Born in a Place
An interview with Emmylou Harris
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly November 1998

If "outlaw" means being true to your music, then Emmylou Harris is a criminal. With her wondrous voice, nuanced phrasing and deft delivery, she has succeeded as a solo artist, duet partner and as the background vocalist of choice for many of the best songwriters working today. The box set Portraits (Reprise, 1996) collects the highlights from a career that has spanned over twenty years and is distinguished throughout by both Harris's taste in material and by the many remarkable musicians she has worked with.  Her most recent studio album, Wrecking Ball (Elektra, 1995), was praised by critics as a creative breakthrough and won Harris her seventh Grammy. Spyboy (Eminent), her new live album, was released this past summer. Gadfly spoke with Harris shortly before she left for a stint on Lilith Fair.

How do you feel about doing Lilith Fair?

Actually I was planning to take a year off from touring. But I said I wanted to do Lilith Fair if I didn't do anything else. I had such a good time last year. You play for audiences that are enormous, who listen, and, in my case, who haven't really heard your music before. That's all you can ask for.

I was wondering if your early interest in acting influenced your approach to singing.

No. You know, it's funny. To me acting and singing are worlds apart. I never felt the sort of being-at-home acting that I feel singing. I don't know what it's like for really good actors. I assume it's what I feel like when I'm singing. I always felt like I was acting when I was acting.

How did you meet Gram Parsons and what were your first impressions?

I first met him at the train station in Washington, D.C. He had called me from Baltimore. He had come to visit the Burrito Brothers, who were playing in Baltimore, and they had heard me play in D.C. Apparently Gram had mentioned to Chris Hillman that he was going to do a solo record and he was looking for a woman to do sort of a George/Tammy, Conway/Loretta type of country duets. Chris told Gram about me, but said that he didn't have any way of getting in touch with me. As it turned out the girl who baby-sat for my then two-year-old daughter was back stage. This was one of the real serendipitous things in my life. And she said, "Oh, I have her phone number. I baby-sit for her daughter." So that was how Gram got in touch with me. He wanted me to come up to Baltimore, but I couldn't. I had a gig. I was playing down in D.C. So he came down on the train and I picked him up and took him to where my little trio was playing.  After that I was in contact with him and his manager for about a year because the album plans were aborted a couple of times for various reasons. Then one day about a year after I'd initially met him I got a ticket to go to L.A. to do his record. He was just such a really gracious Southern boy. His manners were very genuine. He was very funny, very kind, a person you couldn't help liking.

What was working with him like?

It was very easy working with Gram. Basically all we did was sing. I mean, we loved singing together, and we just sang all the time. He was always teaching me things, you know. I was just trying to harmonize with him. But it seemed like we had a real natural ability to phrase together. I never had to struggle. It was almost like we were dancing partners who were able to fall into step with each other really quickly.

You sing on Willie Nelson's new record.

Oh, I love Willie so much. It was like being in Heaven. I was sitting in the middle and there was Daniel Lanois on one side of me and Willie on the other and we were singing (laughs). It was so great.

What is your impression of the legacy of Outlaw Country?

You mean like Willie and Waylon? I'm not sure I can answer that. But it seems to me that it never translated very far into mainstream country. When I think about what's on the radio right now, I can't think of anything that can compete with Merle or Waylon or Willie or Johnny Cash. That power and maturity and edginess, that coloring outside the lines. It probably had more of an effect on rock music, groups like Wilco and Son Volt and that sort of thing where the bands are really picking up on what outlaw country had to bring to the whole musical mix. It seems like what I hear on country radio right now is completely sanitary.

We were disheartened to learn that George Jones was dropped by his label

Well, that's really bad karma. But you know what, he's going to do great. He'll probably do much better at another label that really appreciates him and understands him and realizes that there's a huge George Jones audience out there. And there's potential for a whole new audience with the proper promotion and figuring out how to get his music to other people. The man can still sing, and believe me there's still a lot of life left in George Jones.

What do you think of what's going on in country now? How do you see its future?

What's going on in country now, of course, I find a bit sterile. But for me, country is a broader genre. I kind of put bluegrass in there, too. But it's hard to expand the [bluegrass] form, after the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and Scruggs. There are very strict boundaries, and once you start changing it it really disappears. But you have the musicians who grew up on bluegrass, like Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor, who are extraordinary and bring some of that bluegrass blood into the rich stew of other music. But as far as bluegrass expanding—that's a hard one. Country, though, can—like the blues. It can open up into new genres. Great musicians will come along and reinvent it, make it something different, yet carry the tradition forward.

How do you go about selecting your material?

Oh boy, that's a question that I don't really have an answer for. You mean my criteria?

Let me ask you about a couple specific songs. How did you run across Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day"?

When Albert Lee was in my band he turned me on to Richard and Linda Thompson. So I had everything they had recorded. And I just loved that song. That was... wow. I cut that back in 1979.

On your last studio album, Wrecking Ball
, you included a Hendrix song.

That was actually taped from Daniel. He was talking about the presence of country melodies in unlikely places, such as this song, and started singing "May This Be Love" and I just sort of joined in on the harmony. We did pre-production in my living room. He said, "Now that's interesting. Let's put that idea on the back burner and maybe we'll pull it out at the proper time."

How do you balance—speaking of working with someone like Lanois—your sense of country's tradition and your own desire to experiment?

