UK Daily Telegraph Sat 09 Sep 00

ANOTHER COUNTRY

For 30 years Emmylou Harris has brought her keen intelligence and style to a music normally associated with rhinestones, Stetsons and men crying into their beer. David Gritten visits her in her hometown, Nashville - where she is an exile and proud of it.

Earlier this year, Emmylou Harris's 25-year reign as the world's greatest female country-rock singer almost came to an abrupt and tragic end. After spending long weeks in a New Orleans studio cutting her new album, Red Dirt Girl, she was driving back to her Nashville home. With her was her 'travelling dog', a big, loping, amiable mutt named Bonaparte. Her hard-top CJ7 Jeep went into a skid, spun across two opposing lanes of heavy traffic, rolled over twice and hit a tree. Bonaparte was thrown clear; Harris, who was wearing a set belt, ended up in hospital with just three broken ribs.

'My guitar was in the back, and it was reduced to kindling,' she tells me soberly. 'That's how bad the crash was. We took the guitar to a restorer to see if it could be fixed, and we had to carry it in garbage bags. A matter of inches and that crash could have been fatal. It makes you start thinking.'

It does, but Emmylou Harris being Emmylou Harris, the thinking process does not necessarily lead to simple conclusions. She has known joy in her life, but also fractured relationships, loss and grief. While mainstream country music can veer alarmingly between maudlin superficiality and sugary cheeriness, she mines the middle ground, and mines it deeply. In her long career of mostly interpreting songs written by other people, she has consistently been drawn to thoughtful, literate, complex lyrics: sentiments that admit to both light and darkness in an average person's life.

'I'm at peace with a lot of things', she says, on looking back at her brush with mortality. Certainly, I've had an extraordinary life. I'm still doing work I love. I've met extraordinary people who have inspired me. I have excellent health, two wonderful daughters and friends I love dearly, so I try to be thankful.'

She pauses. 'That doesn't mean I'm happy all the time, because I don't believe that's possible without the aid of drugs, which I'm not about to do. Anyway, they just anaesthetise you. Unless we accept the premise that life is suffering, we're not going to get anywhere.'

These sombre reflections are delivered in an idyllic and very southern setting. Her manager's assistant has driven me in a pick-up truck to Emmylou's home, four miles from downtown Nashville. It's a big, rambling, ivy-clad mansion with white colonial-style pillars at its front door, set way back from a quiet road. I am greeted by both Emmylou and her mother, Eugenia, a handsome woman in her late 70s who, it turns out, has baked chocolate brownies in honour of my arrival. Emmylou and I adjourn with the brownies and some strong English tea (she favours Yorkshire Gold) to her back porch, where we are shaded from the sun's sticky heat.

Her meditation on life's vagaries followed my question about whether she was enjoying her current stage of life. 'Enjoy might not be the word,' she says, a little sharply. 'I'm 53, and you get to a point where you feel the weight of the world. It's cumulative, isn't it? I was traumatised on my 50th birthday. There's so much pressure put on you - it's like , "Your life is over, baby." Once you get past it, it's no big deal. But there's a lot of pressure that remains. I work out three times a week. I still want to look as good as I can.'

She's doing a good job. She is dressed simply, her legs bare under a long black skirt slit to the knee, while her shocking-pink sleeveless top shows off a slender frame and a light, healthy tan. Ironically. given her equivocal attitude to life's joys and sorrows, today she is wearing glasses that are rose-coloured. Some five years ago she ended her relationship with the henna bottle, letting her lustrous, clavicle-length hair flourish in its natural silver-grey. 'Believe me, if I didn't like the way it looked, I'd dye it again,' she says. She looks poles apart from the chirpy, upbeat young blondes who dominate country music these days; her eloquence and sly wit, not to mention exquisite cheekbones (inherited from Eugenia) mark her as a patrician in a plebeian art form. That much was evident with the 1975 release of her first major album, Pieces of the Sky, a work of apparently effortless class and accomplishment that still finds its way on to many music critics' 'all-time best' lists. She seemed to have emerged from obscurity as a fully-fledged, confident talent with a pure, wistful voice. But in her private life she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet.

She was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, who died six years ago, was a Marine officer and she was raised on a succession of military bases. A straight-A student, she also won a few minor beauty contests, and started to sing and play guitar. She studied drama at the University of North Carolina but dropped out after a year and headed for New York to become a musician.

At 22 she married the songwriter Tom Slocum, cut an album and became pregnant; the album and the marriage both turned out to be short-lived disasters. She retreated to Nashville, worked as a cocktail waitress and resorted to food stamps to survive, before moving back in with her parents near Washington DC in 1970 and resuming singing in various clubs.

