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The Romance of Remorse

After five years without a solo studio recording,Michael Kors outlet Emmylou Harris has a lot riding on her new CD. Even if it's a hit, it's hard to imagine her free of self-reproach.
By DANIEL MENAKER



Photograph by Andres Serrano

N ear the end of Emmylou Harris's show at the Birchmere Theater just outside Washington in May, a big black dog -- part poodle, part who knows -- bounds onstage, tail wagging. He finds his mistress standing between Buddy Miller, the nonmainstream country-music star, and the drummer-bassist Daryl Johnson. In an off-white dress and with her white hair shining, Harris looks, as she always does, like Someone. She can't help looking like Someone. Or if she can, she doesn't want to. She's tall and vivid and glamorous, but she also emanates a nearly religious modesty, and when she's not onstage, the combination makes people want to stare at her and try not to. It's a neat (possibly unconscious) trick: the ability to encourage admiration while appearing humbled by it.

"This is Bonaparte," Harris says. "He's one of our four dogs. The rest are at home with my mother in Nashville." The dog dodges away from her and runs offstage. "We should be nice to animals," Harris says, and then, maybe to dispel that statement's vapidness, she adds, "If we're good to them, they make us feel good about ourselves" -- an odd, perhaps accidental admission that for her as for many others, virtue's rewards include self-reassurance.

She sings the show's finale -- a semitheological song called "The Maker." The small band approximates the cosmic-country-rock, attic-rummaging sound that has characterized Harris's recent recordings. Her voice isn't quite what it used to be in the upper register, but 30 years of hard work have given it a complicated kind of power and authority. Before leaving the stage for the night, she makes a pitch for the Campaign for a Land Mine-Free World. There are scarves woven by Cambodian land-mine victims for sale outside the auditorium, she says, after reciting some horrifying land-mine statistics, and it's clear that this person has a conscience that does not rest.

In the Birchmere's greenroom, Buddy Miller -- unshaven, unassuming, his round face beaming -- chats with a visitor about the music that Harris and he and Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and others like them play. "Alternative country," it is often called -- because of its rural and folk antecedents and its differences from the formulaic commercial-radio monsters. Maple Byrne, Harris's elfin stage manager, puts away her guitars, one of which has the singer's trademark rose-and-brier motif inlaid in the wood just below the strings. Byrne is agile and silent, like a priestess's acolyte. Harris looks down and quietly thanks people for their praise. She has fine features, some softness of age at the jaw. A slight slouch seems an objective correlative for her reflexive self-deprecation. Her movements are quick, verging on anxious. "I'm trying to find this Luther guy," she says. "He's supposed to be here to look at this guitar that got smashed a few weeks ago. It means a lot to me -- it was the first guitar I had in New York, and I wanted to give it to my older daughter, Hallie, because I was pregnant with her when I bought it."


Daniel Menaker is the author of "The Treatment," a novel.


Another reporter who has heard Harris's next CD, "Red Dirt Girl" (her first studio recording in almost five years, its release next week to be followed by a major tour), tells her he thinks the 11 songs she has written for the album are very good. "I hope so," she replies, nervously, and thanks him for the compliment. A few minutes later, Harris excuses herself, no doubt to look for Luther.

Emmylou harris was born in Birmingham, Ala., on April 2, 1947, the daughter of a Marine fighter pilot from New Jersey and a south Alabama farmer's daughter. She attended high school in Woodbridge, Va., and was her class's valedictorian. In Woodbridge, she started listening to folk music over American University's FM station, was given a $30 pawn-shop Kay guitar when she was 16 and worked her emulational way backward -- or is it forward? -- from Peter, Paul and Mary to Joan Baez to Woody Guthrie to a seminal book of early British ballads. After stabs at college and acting, she eventually fetched up in the Greenwich Village folk clubs in 1968. In New York, she married a songwriter named Tom Slocum, and her first daughter was born.

Penury and fear of the big city drove the young family to Nashville, but the marriage failed, Harris went on food stamps, and she eventually moved back in with her parents in Virginia. For the next couple of years she waited on tables and sang folk songs. One evening, the country-rock star and scapegrace-genius-rich-boy-Harvard-dropout Gram Parsons saw her perform in D.C. A year later, he flew her out to Los Angeles, where she sang duets with him on his album "GP" and had an artistic epiphany about country music -- a genre that most folkies disdained.

Under Parsons's chaotic tutelage, on recordings and on tour, Harris not only began to hear the virtuosity in country musicians like Hank Williams but also started to find her real voice and her own eclectic taste for the first time. And then in 1973 Parsons died as a result of a drug overdose. Harris has often described this event in traumatic terms -- an amputation," "when the meteor hit the earth." She and Parsons were not lovers; their "consummation" was musical, not physical, as Nicholas Dawidoff put it in his book "In the Country of Country." But she has kept the flame (and perhaps carried a rescue-fantasy torch) for Parsons from that point on.

