thanks partly to her collaborations with Gram Parsons. Their harmonies are the stuff of country-rock legend, even if Harris never had any training in that particular subject.
"I just open my mouth and jump in," she admits. "I don't understand, like, if I'm working in a strict three-part harmony and someone says do the baritone part. I have to have them show me. But with a duet, every note of it is a melody, and I just think of it as an alternate melody."
Her time working with Parsons and his death at 26 in 1973 continues to haunt Harris. Throughout her career, she has covered his songs and she has written her own songs about him, from 1975's "Boulder to Birmingham" to 2011's "The Road." She was still just beginning cope when she released her breakthrough solo album, Pieces of the Sky.
"I was lucky enough to get into the country charts, but I didn't have to live and die by them," she says. "I was always able to do whatever I wanted because, luckily enough, I always had an extraordinary audience. They were loyal. They came out to shows. They bought enough records to make it respectable, where the record company would say, 'Yeah, she should do another record.'"
That devoted fanbase gave her the freedom to experiment. "There were times where I thought the records might not even be respectable. At one point, with Roses in the Snow, I was told that might be the end of my career. They put it out anyway, and it did very, very well."
But a few later albums, like 1985's The Ballad of Sally Rose, which was a concept album based on her relationship with Parsons, didn't fare as well. "It really was kind of a bomb in terms of record sales, but I'm glad I did it and I survived it. I was lucky enough to survive a commercial failure. If you don't follow your heart, what is speaking to you at the moment and inspiring you, then I think you're going to pay."
Staying within herself has provided enough material to record 26 albums during a career that has seen her inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and win 13 Grammy Awards. And this past year brought yet another high point: the release of her collaboration with Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon, which won the Grammy for Best Americana Album.
Harris and Crowell, who first worked together nearly four decades earlier, enjoyed touring and recording Old Yellow Moon so much that they're working on a follow-up. "We wrote songs together, we're doing a couple covers, and we're doing some of Rodney's songs that other people have recorded years ago."
But don't expect to hear those new songs when she plays the Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall, as Crowell will not be in attendance. In fact, there's only one song from their duet album that she believes might make the setlist.
"Doing them without Rodney, something would be missing," Harris explains. "And I've been making records since 1975," she laughs. "So I have plenty of material."
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Emmylou Harris. With Walter Parks and Lee Hunter. Sunday, November 9. Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $29 to $125 plus fees via arshtcenter.org. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.
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