Emmylou Harris; finds the heart of a song
Since I have never had a lot of money for records and concerts I feel fortunate that I was able to see Emmylou Harris in the early 1990’s in Davenport, Iowa. The cities (Davenport Iowa, Bettendorf, Iowa, Rock Island and Moline, Illinois) were in an economic slump and some promoter thought he could create a new Branson in the Quad-cities. I don’t think that worked out but we did get the opportunity to attend some good concerts at reasonable prices.
Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama on April 2, 1947. She graduated class valedictorian from Gar-Field Senior High School in Woodbridge, Virginia. After winning a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina she started a serious study of music. Upon leaving college she moved to New York and worked as a waitress while performing folksongs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. In 1970 she recorded her first album “Gliding Bird.”
She worked with Gram Parsons as a member of his band until Parsons died. The working relationship between Parsons and Harris is considered of great importance in country and country-rock music history.
“Boulder to Birmingham ” was Harris’s earliest signature song. According to Linda Ronstadt it was the beginning of her friends lifetime of trying to process the death of someone as close to her as Parsons. Ronstadt who had an admiration of Harris’s work invited her to come to Los Angeles and helped promote her in the music community and It also helped her get a music contract.
She worked with a variety of musical artist among whom was Bob Dylan who had her perform on his “Desire ” Album. I heard it said that Emmylou Harris is the only singer to work with Dylan and not try to capitalize on it. I don’t think she needed to.
Brand New Dance
Singer as interpreter
I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face.
“Boulder to Birmingham” lyrics by Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris has long been one of my favorite singers, male or female. Although she started her musical career learning folksongs recorded by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on her guitar, she is not exactly a folksinger. She has worked in a number of musical genres, such as folk, country, country rock, bluegrass, rock, pop and alternative country. She is also a singer-songwriter, producer and arranger. She has also worked and recorded with many stars in these fields.
She is a skilled interpreter of songs and a supporter of roots music. Most importantly, I think, is she has developed a style that is uniquely her own. A style which gets at the heart of the song.
Cow girls Prayer
The musical journey
All in all it is impossible to pin Harris down as to what kind of performer she is, country, rock, folk or all of the above. “Elite Hotel ” was a #1 country album but also seemed to appeal to a rock audience. It won a “Grammy” in 1976. “Luxury Liner” was released in 1977 and was her top commercial record and definitive. It contained a mix of Chuck Berry songs, Gram Parsons, Carter Family and Kitty Wells. The song “Poncho & Lefty” on the album would become a top hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983
Somewhat changing direction she recorded “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” It is made up of recent songs rather than classics. In the late 1970’s she cut three albums that showed a shift to traditional country while the industry was going “Urban Cowboy.” In this period she got a Grammy Award for “Blue Kentucky Girl.” It was largely traditional country along the lines of Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells.
She explored country music roots further in the 1980’s with “Roses in the Snow a bluegrass oriented album. In 1985 she recorded “Ballad of Sally Rose ” in which she co-wrote all the songs. It was somewhat autobiographical. Harris called it “county opera.”
In 1987 she teamed with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for the album “Trio. ” It was a commercial success. She ventured into singing traditional gospel songs in the 1987 album “Angel Band .”
Harris started to get less airplay in the 1990’s as country stations shifted their focus to “new country” Her albums “Bluebird ” and “Brand New Dance ” and “Cowgirls Prayer ” got good reviews but popularity was waning.
In the mid-90’s she changed direction again with “Wrecking Ball” which was a change in direction for her and brought her to the attention of the rock listeners.
Harris has been invited to participate in both rock festivals and bluegrass festivals along with her other engagements. She says it proves her theory that the public is eclectic in its taste As such she is a key figure in bringing country music and mostly wants “good” music rather than a particular genre. As such she is a major figure in uniting rock listeners with country traditionalists. She made country music “hip.”
The range of musicians who sought her as a collaborator shows her wide appeal and range of her repertoire. Such diverse musicians as The Judds, The Band, Johnnie Cash Leo Kottke, Bob Dylan, Little Feet, Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, Bill Monroe, Lyle Lovette, John Denver, Roy Orbison, Trish Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks among others. Several stars have emerged from playing in her bands.