Emmylou Harris: Whole-Wheat Honky-Tonk

This commune-beauty country angel sure loves to play

Emmylou Harris
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Emmylou Harris
By |

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."

A large, curly bearded, serious-looking man in white T-shirt and overalls enters the living room. Emmylou introduces Brian Ahern, her producer and, since January 1977, her husband. Born in Nova Scotia, he was a rock guitarist in his teens and produced Anne Murray's first string of hits before meeting Emmylou in 1975. His initial impression of Emmylou as a performer: "I thought she had a really good instrument and understood it."

They decide to play her new album for me, and since their stereo gear isn't all set up yet, we drive over to the Enactron Truck. That's the name of Ahern's studio, a converted mobile videotape trailer parked outside a rented house in L.A.'s Coldwater Canyon. Ahern found the truck in New York five years ago; it'd been wasting away in a shed. "I was in a nomadic state of mind," says Ahern. "I wanted to be able to take the studio where the music was." He picked up the sixteen-ton truck for $3500, put in a thirty-six-input, British-made board and a pair of twenty-four-track tape machines, and has done all his recording here. (Aside from Harris, he has recently produced Jesse Winchester, Mary Kay Place, Billy Joe Shaver and Jonathan Edwards.)

While Ahern conducts a quick tour, Emmylou sits at the console and writes out a check, and then, when the tape is ready to roll, she ducks out. "The sound is so true on these Klipsches [speakers]," she says, "it's hard for me to listen."

From the first lines, it is clear that Emmylou is retaining the spare, down-home country feel of her previous albums. She is true to the bluegrass territory of the Louvin Brothers and to goodtime, hard-drinking songs (this time it's Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine"), combining pure, sweet country and rock 'n' roll. And her soprano voice sounds thicker; on "Two More Bottles," it even takes on a choked, Teresa Brewer quality.

But Quarter Moon, in the end, lacks luster. There are few grabbers, no old chestnuts and, aside from "To Daddy" and a couple of other ballads, Harris is rarely challenged or inspired enough to do more than the expected capable reading.

But Emmylou seems totally satisfied (even if, as she says, she can't listen to it). The songs, she is pleased to say, "came from left field." Having no familiar material "wasn't something I sat down and planned. However, I was glad it strayed. I've been accused of formula. I really feel good about getting into newer material."

Besides including a familiar tune on every album, formula, in the case of female country-rock performers like Harris and Ronstadt, means lost-lovesick blues and an image of "weaker-sex" vulnerability. But Harris argues that her songs speak of strength and determination as well. And, she adds, "I don't think vulnerability is a negative thing. There're two sides to it. I don't know what else people want people to sing about other than the same old things, because basically that's what we all deal with. I don't know . . . I heard a song about a dancing pizza man the other day, so I suppose there are other things to sing about. But I never get tired of singing about the same old shit."

But Emmylou's first love was country blues – à la Robert Johnson and Mance Lipscomb – and folk music – the songs of Seeger and Guthrie. These had an "intense emphasis on lyrics. I never got into making a political statement, but I was influenced by the importance of words. At first I did country music because it had feeling, and then I realized how much the lyrics meant. Country music uses incredibly simple lyrics to put across strong basic emotions and feelings. It's like walking that tightrope between the real maudlin and banal and the real honest and truthful. An example: 'Together Again' [which Harris recorded on Elite Hotel] obviously is a happy song because it says, 'We're together again.' But it intimates so much heartbreak. Let's say a situation like my mother and father went through when my father was a prisoner of war for sixteen months [in the Korean War]. For most of that time my mother didn't know whether he was dead or alive. It's the kind of song that says nothing else matters, we're together again. That really means something. And then you have what I really love about country music – the harmonies and phrasing. There's a certain stateliness and gracefulness to it."

Before her work with Gram Parsons, Emmylou rarely sang harmonies – some Ian and Sylvia and Hank Williams stuff in college was about it – and to this day, she has trouble. "If somebody's doing three parts, they say, 'Okay, you sing the tenor and I'll sing the baritone,' and I go, 'Well, wait a minute now, show me the part.' If somebody's singing a melody, I consider the harmony to be another melody and I just sing along with it. Gram and I seemed to sing together. I wasn't aware that I was following him. It was always a matter of just singing together. It was always very natural."

She also simply fell in when she was hired to sing harmonics on Bob Dylan's Desire. "I didn't give much conscious thought to what I was doing because it all happened so fast, and he's really a dramatist in his singing, and I didn't think of myself as doing anything other than just singing with him and trying to follow him."

Emmylou's work on Desire is outstanding, to the point that Dylan allowed it to stand out in the final mix. On "One More Cup of Coffee" her miming is particularly accurate and effective. "I am real familiar with the way Dylan sings," she says. "I get familiar with the way people sing. And the way people pronounce words and syllables is so important to me – even more important than the parts. It's a matter of that feel."

Although Emmylou has done some of her best work in harmony with other artists, she is now at ease on her own. But that doesn't mean she's forgotten Parsons, although stories about her no longer take on soap-operatic tones, with headlines like Grievous Angel and Emmylou Haunted by Gram.

"It was the kind of thing I tried to stay away from, but at the same time I couldn't, because obviously what I was doing musically had a lot to do with him, and I did have a lot of feeling for him. I still think back on that period of time as probably my happiest time, as a performer, or my most . . . I don't know what the word would be, because I enjoy being on the road now and singing. But working with him . . . I got something out of it that I just have never gotten again and probably shouldn't.

"I will never forget him. I suppose I think about him as much and still care about him and love him just as much. We were very intense friends, and I know that I loved him very much. I came into his life very late and I regret that I never got to spend much time with him. But he did come into my life and affected it, and no matter how much pain is caused by the loss of that, what do you say? I wish it would have never happened? You never look back and think that way."

Back at Home, Emmylou makes dinner but burns it, so what had been promoted as lamb stew becomes goulash. At the table, the two girls. Hallie and Shannon, talk about how Parker Stevenson, Shaun Cassidy's mate in the Hardy Boys, needs a record producer. "How about B.A.?" asks Shannon, looking eagerly at her dad. B.A. manages to look horrified and paternally friendly at the same time.

Later, in the living room, Bob Hunka, Ahern's business partner, points out a small metal sculpture atop a speaker. It depicts a thin, long-haired horn player. "It's by a Dutch sculptor who gave it to Emmylou in Holland," says Hunka. "It looks just like her, but he had no idea Emmylou played sax in her high-school marching band."

Harris is big in Europe, and she was looking forward to her five-week tour, now under way. Although she is still an opening act in the U.S., she has headliner status overseas and can finally do shows just the way she wants them. The two-hour concerts, called An Evening with Emmylou Harris, are divided into an opening acoustic set and an electric set . . . just like CS&N ten years ago.

"I can't play enough," Emmylou says. "I feel like after the first or second show I'm just getting warmed up. I guess I'll never get over my honky-tonk syndrome."

This story is from the February 23rd, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 259: February 23, 1978
x