Emmylou Harris: Whole-Wheat Honky-Tonk

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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