09/13/00- Updated 04:44 PM ET
By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK -- Whoever thinks that gray hair can't be glamorous never laid eyes on Emmylou Harris. At 53, with a full head of silvery locks, the singer still looks like a porcelain doll. What's her secret? Not sleep, certainly.
Two and a half years ago, the prolific country-folk artist resolved to take a sabbatical from her three-decade career.
"I wanted to clear a space for myself on every level — time-wise, emotionally, psychologically," she says over cups of tea at a midtown Manhattan cafe. "So I left my record company, and I let my band go."
Her plan was to focus on writing. Though not a stranger to penning songs, Harris is best known as an interpretive vocalist, having lent her achingly pure soprano to material by tunesmiths from her mentor, Gram Parsons, to current alt-country darling Lucinda Williams. But after the success of her 1995 album, Wrecking Ball, a highly acclaimed collaboration with noted rock producer Daniel Lanois, Harris was keen to embrace a fresh challenge.
"Wrecking Ball was a high point for me creatively, and I knew it would be tough to follow. I didn't want to do Son of Wrecking Ball, but I didn't want to abandon the place I'd reached musically. I decided the one thing I could bring to a new project was my own songs."
Trouble was, her popularity with other musicians, coupled with her own restless energy, soon found her distracted by side projects. There was the album that she did with old friend Linda Ronstadt, the Willie Nelson CD that she appeared on, and the release of a collection of live recordings with her band, Spyboy. And, of course, Harris couldn't turn down an opportunity to produce a Parsons tribute.
Somehow, she managed to find time to write or co-write 11 songs for her new album, Red Dirt Girl, released Tuesday. Produced by Lanois protégé Malcolm Burn, it's Harris' first release for Nonesuch Records, a progressive corporate cousin of the singer's old label, Elektra. "They like it out in left field," she says of Nonesuch, "and that's where I tend to pitch my tent."
The guest list on Red Dirt Girl seems to cover all bases, including Bruce Springsteen, folk idol Kate McGarrigle and Jill Cunniff of the celebrated, now-defunct college-rock outfit Luscious Jackson. On one track, My Antonia, Harris duets with pop star Dave Matthews, whom she met while both were performing at a 1999 concert honoring Johnny Cash.
"My eldest daughter is a huge fan (of Matthews') and I had liked his work," Harris says. "And I needed a leading man to sing this song with me — someone who had a distinctive voice with a certain romantic quality, and also a really good range, because he would have to sing in my key. He had those qualifications, and he was a good enough sport to do it."
Harris accepts that her role in contemporary music may not be as clearly defined, or as prominent, as Matthews'.
"My records will always be put in the country bin in Tower Records, because that's how I started," she muses. "But I think the boundaries between musical genres are fading. When Wrecking Ball came out, they tried to put the album in both the pop and country sections. There was some confusion, but ultimately, people who wanted to find the record found it."
True to form, Harris won't sit idly by watching her new album's progress. "I haven't toured actively for over two years, and I've missed it," she says. "I have a great band, and I need not only the musical energy but the camaraderie, too. So I'm ready to get back on the road. Wild horses couldn't hold me back."