Emmylou Harris blooms as songwriter
February 12, 2004
With due apologies to the 20-plus influential and usually excellent albums under her name, Emmylou Harris had built a career in which she was most acclaimed for singing with others than on her own. It is no knock on Harris, who performs at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14-15, in a duo with her bandmate of long standing, Buddy Miller. But where Harris’ solo output had its ups and downs, Harris seemed always to be in sublime form when singing duets with or backing other artists. It’s hard to think of a more prominent, or better accompanist.
The Alabama-born, Washington, D.C.-raised Harris first came to prominence as a backing singer, under the wing of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. With Harris in a prominent role, Parsons, a one-time member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, turned out two mid-’70s solo masterpieces, “G.P.” and “Grievous Angel,” highlighted by such duets as “Love Hurts.”
In 1974, Parsons died of an overdose in the California desert. Harris quickly launched her own solo career, beginning with 1975’s memorable “Pieces of the Sky.” Over the next 20 years, Harris would continue to release albums under her name, which featured some of the top pickers and writers: Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell. But there was an unevenness to the recordings, with Harris alternately playing old-school country, bluegrass-leaning acoustic and syrupy pop-country.
But Harris continued to take on the role of duet partner to the gods, and in this she was consistently astounding. She recorded with Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Bruce Cockburn, Roy Orbison, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Nicolette Larson, to name a few. Among her best-selling albums are the two “Trio” projects with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, which worked as well artistically as conceptually. On the famed “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, Harris teamed with the more notable female singers ” Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch ” to record the achingly beautiful “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”
In 1995 Harris, then 48, hooked up with producer Daniel Lanois to record “Wrecking Ball.” Named for the Neil Young-penned title track, the album acted the part of a wrecking ball in demolishing the notion that Harris was anything but first-rate as a solo singer. Featuring lesser-known gems by Dylan, Lanois, Anna McGarrigle and a then-unknown Gillian Welch, “Wrecking Ball” was a revelation. Lanois took Harris’ exquisite voice out of the country realm and placed it in his usual atmospheric rock setting, and the combination was as heavenly and deep as it was unexpected. It is no stretch to call “Wrecking Ball,” winner of the Grammy for best contemporary folk album, a high point of the 1990s, a highlight of Americana music.
Among the fans of “Wrecking Ball” is Buddy Miller, who auditioned for and earned the spot in Harris’ band shortly after the album’s release.
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“It just made a whole lot of sense,” said Miller of the album. “It was a logical progression. I thought, why hadn’t someone thought of that before?”
About the only thing “Wrecking Ball” didn’t do was establish Harris as a songwriter. While Harris had occasionally co-written material, the only album to feature predominantly her own material, 1985’s sort-of autobiographical “The Ballad of Sally Rose,” was a middling effort. It didn’t inspire her to continue writing her own songs.
The combination of Lanois and Malcolm Burn, a Lanois protege who received recording and arranging credits on “Wrecking Ball,” did. In the press notes to her 2003 album “Stumble Into Grace,” Harris comments that Lanois insisted she write the songs for the follow-up to “Wrecking Ball.” When Harris and Burn began planning that follow-up, Burn determined that all the musicians would be writers as well, so that the material could be written on the fly.
The idea “horrified me,” said Harris in the press notes. “But I didn’t want to say that I didn’t want to do it. So I said to myself, ‘If I have enough finished songs, I’ll feel more comfortable going into that arena.'”
She finished plenty of songs: eight of the 12 songs on 2000’s “Red Dirt Girl,” produced by Burn, were written solely by Harris; she shares writing credits on three of the remaining songs. “Red Dirt Girl” earned Harris another Grammy for best contemporary folk album, and was her best-selling album in 20 years.
The encouragement of Lanois and Burn and the success of “Red Dirt Girl” seem to have sparked something in Harris. Last year came “Stumble Into Grace,” with four songs by Harris alone and another five co-written by the singer. Produced again by Burn, the album was nominated for a Grammy, losing in the best contemporary folk album category to Warren Zevon’s extremely non-folky, “The Wind.”
It is an unusual twist to an already stellar career. In her 50s, Harris has emerged as the consummate, all-encompassing musical artist, singing beautifully, recording memorable albums, and now, writing her own songs.
“I don’t know how to explain this ‘late blooming’ as a writer,” Harris said in the notes to “Stumble Into Grace,” adding that she had written songs for “Gliding Bird,” a 1970 album released well after the fact that Harris herself calls “thankfully forgotten.”
“I think maybe when I got into singing these really classic songs as an interpreter, the level of songs I was singing was so high, to me, that there was probably a little bit of intimidation at work. And I was very happy interpreting. I didn’t feel like anything was missing.”
Now, for certain, there is nothing missing from the package that is Emmylou Harris.