Emmylou Harris returning home to accept music hall of fame award
News staff writer
When she answers the phone in her Nashville office, she says, "Hi, this is Emmy."
Her voice is calm, her manner reserved, her time limited.
During the eight-minute conversation, you feel that if you're going to call her anything, it really should be Ms. Harris.
This, after all, is one of the most famous and influential people ever born in Birmingham. A country singer to be reckoned with. A folk-rock innovator. A master craftswoman.
Over the past 35 years, Emmylou Harris, 55, has forged a distinguished career in music that has brought her many accolades, from glittering Grammys to a rootin-tootin' award from the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
On Saturday, Harris will collect one more honor this time from her appreciative home state as she's inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. She's one of five achievers who'll be feted for their lifetime contributions at an 8 p.m. ceremony at the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center in Mobile.
"Emmylou has flown through about four genres of music with ease," says David Johnson, executive director of the hall of fame. "She has been able to mix traditional country with pop, rock and folk, making all of it work.
"In everything she does, she knows how to interpret a song and understand a song. Music is her life, what her whole life has been. She's the epitome of music. She keeps pushing music to a new edge."
Harris, who lives in Nashville, will head south this weekend to attend the induction ceremony with nine or 10 guests. She plans to perform that evening, as well, most likely including the song "Boulder to Birmingham" on her short set list.
So how does the Alabama award stack up against about 30 other honors Harris has received?
"Well, it's a hall of fame; I think that's pretty great," she says. "And it's in my home state. Any roots I have are there."
While firmly rooted in the American music world as a recording artist, guitarist, band leader, collaborator and songwriter, Harris has said that she never felt anchored to any particular place in her youth.
A self-described "service brat," Harris will sometimes mention growing up with an Alabama mother and a Yankee father who relocated often during his 30-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
But she usually doesn't dwell on the past in public interviews and she rarely goes into detail about her personal history.
"Everywhere you live, everything you go through in life influences your life," she says. "It's hard for me to look back and pinpoint even one thing that's most important."
Still, Harris did discuss her childhood in some depth when she won Billboard magazine's Century Award in 1999. During her recent conversation with The Birmingham News, she confirmed several pieces of information reported in Billboard, and revealed a few other tidbits that might be of interest to her fans in Alabama.
Born in Birmingham on April 2, 1947, she is the daughter of Eugenia Murchison Harris, 81, and Walter Rutland "Bucky" Harris, who died in 1993 at age 72.
On her mother's side, Harris can trace her genealogy to farmers in Chilton and Elmore counties, around the cities of Clanton and Wetumpka.
Harris' maternal grandparents lived in Birmingham; Eugenia Murchison attended Woodlawn High School. She met her future husband in Pensacola, during a visit there with some girlfriends.
At that time, Walter Harris whose family came from Howard County, Md. was in Florida for officer training school. He had been a veterinary student at the University of Virginia before enlisting in the Marines during World War II.
Emmylou Harris has said that despite their different backgrounds, her parents fell in love at first sight.
They corresponded for a while, very politely, before Walter Harris surprised the Murchison family by calling on Eugenia at her parents' house and getting down on his knees in their living room.
She accepted his proposal. When Eugenia's family expressed reservations about the match, the two eloped, Harris has said.
After a civil ceremony, the young couple moved to Texas, where Walter Harris was stationed as a fighter pilot. He was soon sent overseas. Harris' older brother, Walter Rutland Harris Jr., was born while her father was flying Corsairs during the war.
Magic City memories:
By the time daughter Emmylou arrived, the Harris family had relocated to Birmingham. Harris has said that one of her earliest memories is standing in a crib in their house on 54th Street, watching her father come in the front door.
Harris briefly attended elementary school in Woodlawn; she was about age 6 and in the middle of first grade when her father was transferred to Cherry Point, N.C.
Harris spent part of her youth in North Carolina, and part in Woodbridge, Va., graduating from Garfield High School there as class valedictorian. On vacations and over the winter holidays, her family would usually visit relatives in Maryland and Alabama.
As a student, Harris tried her hand at piano, clarinet and saxophone. When she became interested in folk music around age 16, she got her first guitar, a Kay. It cost $30 and was bought by her grandfather in a Birmingham pawn shop.
"I played that until my fingers bled," she recalls. "The strings were so high off the fretboard. I had that for at least a year, then I bought a Gibson J50. I still have the Kay, but I don't have the Gibson."
Her first idols were Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Son House, the Carter Family, Judy Collins and, of course, Woody Guthrie.
As she started performing professionally, Harris says, one of her very first bookings came at the rocky natural amphitheater at Horse Pens 40 in Steele.
"I remember being hired by (the park's founder) Warren Musgrove and how beautiful it was and probably how nervous I was," she says.
According to the Horse Pens Web site, Harris played and sang barefoot at that show, standing on a wooden door balanced on the rocks. The park's lore maintains that she was paid a platter of fruit for her efforts, although Harris has never verified it.
We do know for sure that the fledgling folkie spent the next three decades polishing her skills, improving her abilities and discovering the nuances of her talents.
Unfurling her resume:
To date, Harris has released 25 solo albums and contributed to about 250 other recordings by luminaries such as The Band, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Kathy Mattea, Rodney Crowell, George Jones, Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash.
She has performed all over the world, helped to revitalize Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and been named to the prestigious ranks of the Grand Ole Opry.
"Every concert with Emmy is sort of like a little adventure," says Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller, who plays in Harris' band. "Her attitude is, "Let's take it wherever the music wants to go.'"
In 2000, her love of bluegrass and old-time music led Harris to be a key participant in the soundtrack of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which launched a cultural juggernaut.
Aside from inspiring enormous popular interest in those high, lonesome mountain sounds, the film spun off a documentary, "Down From the Mountain," and a highly successful concert tour. Harris was there for it all.
Her work has brought her back to the Birmingham area on many occasions, but Harris says she hasn't made a special point of directing her tours to Jefferson County.
"It's not like that. I go where they send me," Harris says.
Although she's pleased to sing and play for a hometown crowd, Harris says it usually feels no different performing here than it does in Orlando, Memphis, Baton Rouge or any other city.
A startling exception to that rule came on Nov. 19 at the BJCC Arena, when Harris climbed on stage with Bruce Springsteen during his concert with the E Street Band.
"He kindly asked me to sing with him and suggested 'My Hometown.' He didn't know I was from Birmingham," Harris says. "I got an amazing thrill standing there singing that song, and it really came home to me. I thought, `This is great.' It was a goosebump experience."