By Lorraine Ali
September 18 issue
Emmylou Harris has sung with Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, bridged the gap between country and rock for three decades and managed to remain a relevant and critically acclaimed artist. Now all she has to do is find a restaurant in New York City that will let her smoke.
"I’M NOT SURE IF THE CIGARETTES are hurting my voice,” says Harris outside one smoke-free cafe. “I don’t want to know either. My ignorance often saves me. Sometimes, I think it’s got me to where I am today.” It’s true there was no strategic plan for her long-term success. A woman who topped the country charts in the late ’70s and remained a symbol of integrity in the consumer-driven ’90s, her voice, beauty and passion for pure music have rendered Harris a lasting force. Amazingly, she’s struck this balance between widespread adoration and cult-figure status by singing the songs of other artists—until now. Of her 29 solo albums, her new recording, “Red Dirt Girl,” is only the second written by her. “I spent my career as an interpreter,” says the 53-year-old from Nashville. “The idea of writing a bad song horrified me. But I knew if I was going to do another studio record, I just had to write it myself, and either sink or swim."
Emmy’s far from drowning. Once again, she bobs up between the ease of country and the surreal romanticism of arty folk rock. "Red Dirt Girl" is a delicate yet substantial blend of deeply personal ballads, sung in her bittersweet, longing voice. It rides atop more traditional arrangements than her last record, 1995’s "Wrecking Ball," but adopts some of the more woozy effects that made that album one of her most eclectic. She also has some guest vocalists: Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, on "Tragedy," as well as Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson, Dave Matthews and Patti Griffin, who contributes the only non-Harris song here.
What makes this album so powerful is the pairing of Emmylou’s already emotive voice with her own heartfelt and poignant lyrics. The title track is her lovingly sad tale about the downward spiral of a childhood friend ("One thing they don’t tell you ‘bout the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on fallin’ ‘cause there ain’t no bottom"), while "Bang the Drum Slowly" is an exploration of the void created by her father’s death. Like any good country song, her subjects are derived from hardship and pain, but Harris’s voice has a mystical quality, turning torment into dreamy escapism and hard-won redemption.
With "Red Dirt Girl," Harris continues to strike a blend of the sublime and the accessible. "You live for the passion of the music-not because it’ll sell this many records,"says Harris, sipping tea and sitting like a kid, with one knee pulled close to her chest, in her Converse high-tops, oversize windbreaker and black leggings. As she runs her fingers through the rich gray hair that frames her luminous face, Harris recalls her early life. "I did not grow up in the country. I was the child of a military man, a service brat. We lived in different places with people from everywhere. I had no roots or no real identity, so when I met Gram [Parsons], I adopted country music."
Country-rock pioneer Parsons discovered Harris in a local Washington, D.C., club and brought her to L.A. in 1972 to be his duet partner. He turned her on to the music of greats like George Jones and Loretta Lynn, and it was there Emmy found her surrogate roots. Parsons died the following year, but Harris carried the torch, playing country music with Dylan and Hendrix fans in mind. "I wanted other people of my generation who had dismissed country to appreciate the beauty and subtlety of it," says Harris. "I was a woman with a mission. I did fail in a way, though: what I was doing has nothing to do with the white-bread appeal of country radio now. It’s nothing like I envisioned it would be. Sometimes, I distance myself. I feel like I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I used to be a country singer but I never inhaled’." Harris has nothing to apologize for. The Red Dirt Girl inhabits a place all her own.
© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.