Iain Shed­den in­ter­views coun­try queen Em­my­lou Har­ris

Em­my­lou Har­ris and Rod­ney Crow­ell cook up a treat from their glory days, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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