Emmylou Harris - Biography
By J Poet
Emmylou Harris never became a superstar, but her interpretative singing, fine songwriting and good taste have made her a trendsetter even before her major label debut, Pieces of the Sky (1975 Reprise), introduced her to the world at large. With the exception of her big hits, Roses in the Snow (1980 Warner), Evangeline (1981 Warner) and Trio (1987 Warner), it took years for most of her albums to sell enough to go gold, but she was a traditionalist, roots rocker and Americana icon before the genres were invented and one of the most successful west coast country rock pioneers. After 40 years of music making and a dozen Grammys, she retains her aching vocal quality while her choice of cover material has helped introduce America to major songwriters like Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs
Harris was born in 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama, to an Army family that moved frequently. Despite being painfully shy, she was a star in her high school drama club and got an acting scholarship to the University Of North Carolina in Greensboro. She played sax in her high school marching band, as well as guitar, learning the songs of Dylan and Baez, and picking up some country music from her older brother who taught her to play the hits of Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Although she worked hard in the drama department at UNC, she supplemented her income by singing in clubs with pal Mike Williams on 12-string.
In 1966, she enrolled in the drama department at Boston University, but never went; she decided to become a folksinger instead and moved to New York City. She scraped by singing in coffee houses and working day jobs until she landed a deal with Jubilee Records. Gliding Bird (1970 Jubilee) included five good original songs, but the label went bankrupt the month the album came out.
Single and pregnant she gave Nashville a shot, but moved back in with her parents in Columbia, Maryland after her daughter was born in 1970. Columbia was near Washington DC, a town with thriving folk, country and bluegrass scenes. Harris put together a trio and landed steady singing gigs. Rick Roberts and Kenny Wertz of the Flying Burrito Brothers caught her act and brought Chris Hillman to see her.
Hillman asked her to join the Burrito Brothers on their final tour with singer/songwriter Gram Parsons. Parsons and Harris clicked musically and he introduced her to hard-core country music. She moved to LA and their close harmonies amazed their friends and became the defining sound of Parsons’ GP (1972 Reprise, 2008 Rhino). They toured to support the album with Parsons giving Harris several solo turns in every set. (A posthumous live set, Live 1973 (1982 Sierra, 2008 Rhino), got the duo a Grammy nomination years later for Best Recording by a Country Duo for their version of “Love Hurts”.) The couple finished Parsons’ second album Grievous Angel (1972 Reprise, 2008 Rhino) just three weeks before he OD’d.
Devastated, Harris moved back to DC, but Reprise tracked her down and signed her. Pieces of the Sky (1975 Reprise), an amalgam of pop, traditional country, folk and rock slowly took off; its second single “If I Could Only Win Your Love” was a #4 country hit and she took off. She put together her famous Hot Band, which included future star guitarist and songwriter Rodney Crowell and toured non-stop between record dates that produced Elite Hotel (1975 Reprise) with her first #1 country hits “Together Again” and “Sweet Dreams” and first Grammy winning country album, Luxury Liner (1977 Reprise), Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978 Warner), and the Grammy winning acoustic set Blue Kentucky Girl (1979 Warner) with the #1 hit “Beneath Still Waters.”
Harris was near her commercial peak. Roses in the Snow (1980 Warner), with new Hot Band star Ricky Skaggs, and Evangeline (1981 Warner) quickly went gold. Her duet with Roy Orbison on “That Lovin' You Feelin' Again” for the soundtrack of the ill-fated Meat Loaf movie Roadie (1980 Warner) hit #6 country; # 55 pop and won a Best Country Duo Grammy. In 1980 she also sang on Paul Kennerley’s “country opera” The Legend of Jesse James (1980 A&M). Her repertoire continued to get more eclectic on Cimarron (1981Warner, Eminent 2000), Last Date (1982 Warner, Eminent 2000) with the title tune going to #1 Country, and White Shoes (1983 Warner) which included “Pledging My Love", the 1955 Johnny Ace hit), “Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend and the Grammy winning track “In My Dreams”.
In 1983 Harris moved to Nashville again and made the concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985 Warner). It’s her first album of all original material, co-written with Paul Kennerley and the stage show was an elaborate presentation of the “life” of Sally Rose. She made the acoustic Angel Band (1987 Warner) and quickly followed it up with Trio (1987 Warner) a long delayed collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. It spawned a #1 hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, won a Best Country Album by a Duo or Group Grammy and went platinum.
Bluebird (1989 Reprise) and Brand New Dance (1990 Reprise) showed Harris getting comfortable with the Nashville sound. In 1992 she became president of the Country Music Foundation, joined The Grand Ole Opry and also said goodbye to The Hot Band. She created the semi-acoustic Nash Ramblers who first backed her on the live At the Ryman (1992 Reprise). The album won one more Best Country Album by a Duo or Group Grammy.
She kept touring and while her albums from the 1990s didn’t go gold they earned critical raves and showed her deepening mastery of country singing. They included Cowgirl's Prayer (1993 Asylum), Wrecking Ball (1995 Asylum) the dark master piece produced by Daniel Lanois that won a Best Folk Album Grammy, Portraits (1996 Reprise) a three disc collection of her best Warner songs, Spyboy (1998 Eminent), a live set produced by Buddy Miller, Trio II (1999 Asylum) which took another Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group Grammy for the cover of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, and Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (1999Asylum) a duo session with Ronstadt. In 1999 Billboard gave her the Century Award for her genre breaking vision.
Red Dirt Girl (2000 Nonesuch) heralded the return of Harris the songwriter on a set that included guest shots from Bruce Springsteen, Buddy and Julie Miller, Guy Clark, Kate McGarrigle, and Dave Matthews, and captured another Best Folk Album Grammy. Stumble Into Grace (2003 Nonesuch) showed the artist’s growing confidence as a songwriter. She also found time to contribute to the Oh Brother Soundtrack (2000 Lost Highway) and shared in its Album of the Year Grammy. All the Roadrunning (2006 Warner) a collaboration with Mark Knopfler, took over seven years to make due to scheduling conflicts, but its smooth country rock sound makes it sound like a single spontaneous session. All I Intended To Be (2008 Nonesuch) finds Harris looking back to her country folk roots, with a program balanced between well-chosen country classics and new tunes by Harris.
The new century has seen several great overviews of her work. Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems (2007 Rhino) is a four disc set of her more obscure stuff, Anthology: The Warner Reprise Years (2001 Reprise/Rhino) is a two disc 4 track overview, and Heartaches and Highways - The Very Best of Emmylou Harris (2005 Rhino) is a solid one disc anthology. The one new track, “The Connection” won Harris another Best Female Country Vocal Grammy. In 2011 she released Hard Bargain.