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Emmylou Harris: Whole-Wheat Honky-Tonk

This commune-beauty country angel sure loves to play

February 23, 1978
Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Los Angeles — Dolly Parton had surprise in her eyes when she invited Emmylou Harris into Porter Wagoner's Fireside Studios in Nashville in the spring of '76 to listen to the final tapes for Dolly's All I Can Do album. See, Dolly had cut "Boulder to Birmingham," Emmylou's beautiful paean to the late Gram Parsons, without telling her. And now, in the darkness of the studio, the tape was rolling. But Emmylou was suddenly distracted. The song before "Boulder" was a Dolly Parton composition called "To Daddy," which seemed at first to be just another of those pretty/sad country tunes about the self-sacrificial mother. Just when she expected to learn how Mamma died, Emmylou heard Dolly sing:

One morning we awoke, just to find a note

That Mamma carefully wrote and left to Daddy . . . 

Said the kids are older now, they don't need me very much

And I've gone in search of love I need so badly

I have needed you so long, but I just can't keep holding on

She never meant to come back home

If she did, she never did say so to Daddy.*

And before Emmylou could recover, or respond, or protest, Dolly sang, with finality:

Goodbye to Daddy.

Emmylou was devastated. "That song had my lip trembling," she remembers now. "I was afraid I was gonna make a scene . . . and 'Boulder to Birmingham' came on, and it was so anticlimactic because I was so wrapped up in this song." She remembers thanking and hugging Dolly, but her mind was on "To Daddy." "To me, it's like an O. Henry short story because she sets you up. You're expecting the woman to die, but Dolly just comes back with the old whammo and turns it all around."

"That's about my mamma," Emmylou recalls Dolly saying. But "To Daddy" was left off Dolly's album, and Emmylou immediately added it to her own repertoire. Now, it's the first single from her new album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. And, as with "If I Could Only Win Your Love," "Together Again," "One of These Days," "Making Believe" and "(You Never Can Tell) C' est la Vie" from her previous three albums, "To Daddy" is a hit on the country charts.

This Past new Year's Eve, Emmylou was off to Nashville again, flying from L.A. with Linda Ronstadt for a working holiday at Dolly Parton's home. The three are doing an album together and spent four days trying out songs, singing solos, duets and three-part harmonies, while Dolly's mother cooked and brought over the traditional New Year's food of the South, black-eyed peas.

In a time when women dominate the top of the pops, and almost ten years since Crosby, Stills and Nash first got together at Mama Cass' house in Laurel Canyon, it's Ronstadt, Parton and Harris. RP&H. Or, as Emmylou said, kidding (maybe): "How about the 'Queenston Trio'?"

Not Long Ago, Nashville, to Emmylou Harris, was not much more than an escape from New York, itself an escape from home in Virginia and college in North Carolina. It was 1970, she'd just had a baby, her short-lived marriage had shorted, she'd given up on music, and she and her two-month-old daughter had to leave the house they were staying in "because I couldn't afford the rent." She took jobs as a model in an art class ("Fully clothed – I didn't have the nerve to do it nude. I had on this long gown and I was holding an umbrella for some reason.") and as a cocktail waitress "serving pu-pu trays" in a Polynesian restaurant. But the money was so bad ("I never got any tips anywhere I worked in Nashville") that she had to get food stamps. She recalls that on her first shopping trip while on food stamps, all she bought was baby food.

Emmylou only spent eight months, from May to December, in Nashville in 1970. From there she went back to her parents, who were living near Washington D.C. She put together a small band and renewed what until then had been a casual musical career. She sang six nights a week at various clubs and lounges, was discovered by members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, hooked up with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and fell apart after his death in 1973.

