Emmylou Harris was an unknown singer in her early twenties when Gram Parsons saw her perform at a folk club in Washington, D.C. in 1971. “I was knocked out by her singing,” he said later. He recruited her the following year to sing on 1973’s classic album GP and the subsequent tour, but he died unexpectedly the same year a drug overdose. On “The Road” the kickoff track on her haunting new album Hard Bargain, Harris addresses their relationship, singing, “I took what you left and put it to some use.” On the album, Harris also sings about post-Katrina New Orleans, becoming a grandmother (“Goodnight Old World”) and the death of her friend Kate McGarrigle (“Darlin’ Kate”). On a warm spring afternoon, Harris settled in to a midtown Manhattan restaurant, ordered a salad and reflected her new album, what it’s like listening to her Seventies classics and singing with Bob Dylan on 1976’s Desire.
You sang about Gram Parsons on [1975’s] “Boulder to Birmingham.” What made you want to sing about him again? How did you approach writing about him differently this time?
Well, we’ve got about 30 years between it all. And “Boulder to Birmingham” was written in the throes of deep grief and shock, after losing someone that quickly and unexpectedly. So that was just a way of dealing with it, whereas now, you’re looking back from a great distance with a great deal of affection. It’s terrible that Gram died so young, but I’m grateful that our paths crossed. Really, it’s a thank you to him and kind of a tip of the hat to the universe to say ‘I’m still here and I was given all these wonderful things because of that meeting with this person.’ It’s just a reflection.
You found a way to sing with him so naturally. He doesn’t seem like someone who ever practiced to be an amazing singer, but he seemed perfectly natural with you.
He was a very natural singer, Gram. He really understood country music, but he was a child of the Sixties, so he had one foot in the rock world and one foot in the southern country world. But I think as a songwriter he brought his own poetry to the lyrics. He could take a song like “Sin City,” which has a very traditional country form, and put apocalyptic lyrics to it. He sort of disguised it. He sort of takes you aback when you actually start listening to his lyrics.
You put out a rarities collection in 2007. What’s it like for you when you hear the classic material you recorded in the Seventies, where you mixed your own songs with songs by artists like Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers?
I’m very happy with it. Sometimes you feel like it’s a different person because my voice sounds so different, but it is me. And I pretty much loved every song that I did. And I loved those collections because I was able to take what I call my little orphans – songs that maybe had been on something nobody had heard of. For example, you know that record The Legend of Jesse James I did with Levon Helm and Johnny Cash. I remember I was listening to the songs that I sang on that, “Wish We Were Back in Missouri” and “Heaven Ain’t Ready For You Yet,” I actually started crying ’cause I hadn’t heard it in a long time.
When you write now, do you find yourself reflecting more than writing about that particular moment?
I think you can’t help but look back because there’s more to look back at than there is to look forward to. It’s just the nature. I mean “Lonely Girl” [on Hard Bargain] – I was playing those chords on the guitar and they sounded so nice and then I started thinking, “God, time is just going so fast.” All of a sudden, you’re talking about the passing of time and reflecting on your life, but also kind of embracing where you are.
Bob Dylan just turned 70. You sang on Desire. What were those sessions like?
Well, it was all a bit of a blur, because I didn’t know the songs and I didn’t know Dylan. We met, shook hands, and started rolling tape. I’d never heard the songs before. That’s the way I remember. I think “Durango” might have been the first one. “One More Cup Of Coffee” was a little bit later.
In the back of my mind, I thought, “Oh, I can fix any of these things because when everybody leaves I can just go with the engineer and I can go back.” But of course I tried that and it didn’t work. That album was like throwing paint on a canvas. Whatever happened was what it was supposed to be. I guess that’s another part of the genius of Dylan — he knew exactly what he was doing. I didn’t know what I was; I was a color, an instrument, part of what he had in mind or just the moment. It didn’t matter if I had gotten it pitch perfect – it wouldn’t have mattered.
Is there any song off Desire that you particularly loved what you did with it?
It was a little hard for me listening to the record at first because I felt that I was out of tune. But I got past that. I love all those songs, I have to say. There’s something about that record that has a certain magic. It’s a very romantic album. But then there’s “Joey,” which I love singing. [sings ‘Joey, Joey.’] It’s sort of a cry, a cry for the depths of despair.