In the mid-70's, Harris became a country-music star. She made eight gold albums and three platinum albums, and had five No. 1 hits. She has won nine Grammy awards and has toured tirelessly around the world for more than 20 years. As the 80's wore on into the 90's and Nashville's welcome for traditional country musicians wore out in favor of male "hat acts," slick production and Shania Twain's navel, Harris refused to hang up her own hat. She kept it on and began to experiment with even more eclectic material. It may not have improved her commercial success, but this perseverance has given her a strong reputation for musical openness among other musicians. It has also earned her a public following that often falls off the cliff of fandom into idolatry. She has sponsored many performers and songwriters during her career, assembled and presided over three stellar bands and been a generous duettist: one Emmylou Harris fan-club estimate of her stints singing backup for other artists is 283, second only to Willie Nelson.

A few days after her Birchmere performance, Harris is back in Nashville. She is getting ready for her appearance, with other like-minded country musicians, in a Ryman Auditorium concert of the soundtrack music from the Coen Brothers' next movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which will open in December. The movie is a picaresque comedy about four prison escapees in the South, and the all-star cast of musical performers was chosen by the Coens in auditions two years ago. On the eve of the concert, Harris arrives for a lunch date at a simple restaurant in a shopping mall in Nashville. She is wearing a black T-shirt under a purple cardigan, a long skirt and gray platform sandals and matching gray toenail polish. And sunglasses. The waitress recognizes her and smiles and courteously averts her eyes.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Harris says.

"Five minutes isn't really late."

"I had a workout, took a shower, had a few other things to do," she says hurriedly, pulling the cardigan closed.

"Did you ever find Luther?"

"Who?"

"Luther -- the guy you were looking for at the Birchmere."

"Oh, the luthier," Harris says with a giggle. "Isn't that a wonderful word? I love that word." She pulls at the edges of the cardigan again. Harris loves words in general, it becomes clear. In the self-effacing (and for the most part self-shielding) conversation that follows -- which includes tributes to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, the Mamas and the Papas, Dolly Parton and, of course, Gram Parsons -- words like "anathema" and "Wunderkind" surface naturally. And she is well read. In discussing the existential cast of her songwriting on "Red Dirt Girl" (one couplet goes, "Like falling stars from the universe, we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world"), she says: "I'm entrenched in middle age, and I've endured some dramatic losses. I don't have answers, but I do have questions. I guess that's why I like the two Annies so much." She laughs. "Annie Dillard and Annie Proulx."



Sweetheart of the rodeo: Emmylou Harris in 1982, in the days before Nashville went gaga for male "hat acts." Photograph by Henry Diltz/Corbis.

Some troubled currents run through Harris's literary philosophy and unceasing admiration for other musicians. One involves the possible turning point she has reached in her career. Since its release in 1995, her CD "Wrecking Ball," perhaps the most important alternative-country recording made so far, has sold about 250,000 copies. It contains grand and haunting renditions of songs by Harris herself, Jimi Hendrix, Julie Miller, Anna McGarrigle, Neil Young and the album's producer, the glowering French Canadian Daniel Lanois, who has also produced records for U2 and Peter Gabriel. The next album, "Spyboy," a 1998 collection of raw and sometimes ragged live performances, has sold about 100,000. These albums are cult objects, but their sales look like tiny potatoes next to today's pop and country Idahos, and even next to Harris's own platinum-album and Grammy-rich past.

With Malcolm Burn as producer, "Red Dirt Girl" may be more musically accessible than her two previous releases, but it has many of the same Lanois-style artsy effects -- a tom-tom pulsing loudly behind a post-Phil Spector wall of sound, noises like whale-song and what sound like stray signals from SETI's Very Large Array. Still it's obvious that Harris was disappointed with her business alliances. "After 'Spyboy,' I let my manager go, I let my label go, I let my producer go," she says. "I don't want to dwell on the negative," she goes on. "I've always zigged and zagged, and I guess 'Red Dirt Girl' is a pretty big zag."

More undercurrents: like most writers, Harris seems genuinely uncertain about the quality of her work, especially on this new album. And like most performers, she by definition enjoys the gratification of love from strangers. Artists often have an altruistic desire to communicate with their audience, but they also have their reasons, and for many, "reasons" means "parents." Harris's father, who died in 1993, was evidently a man of great physical skill and psychological courage. In the anthemic "Bang the Drum Slowly," a song about her father laden with regret, she says: "I meant to ask you . . . if you ever really were deceived/By the likes of me." It's a puzzling, charged line. At lunch Harris leans forward, closes the sides of her cardigan conclusively and says: "My father was a man of enormous compassion and humanity. And he could do anything. I always felt phony around him, as if what I was doing weren't real work. He told me he didn't feel that way, but I was always afraid that he did."

