Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the October 11,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Emmylou: Remaking Country

Although Emmylou Harris may have been considered a

country artist at the apex of her career, back in the mid-1970s, many

"alternative country" or "Americana" artists who now

fill the record store CD bins owe Harris a debt of gratitude. Through

the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, her genre-bending approach to what

constitutes

country music opened untold numbers of doors for blues-based

singer-songwriters

who occasionally like to sing traditional folk songs, people like

Lucinda Williams, Texan Katy Moffatt, and even Californians Tom

Russell

and Dave Alvin.

Harris may live in Nashville — home of the country music

establishment

and those record and radio station executives who determine what

constitutes

country music — but she takes her musical cues more from Willie

Nelson, another genre-bending, pioneering performer who long ago

ditched

Nashville and its rigid record company executives for the more

laid-back

atmosphere to be found in the hills just west of Austin, Texas.

The October issue of "No Depression" a fanzine-turned

legitimate

magazine that covers the Americana and roots-rock scene, contains

a review of Harris’ new album, "Red Dirt Girl," just released

on Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.

Says reviewer Barry Mazor: "Emmylou Harris has now been opening

ears, breaking hearts, challenging minds, and stimulating fantasies

in country and pop music for 30 years, on more than 30 records. She

has been atop the outside for so long that she functions virtually

as the mother of alt-country — the one who reintroduced the Louvin

Brothers to the world, who countrified the Beatle ballads." That’s

as apt a description as you’re likely to find of what Harris has done

through the years, all the while still managing to sell thousands

of albums from the "Country Music" bins of record stores

around

the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Just last year, Harris, who has nine Grammy awards and three

platinum-selling

albums to her credit, was presented with a Century Award from

Billboard

magazine. Editor Timothy White praised Harris as "a truly

venturesome,

genre-transcending pathfinder."

Trail-blazer might have been more appropriate, for Harris has never

shied away from the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, western swing jazz,

traditional

folk and country songs, and slow Beatles ballads sung with more than

a hint of a southern accent.

Harris’ last album, 1995’s "Wrecking Ball," despite the

personal

stamp of French-Canadian producer Daniel Lanois all over it, is an

excellent recording that showcases her abilities to sing a variety

of songs, everything from Jimi Hendrix’s "Waterfall," to Bob

Dylan’s "Every Grain of Sand" to Lucinda Williams’ "Sweet

Old World," and Neil Young’s "Wrecking Ball," the album’s

title track. Her current album, "Red Dirt Girl," perhaps a

reference to her mother’s Alabama roots, is an album much like

"Wrecking

Ball." Recorded in New Orleans at Lanois’ studios, but without

Lanois producing, there’s lots of atmospheric, shimmering guitars

and pedal steels, light bass and drums on top of which ride Harris’

soaring, delicate vocals.

After touring in support of "Wrecking Ball" for much of 1995

and 1996, Harris comments in her biography accompanying "Red Dirt

Girl":

"I had the problem of what to do next. I knew I couldn’t do `Son

of Wrecking Ball’; there was no way to compete with that record. The

only thing I could bring to the next record that was totally different

was my own songs. So I resolved to write."

"Red Dirt Girl" contains 11 of Harris’ own songs, and she

covers a Patty Griffin tune, "One Big Love," with a pop

sensibility

that belies her traditional singer-songwriter roots.

Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947,

the daughter of a Marine from New Jersey and a farmer’s daughter

mother

who was raised in southern Alabama. A military child, Harris spent

much of her youth moving about the country, but she attended high

school in Woodbridge, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.,

where she was named her class valedictorian. In high school, she was

given a used guitar soon after she discovered folk music on the radio

at American University’s FM station. She took her earliest musical

inspiration from the albums of Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and

Woody Guthrie.

After dropping out of college — after receiving a drama

scholarship

at the University of North Carolina — Harris moved to New York

City in 1968, at the same time the folk renaissance was petering out

in favor of louder psychedelic rock bands. In New York she married

songwriter Tom Slocum and moved with him to Nashville. They later

got divorced. Back home with her parents in suburban Washington, D.C.,

Gram Parsons heard her sing at a folk club in Washington and promised

her he’d be in touch. A year later, she joined Parsons in the

recording

studio on his debut album, "GP," and her own career was born

out of touring with Parsons.

After Parsons died in 1973 from a drug overdose in California, she

continued his eclectic country-rock approach to music. By the

mid-1970s,

she had moved back to Nashville and began establishing herself as

a force for reform in the world of country music, which by that point

was enveloped in the national consciousness by the disco craze. At

this point, Harris began a string of hit singles, including "If

I Could Win Your Love," from her 1975 release, "Pieces of

the Sky"; "Together Again," "One of These Days"

and "Sweet Dreams" from "Elite Hotel," her 1976 album,

and by 1979, she even had a hit with Doc Pomus’ "Save The Last

Dance For Me" from her album "Blue Kentucky Girl."

Indeed, Harris entered Nashville — and the country music genre

— at a critical time for the future of that type of music. In

the process, over the years, through the 1980s and ’90s, she has

continued

to expand the parameters of what most people think of as country

music.

Just as she and Parsons ushered in country rock in the 1970s and

turned

folkies — who hated country music — on to the genius of people

like Hank Williams, she continues along that groundbreaking path

today.

Harris may well be the most admired and influential woman in

contemporary

country music, yet she appeals to old rock ‘n’ rollers as well. That

includes people like Bruce Springsteen, who with his wife, Patti

Scialfa,

joins Harris on backing vocals on one track on "Red Dirt

Girl."

"I don’t think of myself as a leader," Harris argues in the

biography accompanying her new record. "I don’t like the pressure

that goes with that word. I think if I’ve done anything, I’ve somehow

managed to survive doing exactly what I wanted to do. I think I got

into music at a time that was very special. I was just successful

enough to be given a license to do whatever I wanted to and to be

left alone."

Afterall, isn’t that what all genre-bending trail-blazers want in

the first place?

— Richard J. Skelly

Emmylou Harris, State Theater, Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 732-246-7469. With Patti Griffin. $35 & $42. Wednesday,

October 18, 8 p.m.


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