Iain Shedden interviews country queen Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell cook up a treat from their glory days, writes Iain Shedden
IT’S hard to imagine Emmylou Harris, a serene, graceful presence in country music for more than 40 years, being recognised in some Nashville circles as the dog lady. Part of her property in the US country music capital is called Bonaparte’s Retreat, a shelter for unwanted pets the singer has devoted much of her time to in recent years. There’s even a saying about her: ‘‘ You know you’re in Nashville if you adopted your dog from Emmylou Harris.’’
It may not be the most generous or indeed relevant appraisal of Harris’s work as a whole, but it represents a part of her life to which she is dedicated.
‘‘ I like that,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s a nice shout-out for my little rescue operation.’’
Today Harris is far away from that part of her life. The 65-year-old queen of country music is sitting in a Sydney hotel, casting a bemused eye over the rather grand suite she has been given. No place here, among the ornate furnishings and lush carpets, for abandoned pooches.
Anyway, Harris has other things on her mind, most specifically the album she is about to release with guitarist and songwriter Rodney Crowell, called Old Yellow Moon.
It’s an album that brings the acclaimed singer full circle, at least with Crowell. He was guitarist in her legendary outfit the Hot Band at the start of her country career in 1975 (she released a folk album, Gliding Bird, in 1969). Crowell also wrote Bluebird Wine, the opening song on Harris’s country debut Pieces of the
Sky, also in 1975. To mark their recording debut as a duo, that same song is a feature of
Old Yellow Moon, this time with Crowell taking the lead vocal.
The album is one that both songwriters have been talking about making since those early days, but their separate careers have prevented it until now.
‘‘ I called him up and said: ‘ We’re not getting any younger so let’s do this.’ ’’ Aside from revisiting three Crowell songs, there are tracks written by Roger Miller, Patti Scialfa and Hank DeVito, among others. There’s another link to the past in the form of the album’s producer Brian Ahern, who produced Pieces of
the Sky and was later Harris’s husband. The album was recorded in his house in Nashville.
The idea, says Harris, was to try to recapture the spirit of the music from their formative years. The three protagonists brought some of their favourite songs with them and they were sung around the kitchen table as a trial. Votes were taken. The beautiful title track is the original recording made at that kitchen table.
‘‘ The essence of the album is about Rodney and I sitting working up songs like we used to do,’’ she says.
Harris, who toured Australia late last year, began her singing career as vocal collaborator with alt-country trailblazer Gram Parsons, who in the early 1970s shaped a new form of country rock that many others would follow. Parsons died of an accidental drug overdose in 1973. ‘‘ I got into a whole world then that was so creative,’’ says Harris. ‘‘ It was incredibly explosive, that late 60s and early 70s period. I ended up there because of Gram.’’
After releasing Pieces of the Sky, Harris went on to release a string of critically acclaimed solo albums, her most recent being Hard
Bargain in 2011. In conjunction with her own recording career, she has contributed to hundreds of recordings by other artists, including Neil Young, Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton and many more. In all of these recordings her voice is a distinctive presence and it remains one of the most recognisable and emotive instruments in popular music.
‘‘ I do feel I’m the instrument and somebody’s playing me,’’ she says. ‘‘ Somebody or something. If I’ve got a song that I like and it’s in the right key, then you’re almost automatically in the song. Sometimes you’re more in the zone than others, but I don’t think you can control that. I trust the song then I just dive in.’’
THE title track of the new album, written by Hank DeVito and Lynn Langham, has been on Harris’s to-do list for a long time. Indeed it was under consideration in 1995 for Wrecking Ball, the album that took her career in another — and hugely successful — direction. An exciting development this year is that
Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel), is to be re-released. There’s also the possibility of a tour based on the album and with guitarist Lanois joining her to perform it. Several such concerts have taken place already in the US, one of them a fundraiser for another, larger animal sanctuary in Nashville.
Wrecking Ball was the album that reinvented Harris, winning her a new audience (and a Grammy) for a collection of songs by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young and Gillian Welch and others that, under Lanois’s direction, gave her voice more room to manoeuvre over a seductively ambient soundtrack.
Harris acknowledges that Wrecking Ball relaunched her career when her popularity was beginning to dwindle.
‘‘ It was a turning point and it was a reenergising album for me, musically, creatively,’’ she says. ‘‘ And it also energised my old fan base and brought in other people who were interested because of Dan’s [Lanois’s] involvement and they were moved by the record. After that some fans stay, some of them go. Certainly it was a huge injection of energy at a time when a lot of artists go to a lower level of activity. All of a sudden it was time to saddle up and get out there.’’
The albums that followed, Red Dirt Girl (2000) and Stumble into Grace (2003), were both produced by Lanois’s protege Malcolm Burn and featured a similarly ambient feel to
Wrecking Ball, the difference being that many of the songs were written by Harris.
Since then the singer has continued to release her own material as well as collaborating with like-minded artists, including a network of alt-country Nashville-based friends that includes Buddy and Julie Miller, Griffin and Welch.
‘‘ That’s another thing that keeps your work fresh, when you can work with different people . . . go out and do something a little different,’’ she says. ‘‘ That’s important. There’s extraordinary talent in that town; maybe not people that are top 40 — not that any of us ever were — but people still energised and creative and totally engaged with music.’’
Harris believes that, even at 65, ‘‘ if you’ve got the work you might as well take it. It’s my job so I’m glad the phone keeps ringing. I can go out and make a living. I’m very grateful for that. So far it has worked very well for me.’’
Next month, Harris and Crowell will hit the road to promote the album in the US and she’s not ruling out bringing the show to Australia. Wherever they end up, she’s happy to be back in the saddle with a musician, friend and collaborator who was such an influence on her early work.
‘‘ I’ve always loved working with him,’’ she says of Crowell. ‘‘ We have a lot of mutual friends, so to get up every day and go and hang with him is great. I love the way he plays guitar; the way he approaches a song; his harmony singing. I love his Rodneyness.’’
And when the tour is over there’s always her alternative career as the dog lady to keep her busy.
‘‘ I want to save every dog and cat in my community and if I could I’d be doing it around the whole country,’’ she says. ‘‘ It has to be done locally, what I’m doing. There’s a lot of us doing it in Nashville. It’s a fight we can’t give up. It’s a life and death issue.’’
Old Yellow Moon is released through Nonesuch /Warner Music on February 26.
Emmylou Harris hanging with collaborator Rodney Crowell