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Emmy-lou Harris: "I put my work first. I know I did that, and I also know that I don't think I'd be able to do anything differently"


Saturday, October 7, 2000

Red dirt, blue blood


By Tony Clayton-Lea

While her Queen of Country crown has, perhaps, been usurped by the likes of Shania Twain and Reba McEntire, there's no denying Emmylou Harris still retains a regal air - an air not so much of haughtiness but of authority. As the sirens noisily swirl by outside a London hotel room, Harris takes her place by a table, her grey, witchy hair framing her face and shoulders in a tableau that is remarkably beautiful.

For some time, Harris has remained in the incongruous position of being a legendary figure in country music unable to match the record sales of those who hold her in high regard, yet consistently trouncing her counterparts in creative terms. When she was dropped by Warner Bros after a 20-year association in the early 1990s, she did what no one else in country music has done before or since: she broke the cords that bind. Her 1995 release, Wrecking Ball, was enveloped by the mantric-like production of Daniel Lanois and featured Harris covering songs by the likes of Neil Young and Steve Earle. The album broke pretty much all the standard country rules, and her "weird" album (as she described it) went on to win her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Her new album looks set to do the same. Produced by Daniel Lanois-associate Malcolm Burn and featuring virtually all original compositions (her first full set of original songs since 1985's The Ballad Of Sally Rose, a concept album inspired by her relationship with arch left-field country artist, Gram Parsons), Red Dirt Girl is country music travelling through a hypnotic twilight zone: a dreamy, curious and emotionally riveting collection of songs which proves once and for all that Harris is the perfect answer to the Nashville question.

"I definitely set myself up with this one," she says, explaining the album's formative creative process. "I've always gotten by through interpreting songs, and I don't mean to minimise song interpretation - I don't intend to give that up. But after Wrecking Ball I was confronted with what to follow it up with right way. Daniel Lanois said it was time for me to write, to put energy into my writing, to exercise those muscles. I knew whatever I did next within the sonic atmosphere of Wrecking Ball - which I wanted to keep - was to bring something of my own to the table, other than my interpretative skills. I actually set my goals at about maybe half the record. I never set out to write the entire record. That seemed to accelerate once I had the confidence to continue.

"I certainly didn't want to record songs just because I wrote them. I tried to keep the standard high. I think I've learned to spot a good song, be it from me or someone else. It doesn't have to be a hit, because I don't know what that is. It doesn't necessarily have to have a bridge or a lot of chords, either. I just wanted to know that once it was done it had something that made me want to record it, even beyond the fact that where it was coming from was, for the most part, out of personal experience."

Born in 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris began her lengthy career as a folk singer in New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1970s. Moving to the Washington, DC, area, she was discovered singing in a Baltimore club by Rick Roberts, a friend of Gram Parsons, who recommended her as a female singing partner. By luck or by design, she was on her way.

"I have a hard time swallowing that a person makes their own luck," she says. "So many things used to happen to me that if someone read it as a Hollywood script they'd say it wasn't plausible. The fact that Gram Parsons happened to turn up in Baltimore. . . I know how those things go - it could have turned out a completely different way. Perhaps it would never have come about. For me, it does seem like it was luck, or serendipity, or something like that. It seemed that my path was so haphazard there had to be some other thing at work. I've had so many encounters with serendipity or synchronicity - yet I've always felt I'm not necessarily pulling it toward me in a conscious way."

While the inspiration behind The Ballad of Sally Rose was her relationship with Gram Parsons, the album was also, says Harris, "a made-up story, in the sense that I made it more linear and more obvious to give it a dramatic push". The inspiration behind Red Dirt Girl is not so specific: "Just cumulative emotional experiences over the last seven years or so, and probably beyond that. They say you are what you eat. Well, you are also what you live through.

"With The Ballad of Sally Rose, I put some fiction in there even though I was drawing on a specific person and a certain time in my life. Red Dirt Girl bleeds across the lines of my life a little more. There are two red-dirt girls - the one who got away and the one who didn't."

The staple diet of country music is songs harbouring the daily disease of human hurt and pain. Red Dirt Girl, like most, if not all of Emmylou Harris's records, brims with a sense of genuine melancholy that is all too easy to be seduced by. "It seems like I'm drawn to the sad songs," she remarks. "They're the most evocative, they're the ones that unlock that pool of emotion within us.

"I know we need celebratory songs and I enjoy those songs as much as anyone, but more as a listener. I'm still drawn, even as a listener, to the sad songs. Music helps us get through those bleak times, not by telling us that everything is all right, or going to be all right, but by acknowledging the suffering that is pretty much usual fare for everyone. A song just has to resonate for me, be they mine or someone else's."

By country music's clichéd standards, Harris has led an emotionally adventurous life. Married a few times, and creatively stretched by Parsons ("People searching for the real deal are going to go to people like Gram, whose body of work resonates with a real originality and a real soulfulness"), she effectively traded in her family for music when she was going through her successful country-music-star phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

She says what really matters to her are the people she loves and being loved. She includes animals in this. Animals, especially dogs, she states with seasoned experience in her voice, teach us unconditional love. "Why can't we love people in the way animals love us?," she muses.

Her entire identity - not just her career or her fame - has evolved through music. As for the years of touring, it's been good for her, even though she has had to make unpalatable choices. "I've lost time with my children and my parents," Harris says evenly. "My mother lives with me now and occasionally visits certain countries I play in. As for the children - well, I'll never get that time back. That's a regret I have. I put my work first. I know I did that, and I also know that, even knowing what I do now, I don't think I'd be able to do anything differently. Fortunately, my kids are good, strong people who seem to have done all right, in spite of their mother and her absence."

Is her regret tinged with resignation or guilt? "Resignation. Guilt doesn't do any good."

Red Dirt Girl (Grapevine) is released on September 15th. Emmylou Harris plays in Ireland on November 26th, Waterfront Hall, Belfast; November 27th, Olympia Theatre, Dublin; and November 28th, University Concert Hall, Limerick.





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