In harmony with Americana
Emmylou Harris on a lifetime of collaboration
There are very few artists for whom this declaration can be made, but Emmylou Harris is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest American singers of our time. Over the last 48 years, she has accumulated some of the most prestigious awards in her field, including 13 Grammys, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.
Harris has not only honed her solo skills as a singer/songwriter and performer, but also has been one of the most revered collaborators in popular music, teaming up with hundreds of artists, including Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Perfect harmony has become nearly synonymous with her name.
Harris’ career began in New York. After her 1969 debut, Gliding Bird, went fairly unnoticed (in part due to her label, Jubilee, folding), Harris moved in with her parents in a suburb of Washington, D.C. A young divorcée and single mother, Harris found herself singing in clubs in the city three times a night, six nights a week.
“Actually, there were times when I played four sets,” Harris said during a recent phone interview. “But that was only at one place.”
That grind became the foundation of Harris’ aptitude for performing live.
“I think it’s really important to put yourself out there and deal with bad sound systems and inattentive audiences,” Harris said. “You have to work for it; people don’t really know who you are. There’s nothing to compare with that kind of muscle-building.”
In 1973, Harris received her first big break by singing with Gram Parsons on his acclaimed Grievous Angel album, which led to a record deal with Reprise and her major-label debut, Pieces of the Sky (1975). Even as her solo career blossomed, the collaborations continued in earnest, though it was never something Harris expected or pushed.
“People just kept asking me to dance,” Harris said. “It wasn’t something I sought out, unless there was a particular artist that I felt would add something to something I was doing. And then of course I had that great chance to do those [Trio] records with Dolly and Linda. It’s just been wonderful to be able to do your solo records but then be a part of collaborating with someone else.”
Now 70, Harris is nowhere near quieting down. She continues to tour and record (most recently on a couple of award-winning collaborations with Crowell), and even celebrate her back catalog with a couple of reissues, including this year’s 25th anniversary edition of At the Ryman and an upcoming rerelease of 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose with demos included.
She also still takes time to seek out the new.
“You wanna get excited about music,” Harris said. “I still of course have my favorite people, but Americana’s about hearing people that I just discovered. I went to a club last night to see a duo called The War and Treaty, and it was unbelievable. I think the world is going to hear about them, hopefully very soon.”
Harris’ collaborations extend beyond music as well. She runs a dog rescue shelter in her own backyard in Nashville, and is also a founder of Crossroads Campus, a nonprofit animal shelter that provides job-training opportunities for at-risk youth within the community. Harris was also part of the Lampedusa tour last year to help raise money for the Jesuit Refugee Service, and performed its unofficial anthem, Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim,” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this summer.
“I wanted to be able to shine a light on the refugee crisis, and that particular song, it just sings itself,” Harris said. “I was grateful for that opportunity.”
In the midst of all this, Harris has been gradually chipping away at a memoir.
“Tell people, ‘Don’t hold your breath,’” she said.