With a baby daughter, Hallie, to support, she barely scraped a living. But in 1971, when she was 24, Gram Parsons came to see her at a Washington club, Clyde's. A Harvard-educated trust-fund kid from Florida with a wild, self-destructive streak, Parsons had joined the Byrds, turned them on to country music, then split, and with Chris Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. At Clyde's he strode on stage and sang a few numbers with her; they harmonised like angels.

Parsons turned out to be hugely influential; meeting him was pivotal to Emmylou's life and career. A year later he called her from Los Angeles, sent her a plane ticket and asked her to feature on his first solo album, GP. She joined him on a chaotic cross-country tour during which he and his new band, the Fallen Angels, drank heavily and ingested copious amounts of drugs. But she did not join in: 'I was always too much of a Girl Scout, I guess.'

After Grievious Angel, their second album together, tragedy struck. In 1973, Parsons and an entourage of groupies and hangers-on descended on a motel at Joshua Tree in the California High Desert; after two days he died of heart failure caused by an excess of alcohol and heroin. He was 26. In a macabre coda to his life, his manager and a friend stole his body, and, following wishes he had expressed, cremated it near Joshua Tree.

Emmylou has always remained tight-lipped about whether she and Parsons were lovers. Certainly, she had a boyfriend, bass guitarist Tom Guidera, all the time she knew Parsons. But she has taken great pains to keep the Parsons musical legacy alive. Her album, Pieces of the Sky, included Boulder to Birmingham, a tribute to him and the first great song she ever wrote: 'Well you really got me this time/And the hardest part is knowing I'll survive.' Her song, Tulsa Queen, was also about Parsons: 'Lately I speak your name too loud/Each time it comes up in a crowd.' 'That line,' she tells me 'is about feeling that talking about him might take away the sting of the loss of him. Well, of course, it doesn't.'

Her 1985 concept album, The Ballad of Sally Rose (for which, for the first time, she wrote all her own songs), was about a singer like her who meets and becomes entranced by a musician like Parsons. Last year she corralled several music industry heavy-hitters to record Parsons songs for a tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel. Elvis Costello, Beck, Chrissie Hynde and Sheryl Crow were among those who eagerly volunteered.

Now she thinks she might finally put her association with Parsons to one side. 'People who define me only by the effect he had on me have set me back 20 years,' she says. 'I'll never try to minimise it. I stand by how huge an effect he had on me. But he's not the only experience in my life.'

Indeed not. Up to now, her career has been punctuated by a series of male mentors whose influence has extended into her personal life. She agrees that her second husband, record producer Brian Ahern, with whom she had a daughter, Meghann, was one: 'He taught me how to make records, but did it in a way that respected me as an artist.'

Next, in 1985, she married an Englishman, Paul Kennerley, who produced her Sally Rose album, but they separated in 1993 and are now divorced. More recently, she was close to the French-Canadian singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, a brilliant producer who has worked with U2, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel. In 1995 he produced Emmylou's landmark album, Wrecking Ball, which saw her move away from her country roots with songs by Jimi Hendrix, Dylan and Neil Young.

Still, no mere list of lovers, collaborators and husbands could dim the lustre of her work. Her voice remains a remarkable instrument, with a purity shaded by a hint of loss and longing. She has won seven Grammy awards and made some 27 albums, four of which have gone platinum, and a further seven have gone gold. Her Trio records, on which she sings with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, sell in millions. The sober Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music notes without exaggeration that her output is 'the most successful series of albums in American white popular music since those of Bob Dylan'.

In Nashville, she is revered by the country music establishment. Chet Flippo, a veteran Rolling Stone writer and country critic, says of her effect on younger artists, 'She doesn't lecture, she leads by example.'

The singer Trisha Yearwood talks of the 'Emmylou factor': 'You know you've recorded a good country album if you run into Emmylou Harris on a Nashville street and you can hold your head up and look her in the eye.' Yet reverence doesn't necessarily translate into massive sales, or even huge industry support. In Nashville's Tower Records the eyes are assailed by massive posters of young, cute country artists such as Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, while Emmylou's recorded output lies unheralded in the racks.