She slowly picked up the pieces, put a new band together, was signed by Warner Bros., moved in with her producer, Brian Ahern, and found herself an extremely popular solo artist, not only with pop, rock and country audiences, but also with her peers. She has not only recorded with Ronstadt and Parton, but also with Bob Dylan, on the Desire album. Her own records sell well – upward of 300,000 each. Brush Arbor, a country group, wrote and sing a song called "Emmylou," which chronicles a groupie's attempts to catch her attention all the way from a hotel in Houston to the Palomino Club in Los Angeles. It concludes: "Well, I love Olivia's eyes/And Ronstadt's really nice/But heaven is a girl named Emmylou!"

And, now, she is part of the "Queenston Trio."

So the Emmylou of not long ago, who spent most of her interviews sounding haunted by Gram and uncertain about being on her own, has come back with the old whammo and turned it all around. Now, at age thirty, she is married, mother to two girls (her own eight-year-old Hallie and Ahern's ten-year-old Shannon) and settled into a new house in Studio City near Hollywood.

It's an unassuming little house, the kind any upwardly mobile young couple in California would be happy to snag these days. She and Ahern are beginning to fix it up and fit in furniture – a somehow harmonious mix of Danish and Italian modern and Art Deco antique.

Emmylou is in a red T-shirt (advertising the now-defunct Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland) and rolled-up jeans, red tennis shoes and white socks. Her fabled good looks – I've heard of DJs who've kept her Luxury Liner album cover in front of them for entire shifts to keep themselves inspired – are not played up offstage. Her long, dark hair has an instantly noticeable amount of gray strands, and hers is a commune-sweet-commune beauty. She is soft-spoken but not fragile, quiet but not shy. As onstage, she seems eager to please. And soon after meeting her, one realizes that the name Emmylou fits.

"I've been real fortunate," she says, "in being able to do exactly what I want to do, the record company being supportive of that and the public being supportive enough to where nobody decides that anything should change. I've done it without having a pop hit" – she spreads her arms on the two words, as if to capitalize them – " 'cause all my hits have been country, and there's been no crossover. At the same time, I feel like I'm sort of out in the middle there, somewhere, without any category."

This, however, has its cost. "We do have trouble, like my road thing. You want to go on the road and pay your band enough money and not come out in the hole. Unless you're a really big act, it's hard to go out and headline, take your own sound and lights and have the show exactly the way you want it. It came down to me realizing that I want to play with this band, and if I have to open, I'll open. I don't care."

Emmylou sketches in some pieces of her convoluted biography: the daughter of a Marine officer, she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Woodbridge, Virginia. In high school, she was always studying and became known as an oddball. She wanted to be "hip and cool" and began singing at parties because it attracted attention. She was a cheerleader, won beauty contests (one of her titles was "Miss Woodbridge") and was class valedictorian. But, she says, she was never popular. Hoping to be a majorette, she wound up playing alto sax in the marching band. "Boy, the rejects of humanity are the members of the marching band," she says. "That's just the lowest thing on the social-climbing ladder." She played sax for two reasons: she was interested in music, and her fingers were too little to close the holes of a clarinet ("I was always squeaking").

She entered the University of North Carolina in Greensboro in 1965 and studied drama, but quit after a year and a half. She discovered that she "was a pretty lousy actress and that I loved music and wanted to do that more than drama."

While in college she had begun performing with other musicians at a club called the Red Door, but she didn't really know what she wanted to do. "At one point I thought about switching over to something like nursing, just because if I was gonna be in college, I didn't want to come out with a degree that said, 'you have a degree in nothing.' I had had enough of all this nebulous shit, and also, I suppose, there was the element of being a young woman: what do you do? Everybody else is getting pinned and settling down and getting married, and you're looking at all that stuff and saying, 'That's pretty silly.'"

So, because "there was nothing else to do," she went to New York, where she stayed at the Y, hung out in the Village and began singing again, having been introduced to country music by new friends Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg. She got married. She made an album for a small label. (She is happy to note that the company went under, so that the record – "a disaster" – is no longer available.) She discovered herself pregnant – "the worst thing any girl could do to her budding career" – and, even worse, she began to feel that her marriage was a mistake. After having the baby, she and her husband left New York for Nashville. "And Nashville, of course, is where we broke up."

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