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
country music opened untold numbers of doors for blues-based
who occasionally like to sing traditional folk songs, people like
Lucinda Williams, Texan Katy Moffatt, and even Californians Tom
and Dave Alvin.
Harris may live in Nashville — home of the country music
and those record and radio station executives who determine what
country music — but she takes her musical cues more from Willie
Nelson, another genre-bending, pioneering performer who long ago
Nashville and its rigid record company executives for the more
atmosphere to be found in the hills just west of Austin, Texas.
The October issue of "No Depression" a fanzine-turned
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
the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Just last year, Harris, who has nine Grammy awards and three
albums to her credit, was presented with a Century Award from
magazine. Editor Timothy White praised Harris as "a truly
Trail-blazer might have been more appropriate, for Harris has never
shied away from the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, western swing jazz,
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
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
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
"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
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
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
After dropping out of college — after receiving a drama
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
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
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
to expand the parameters of what most people think of as country
Just as she and Parsons ushered in country rock in the 1970s and
folkies — who hated country music — on to the genius of people
like Hank Williams, she continues along that groundbreaking path
Harris may well be the most admired and influential woman in
country music, yet she appeals to old rock ‘n’ rollers as well. That
includes people like Bruce Springsteen, who with his wife, Patti
joins Harris on backing vocals on one track on "Red Dirt
"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
Afterall, isn’t that what all genre-bending trail-blazers want in
the first place?
— Richard J. Skelly
Brunswick, 732-246-7469. With Patti Griffin. $35 & $42. Wednesday,
October 18, 8 p.m.
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