In my 48 hours in Nashville I never once heard her songs on a country radio station. Nor did I see any of her videos on a country music TV channel. She recorded for the Warner group for 20 years but is no longer signed to a major company. Her new album, Red Dirt Girl, is on Nonesuch, a boutique label featuring specialist artists such as the Buena Vista Social Club, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet. Effectively she's in artistic exile in her hometown. Yet it's self-imposed: in the past decade she has gone out of her way to align herself with uncompromising artist's on country music's margins - performers such as Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Lucinda Williams. What their music has in common is a certain rawness, integrity and reluctance to follow the bland, commercial path preferred by Nashville. Is the situation likely to change? 'Absolutely not!' she says defiantly. 'My new record will never get played on country radio. I'm not bitter about it. I've never lost my audience. But I think mediocrity is rampant in country music. And it doesn't have to be.

'Sometimes I'm at the gym and Country Music Television will be on. I can't tell one artist from the next. It's the same artist, the same sound in the voice, same song, same backing. It's such a waste, because these young people obviously have talent. But I'd rather hear someone sing out of tune and sing something interesting. Music shouldn't put you to sleep, it should wake you up.'

Certainly her 11 songs on Red Dirt Girl are arresting, though none is exactly easy listening. The title track deals with the life and premature death of Lillian, a doomed young working-class woman trapped in Meridian, a small southern town. Harris calls Tragedy, which features Bruce Springsteen on backing vocals, 'a song about love gone wrong, and how hard it is to give up on a relationship that had so much potential'.

Perhaps the bleakest songs are Pearl, which appears to be about depression, and I Don't Want To Talk About It, with its lyric: 'God knows how I love you/Like a user needs a drug/I've been three times under/The next will see me drown.'

'Emotionally, we've all been in a place where we don't think we'll ever be able to get out,' she explains. 'Time heals everything, but you have to go back and visit those very black moments.' Given that another song, J'ai Fait Tout, is sung partly in French, and that Harris, an intense reader, was inspired to compose two more by the writings of Annie Dillard and the poet Carl Sandburg, one can understand why her music is too rich a taste for country radio.

But Red Dirt Girl at least proves that she and her own songs can stand alone without the help of a male mentor. She is financially comfortable, so it is not a disaster if a record sells indifferently. And even if American country radio shuns her, she is adored by audiences in other countries, Britain included. 'I've always felt much more appreciated abroad,' she notes.

She has no current beau: 'Nope, I'm a single girl these days.' But in many ways her life is enviable. There's her gorgeous house, with lush greenery all around it. Inside, it's divided into cat and dog sectors. In addition to Bonaparte, she also dotes on Toby, a mongrel, and Radar, a little terrier who suffers from glaucoma. She writes her songs in a lovely, cool, peaceful music room, with scatter cushions everywhere, a fireplace and eight guitars propped up on stands. Eugenia has lived with Emmylou ever since the death of the singer's father, Walter, six years ago. 'It's been a gift,' Emmylou ponders. 'I don't know how I got along without her before, actually.' And she now has a close relationship with her daughters, Hallie, 30, and Meghann, who is now 21.

Hallie, who lives nearby, has just finished her graphic degree and on this very day is showing her portfolio to an advertising agency. Meghann lives in LA, where she majored in music business at college, and will seek work after taking a sabbatical.

Her daughters' childhoods were not ideal: 'Having the girls and being on the road was hard, and I don't recommend it,' Harris says. I wasn't there and I think parents should be. Hallie was pretty much raised by my parents, because when she was five things started happening for me. I tried keeping her with me, then all of a sudden I was on the road, but I didn't earn enough to afford a nanny. At one point Hallie was staying with another couple. She contracted pneumonia and I freaked out. I was just renting a house, I didn't even have a home. At that point I realised this is what grandparents are for.'

Emmylou says, 'Life on the road isn't fair to kids. It's not normal. Room service isn't normal. They need to interact with kids who are going through what they're going through, not what the bass player's going through. I missed out on a lot of years with Hallie. But now I see her pretty much every day. We do stuff, we go to the movies together. I feel I have a second chance with her. When Meghann came along I made a real effort to be there more. Her father and I split up when she was three or four. Fortunately, she survived the trauma of divorce and going back and forth. So she went to school here, spent summers with her dad in Los Angeles and I only toured in the summer. Then he moved to Nashville and we became successful joint-custody parents.'

It hasn't been the easiest road, then, but clearly she has attained peace and equilibrium. 'Well, sure,' she says. 'I don't believe there are any answers, only questions. And life is about how we deal with those questions. We've arrived at this idea that we're never supposed to feel bad, that we're supposed to be these happy, goofy, life-is-just-a-bowl-of-cherries people. But I don't think you can experience real joy unless you've known real sorrow.'

Spoken, you might say, like the lyric to a very superior country song.

--

Red Dirt Girl is released on September 18. Emmylou Harris will be touring the UK and Ireland, starting at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on November 20.

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