Surely moving around as a military child also contributes to some adult uneasiness. Despite her mother's Alabama provenance, Harris refers to herself as rootless. Recently, in an interview in No Depression -- which waggishly calls itself "The Jovially Amateurish Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Bimonthly" -- she sounded almost bitter about her rootlessness: "I wasn't raised on a farm in Tennessee, you know, one of 12 children. . . . I have no roots anywhere." And at lunch, after discussing Southern recipes for sweet tea and gingerbread, she says, "Maybe I'm trying to get back to my Southernness through Southern cuisine." She laughs and adds: "I'm not a red-dirt girl, I'm an off-base girl. It's just an accident that I live in Nashville." As it does for so many in the alternative-country audience, this sense of deracination no doubt plays a part in Harris's search and reverence for musical authenticity.

And her offstage relationships have not given her much of a rock to lean on. When asked about her personal life, Harris -- thrice divorced (twice from her record producers, Brian Ahern and then Paul Kennerly) -- takes a deep breath, like someone who must give the people a glimpse of her wounds, and says, "I am not in a relationship now, and I'm not happy about it." She raises her hand, as if taking an oath in court, and goes on. "I have known true love -- I really have." She lowers her hand. "But, obviously, it hasn't worked out. I believe we all have a profound need for a good relationship to another person. When we don't have it, there's a void, which we try to fill with sex, with drugs, with food, with alcohol, with buying things. I've come to realize sadly that good relationships are very rare. Most marriages just aren't like that."

Harris has been called the Queen of Country Music, the Angel of This, the Sweetheart of That. Even the Diva of Loss. Well, as "Bang the Drum Slowly" and three decades' worth of song choices and songwriting and the Nashville lunch conversation indicate, it might be more accurate to say the Diva of Remorse. Many of the 12 songs on "Red Dirt Girl" deal with regret -- some tunefully and even whimsically, some heavily. Would you have X if I had Y? I should have A'ed or B'ed, then maybe you wouldn't have C'ed. Many feature choruses of mournful "ohhh"s and rueful "mmm"s. And, like her entire career, many seem darkened by the death, and maybe the spirit, of Parsons. Harris has of course written and sung upbeat numbers and plain old love ballads and ramblin' songs, but her core repertory, and her new album, thrum with self-reproach. Perhaps this is why her music resonates so deeply for so many poets, writers, other artists and anyone else who suffers from bouts of self-criticism.


Harris's music resonates with poets, writers, artists and anyone else who suffers from bouts of self-criticism.


The domestic menagerie, the land-mine crusade, the musical tributes to other singers, the benefit-concert appearances, the incessant duetting, the sense of phoniness before her father's example -- it all suggests that Harris seeks not only communication and admiration but moral approval. You certainly cannot fault creativity and generosity as responses to inner needs. You might, however wish such a hard worker more ease. She can be wary and reticent -- she feels she has been betrayed by a couple of reporters who have gotten close to her -- and in criticizing Bill Buford's compelling but controversial profile of Lucinda Williams in The New Yorker last spring, she has said: "Nothing in the world can prepare anyone to be a public figure. I should have called Lu and told her, 'Never let civilians on the bus."'

And, finally, she seems driven. "Now I'm leaving for a two-week vacation," she says at the end of another conversation, in New York, closer to the new CD's release. She tucks in her perfectly tucked, sheer purple blouse and wads up the paper from the chocolate bar that, with two cups of black coffee, is her sustenance after an hours-long publicity photo shoot for her new label, Nonesuch. She stands up and says of her holiday, "I'm dreading it."

H aving worked through remorse, let us briefly address Diva: Harris shows up after lunch in Nashville for an "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" rehearsal at the brick-barnlike Ryman Auditorium, formerly the home of the Grand Ole Opry, preserved from destruction partly through the efforts of Emmylou Harris. It is now a national landmark. As always, she is put together, befitting someone who admits to spending two hours shopping for the right lipstick and who has employed a "personal image stylist" named Rique for 17 years. Today, she has undergone a pedal transformation. She wears burgundy platform sandals with matching burgundy toenail polish. She is the most striking personage on the scene. The Ryman's security guards, who have been greeting the cast with straightforward politeness, lower their gaze when she walks in, and when she goes onstage to rehearse in a trio with the angel-voiced Alison Krauss and the rubbing-alcohol-voiced Gillian Welch amid the milling about of other musicians, she looks like an heirloom rose among daisies.

After the concert the next night -- which includes not only Harris, Krauss and Welch but also the gospel-singing Cox Family, the top-flight bluegrass family the Whites, Ralph Stanley, the virtuoso Dobro-guitar player Jerry Douglas, the fiddle virtuoso Stuart Duncan, a white Baptist choir and a black spiritual group called the Fairfield Four -- cataclysmic storms begin to descend on Nashville. Harris wants to get home. The streets are flooding, tornadoes are approaching, the elements are adding a crescendo encore to the celebration of traditional and new American music that has just taken place within. But before she can leave, a couple of the other performers approach her backstage like petitioners and ask for her autograph. And as I say goodbye to her, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I look around, and there's Maple Byrne, who, as if we were both initiates in the same secret society, wordlessly hands me a guitar pick stamped with a red rose and, in white and in a fancy hand, the initials "E.H." (The rose has faded with the pick's use, but the letters remain distinct.)


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September 03, 2000




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