I don't worry about country tradition. Thing is, I'm infused with it. I've learned music. I've found my "voice" through Gram and coming through the country door and singing country melodies, country songs, learning the impact of restraint in phrasing that is inherent in country music. I think that is what really gave my voice its shape and style. I don't think about it too much. I don't think it's something you can think about. So that's just there. It's like saying, "Where were you born?" You were born in a place and you have that in your heritage, but then you travel all over the world. You take your home with you wherever you go, but obviously wherever you go you change and mutate into something else. But you are a sum of all the parts and eventually you become something greater than the sum of the parts. So I don't ever worry about whether I'm being true to my country roots. My country roots were adopted. I never worry about what I can do and what I should do. I just do what I want to do.

How do you approach a song as a back-up singer?

As a back-up singer I always kind of just think of everything as a duet. Because really I started singing with Gram. I say that only because a back-up singer has to be a lot more knowledgeable about parts. They know the third and they know the fifth and they know the diminished and all that stuff. With me, I just jump in on top of the melody and do what feels right.

Can I ask you about some of the people you've worked with as a back-up singer? Steve Earle.

Steve is so great to work with, because he just loves everything you do. If you're singing with a lot of soul, then that's it. He goes with the performance. I loved working on Train A'Comin. I loved that record. I love the sound and the fact that it signals Steve coming back, getting back into the world with his poetry and his sense of humor intact. I'm quite inspired by Steve. I love just being around him. Not just as a musician but as a person.

Neil Young?

Well, I did that bit of singing with him years ago. I think it was '75 actually. Then I just recently sang with him again with Linda Ronstadt out in Tucson for the new project he's working on. I love working with him, too. He gets these real interesting ideas. He'll try a lot of different things and he'll sort of do them and then all of a sudden he'll do something different and they won't seem to fit together, but then there's this wonderful thing that he's created. He uses you like an instrument, almost like he would use a guitar or a keyboard, you know, trying different things and then putting them together. Yet it still has the feeling of being very simple, uncomplicated. The end product becomes something very unique.

Bob Dylan?

That was an interesting experience. Obviously Dylan had a huge influence on me. Dylan was as close to a god as anybody I had ever met.  When I was first getting into music back in the 60s, strumming my guitar, I learned everything that he did. I worked in the clubs in New York City where he had played and his presence was everywhere. I suppose I would have been very intimidated, except that we just got right down to work, and the work was reading the lyrics off the page. We were cutting the song, watching him and trying to phrase with him while not really knowing the song. After making one or two passes at a song, sometimes he would change the song from, say, four-four to three-four from one take to another and then go on to another song. It was all live. It was like a painter that works by just throwing paint up on the canvas and yet there's this real method to his madness. He knew what he was doing. It was an extraordinary experience. I look back on the aftermath and think, Wow, I was there. At the time it was just intense work—one song after another, and I had to land on my feet every time. There was no chance to fix anything.

Let me ask you, while we're on the subject of legends, about one who recently died. Rose Maddox?

I sang on her record quite a few years ago. Then I did a little TV special with her. We brought her to town. This was after her stroke. She was an amazing woman. Two weeks after she had been given up for dead she was sitting on a stage in a club, someplace in Oregon, singing. The woman had such a strength of will, and she loved to sing. Whenever we were in the area she would come and sit in with us. She would always turn around to the band and say, "This is in F, the key of love." (Laughs.) She was quite a character. I wish she would have gotten more accolades in her life. That would have been nice for her because she was out there singing to the end. She was up for a Grammy once and didn't win.

You've worked with Nicolette Larson who also recently passed away.

Oh yeah. That was a shock to everybody. She was lovely. She had this voice almost like a little girl, such a sweet, sweet, unique quality in her voice. She didn't sound like anybody else. When she would sing a harmony part she would come up with real interesting, unusual parts. She added such an original texture to everything she did. During the time I got to know Nicolette she was married to my steel player, Hank Devito. So she would sing on the road with us, even before she ever went into the studio and sang on the records. Boy... she was just so young. Everybody was so taken aback. It's hard to say goodbye to the Bill Monroes and Rose Maddoxes, but they lived long lives. Nicolette was sort of shot down in her prime.

What are Buddy Miller and his wife, Julie Miller, like to work with?

Oh, God. They're just wonderful. Two of the dearest, most delightful people. Very musical. Wonderful attitude about everything. Very professional, but they go for the performance, what feels right. They understand that that's what you're going for, the fullness of something and not just having every note perfect. And yet they're perfectionists, too. They are very, very good. It's been great working with them, singing on both their records, and now having them on this live record. Buddy Miller is astonishing with what he can do on the guitar, and a great singer. I think both of them are quite wonderful songwriters. Everything is done in their house. They make records in their house with their six cats.

What made you decide to follow Wrecking Ball with a live album?

Well, you know, I spent two years on the road working Wrecking Ball. I didn't really have time to do any work in the studio. I have been doing a little work as far as writing some songs, but I'm not anywhere near ready to go into the studio. It had been three years since Wrecking Ball, and we had all these great performances. So it was a way of saying, "Here's the next record," because I felt I needed to put another record out and I thought it was really good. Plus I could say that this was what I'd been doing for two years to myself as well as to people wondering what I was up to.

Do you have plans to go back into the studio?

I want to continue to do some writing. When I've got about half an album's worth of material that I feel good about, then I'll go into the studio. So it probably won't be until sometime next year.