If Willie Nelson is the signature voice of country music -- and by extension, some would say, of America -- then Emmylou Harris is surely his female counterpart. |For more than a quarter of a century, her shimmering voice has defined some of the finest moments in American music, from her early beginnings as a folk singer to her harmony work with country rock innovator Gram Parsons to the haunting, spacious soundscapes of her 1995 Grammy-winning Wrecking Ball. Not surprisingly, she's arguably one of the most coveted and sought-after guest vocalists in modern music, having graced "not a million, but somewhere up there" albums by everyone from Willie Nelson to Luscious Jackson (with whom she plans on co-writing new material).
As befits such a rare talent, Harris has habitually surrounded herself with exemplary musicians. Graduates of her legendary Hot Band include such country music luminaries as MCA Nashville president and producer Tony Brown, Albert Lee, Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. Her latest lineup, dubbed Spyboy after the spirit-raising jester who runs ahead of the Mardi Gras parade, features the New Orleans rhythm section of Daryl Johnson and Brady Blade (bass and drums, respectively) as well as in-demand Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller.
The group has been captured in all of its adventurous glory on a new self-titled live album issued on the upstart indie label Eminent Records. Early next year will see the release of Harris' duet album with Linda Ronstadt and a new Trio album with Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. On a recent press blitz in New York -- her last, she insists, before a much needed year off to write material for her next solo album -- Harris discussed Spyboy, the legacy of her musical mentor Gram Parsons, and the sad state of affairs when some of today's best music is reserved for soup commercials.
You know they're playing you downstairs in the hotel lobby. Is that customary at every place you stay?
(Rolls eyes) God, that's so weird. We've been here a couple of days, and the first time I heard it, I thought, "Well, that's kind of nice." Then we came down the next morning and it was still playing, and later on in the afternoon, and then when we came in last night after the show, at one o'clock in the morning. You kind of get saturated with yourself, you know what I mean? And you walk in and there you are, and you go, 'Aaaagh! Stop! Put somebody else on, please!' [Laughs] But I must say that that's the first time that's ever happened.
You left Elektra hoping to take time off, right? It doesn't seem to have worked out that way, though.
Oh yeah. We finished our Spyboy tour last year, and I intended to take a year off. I left my management, I left my record company, and I let the band go, because I wanted to take some time off to write for my next record. But I ended up being even busier. I did a record with Willie Nelson [Teatro], there was a Tammy Wynette [tribute] record that I produced a track on, and then Linda Ronstadt came to me about us doing a duet album that we'd talked about for a long time. And I thought, well, why not. So we're in the process of doing that right now. And of course, doing the Spyboy record took a lot of time, even though the tracks were already done. By the time we put it together and did the video, and the promotion -- the year was gone. So I'm going to start my year off this coming January.
In your ears, how does Spyboy differ dynamically from your old Hot Band?
I think this rhythm section, being a New Orleans rhythm section, can play anything and really make it more exotic. On a song like "Orphan Girl," which seems like a very old, traditional song, even though it's a contemporary song, they can come up with that groove underneath it that makes it even more powerful.
I've always had pretty astonishing lead guys, and Buddy can play all that great country stuff and rock stuff, and then he was able to play the stuff that was more atmospheric and go into another realm. His versatility allows me to work with a smaller group. This is the smallest band I've ever gone out with -- it's just the four of us. And I think that really brings a power to the songs. You think it'd be the opposite, but I think it leaves more space for the notes that are being played, and it becomes more powerful.
Is there ever any danger of it getting too powerful?
No, I don't think you can. Bill Monroe would say, "You can't get too powerful."
Have you ever thought about how your music might have developed differently had you not met Gram Parsons?
It's very hard for me to imagine myself as an artist today without meeting Gram, without getting turned on to things like the Louvin Brothers by him. Even though I listened to country music before that because my brother was a big country music fan, I basically would wait until he was out of the room and then I would put a Bob Dylan record on. So I got country music more by osmosis -- I didn't really feel it in my heart. I didn't really understand it until I worked with Gram.
Do you keep up with the current crop of Gram revisionists? Son Volt, Whiskeytown and the like?
I run into them. It's funny, I did a radio show last night and Golden Smog was there, so I was talking to Jeff Tweedy. I remember going down to see them a couple of years ago with my daughter. It was very heartening to know that people are still listening to Gram and being influenced by him. Because there was a period of time when I thought, well, am I the only one who gets what he is doing? I think [Gram] has an influence that might be more subliminal to a lot of people. I mean, he was a huge influence on me, and there might be people that my music has influenced that come around to him later, and then there are people who just got into him immediately into him, who discovered Gram and just get him one hundred proof. He made the music, and it's always going to be there to influence people; it's hard to say how the influence is going to be there. As far as it influencing country radio, I don't think it's influenced it at all, from what I hear.
So is there anything on country radio today that excites you?
Oh, there are a lot of good people out there making music. You're just not going to hear a lot of them on country radio. It depends on what your criteria is for what is country music. It seems like now, the best way to hear some of the most interesting music is on soundtracks. Whatever it takes to get people to hear music. Some of the best music I've heard lately is for commercials on television. I don't know what the products are, but Sweet Honey in the Rock are doing one that might be, I don't know, for soup or something. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has one that might be for soup. But it's so fantastic. It's a beautiful song.
I don't listen to country radio at all ... Country radio could use a Bruce Springsteen song every once and awhile, sung by him, to enrich that stew of the whole picture. His songs are in the richest tradition of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. I'd love to be able to turn on country radio and hear Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen alongside Trisha Yearwood. Nobody would have to tell you who they were, because nobody sounds like Bruce and nobody sounds like Neil.