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
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
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
No, I don’t think you can. Bill Monroe would say, “You can’t get
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
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
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.