During the '70s Emmylou Harris' clear, plaintive soprano made her a country hitmaker, and the neotraditionalist arrangements on her records appealed to rock & folk fans as well. A prolific performer, Harris has continued to garner attention and praise for her work, which has been enriched by superb supporting and collaborating musicians, and has included covers of material by song bards ranging from Gram Parsons to Bruce Springsteen to Lucinda Williams.
Harris grew up in a Virginia suburb of Washington. In high school she was a cheerleader, beauty pageant queen, and class valedictorian; she also played alto sax in the marching band. In 1965 she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and played there with a folk duo, but moved to Greenwich Village a year and a half later, where she played clubs and sat in with Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg. She also recorded an unsuccessful album for the small Jubilee label. In 1970, after a short time in Nashville, she returned to her parents' house in Washington DC, where she eventually found a band and began gigging locally.
After one DC club performance, Harris met the Flying Burrito Brothers; impressed by her voice, they recommended her to ex-member Gram Parsons [see entry], who was looking for a female duet partner for his upcoming debut solo recording. Parsons became a huge influence on Harris, introducing her to the music of such classic country greats as the Louvin Brothers. The two collaborated (on two Parsons albums and on a Fallen Angels tour) until Parsons' fatal overdose in September 1973. Devastated by Parsons' death, she later wrote a song about him, "Boulder to Birmingham," and over the years kept his music alive by recording his songs.
Harris subsequently formed a new group, including some former Parsons sidemen, and signed with Warner Bros. On 1975's Pieces of the Sky, she was backed by Elvis Presley's former sidemen Ron Tutt, James Burton, and Glen D. Hardin. Harris' touring group, dubbed the Hot Band, included songwriter Rodney Crowell [see entry] on guitar and harmony vocals, bassist Emory Gordy Jr., and pedal steel guitarist Hank DeVito. Guitarist Albert Lee and mandolinist/guitarist Ricky Skaggs [see entry] also played with Harris.
In 1975 her remake of the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" topped the country chart; subsequent C&W hits included "Together Again" (#1, 1976), "One of These Days" (#3, 1976), "Sweet Dreams" (#1, 1976), "(You Can Never Tell) C'est La Vie" (#6, 1977), "Making Believe" (#8, 1977), and "To Daddy" (#3, 1977). Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner also attracted some rock fans, and she appeared in studio footage for the Band's 1976 documentary The Last Waltz, singing Robbie Robertson's "Evangeline." In 1980 she teamed with Roy Orbison for "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," a #55 pop single that year (also featured on the soundtrack of the film The Roadie).
In 1977 Harris married producer Brian Ahern, who had played a large role in shaping her early hits (and whose other credits included Anne Murray and Crowell). She began focusing on pure country material, and Blue Kentucky Girl won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. There were more C&W hits: "Two More Bottles of Wine" (#1, 1978), a cover of the Drifters' "Save The Last Dance For Me" (#4, 1979), and "Blue Kentucky Girl" (#6, 1979).
By 1982, Harris had eight gold albums. The early '80s also brought numerous top country singles: "Beneath Still Waters" (#1, 1980), "Wayfaring Stranger" (#7, 1980), a cover of the Chordettes' "Mister Sandman" (#10, 1981), a duet with Don Williams, "If I Needed You" (#3, 1982), "(Lost His Love) On Our Last Date" (#1, 1983), "I'm Movin' On" (#5, 1983), "In My Dreams" (#9, 1984), and "Pledging My Love" (#9, 1984).
Harris' marriage to Ahern ended in 1983, and she relocated to Nashville. In 1985 she released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a loosely autobiographical "country opera," to great acclaim. Harris co-wrote and co-produced the album with her second husband, the Grammy-winning songwriter Paul Kennerley. In 1987 Harris' long-anticipated collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (who had both appeared on Sally Rose) finally came to fruition with Trio. It went platinum, reached #6 on the pop chart, and yielded C&W smashes with a version of the Phil Spector-penned 1958 #1 Teddy Bears hit "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (#1, 1987), "Telling Me Lies" (#3, 1987), "Those Memories of You" (#5, 1987), and "Wildflowers" (#6, 1988).
Harris' other 1988 hits included "We Believe in Happy Endings" (#1), with Earl Thomas Conley, and "Heartbreak Hill" (#8). In 1990 she had a #24 pop album, a compilation of previously released Duets pairing her with everyone from Gram Parsons to George Jones and Willie Nelson. She then replaced her longtime Hot Band with an acoustic aggregation, the Nash Ramblers. In 1991 Harris recorded At The Ryman live at the Grand Ole Opry's venerable auditorium. Her 1993 album, Cowgirl's Prayer, reached only #34 on the country charts but was a critical favorite.
Harris essentially cut her ties to the Nashville hit mill when she released her 1995 album, Wrecking Ball. She has always pushed country music's boundaries, but nothing in her catalog anticipated such a departure. Produced by Daniel Lanois and recorded mainly with rock musicians, including U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., the album features unvarnished, otherworldly renditions of songs written by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Earle, and other lesser-known artists. Critics hailed the projects as a triumph of innovation even as it alienated fans of Harris' more country-sounding work. It won the 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
In 1998 Harris signed with Eminent Records, a Nashville independent label, and released Spyboy, a live set featuring her touring band of the same name. Harris and guitarist Buddy Miller coproduced the album, which functions as something of a career retrospective. In 1999 Harris, Parton, and Ronstadt teamed up for a haunting duo record, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, later in the year. Harris executive produced and sang on Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, released by Almo Sounds in 1999. The record featured covers of Parsons' songs by Elvis Costello, Beck, and Sheryl Crow, among others. In 1999 Harris won the prestigious Billboard Century Award. Her 2000 release, Red Dirt Girl, continued in the same vein of Wrecking Ball, but was composed of Harris originals. The album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Hear Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt's 'Children'
A cappella take on "Calling My Children Home" appears on the upcoming 'Trio' boxed set
Hear Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt's Rare 'Wildflowers'
Written by Parton, this alternate version of the singers' 'Trio' album hit appears on the upcoming 'Complete Trio Collection'