EMMYLOU HARRIS FEATURE
The mainstream musical climate is once again highly receptive to the sound of EMMYLOU HARRIS. Sue Wilson talked to her about how she ﬁrst became interested in country music and how it has always provided the focus for her songs.
be popular image of country music on this side of the Atlantic has always been dominated by its tawdrier excesses. rhinestones. big hair or cheap gushy
strain of country which dates back much further than the glitz and the tack. the
rhinestone cowboys and the hat acts. and which continues today in the work of artists like Emmylou Harris. Like all real traditions. real country is a living. changing music. its roots in
the past nourishing ever-proliferating new branches. And like all real traditionalists.
Harris understands that tradition is a process of
embracing change. of continual reinvention so that the music can continue to speak to successive generations in their own language. It's this breadth of approach. llarris‘s ability to marry the unmistakable authenticity of her voice — its poignant. piercing delicacy. its concentration of unashamed cmotiveness —- with a wide range of musical influences (folk. blttes. rock. cajun) that has. over nearly two decades. tnade her one of country’s biggest international stars. even as she has fallen in and out of favour with the Nashville establishment. The funny thing is. she didn‘t set out to be a country singer; originally she wanted to be a
folkie. and started out on that ()()s path of
playing the clttbs in New York and Washington. covering artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Rush — she says herself she saw country as a bit of ajoke. lintil. around the end of the decade. she was introduced to country- rock pioneer. ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Gram Parsons. newly launched on a solo career. who was looking for a female backing singer. It was a crucial. pivotal meeting for Harris; her collaboration with Parsons. she says. until his drug-related death in 1973. laid all the foundations for a career she doesn‘t think would have
happened without him. Was it his music. his personality. or the
experience of working alongside him which had such a revelatory impact‘.’ ‘I think it was a combination of all those things.’ Harris says. ‘Certainly he turned me on to a side of country music that I hadn‘t really understood before — obviously I‘d heard country music. but I didn‘t really hear the poetry in it until then. Gram was someone who cut to the core of it. he understoodjust how rich the heritage was in the music of people like the Louvin Brothers. that type of harmony singing. but he brought his own vision and his own poetry to it. Working with him. singing with him gave me a natural place for my voice: he really taught me how to use my voice in a way I hadn’t comprehended before. gave rue more of a sense of phrasing. so I was able to develop more ofa style. Country gave me a focus — that doesn’t mean that I didn’t or that I haven‘t continued to try other kinds of music. look for
sentiment. But there’s a purer. sparer
‘There’s a certain really quite elegant restraint in country music’s expression of very, very deep feelings, whether it’s talking about love the
lost, or death, or - all the issues that we deal with day to day, very common, folk-orientated issues.’
material in other places. but it’s having that focus. that point of departure that was so important.‘
From the frequency with which she uses the word. ‘poetry‘ is obviously the key to what Harris understands as country. What is it that constitutes the poetry for her‘.’ ‘I think it‘s a real economy in expressing emotion. both in the writing and the performing. There‘s a certain really quite elegant restraint in the expression of very. very deep feelings. whether it‘s talking about love lost. or death. or — all the issues that we deal with day to day. very common. folk-oriented issues. 'l‘bere‘s just such an elegance to the understatement in country. if you look at it historically.‘
Clearly. Parsons’ importance to Harris was such that his death. after they‘d made just two albums together. GP and Grievous Angel. catne as a massive blow. Bttt the musical vistas he‘d opened up for her were so wide and exciting that quitting was never an option. ‘I was just so impassioned by the music he had bequeathed me. as it were — l couldn‘tjust give it up. because it had become so important. the expression of my own identity through music. So I just put a band together and started exploring that territory he'd showed me. not really knowing what I was doing. but just trying to trust certain instincts he had made me aware of. I had to keep going. even though it was only in bars. playing ﬁve nights a week to people who most of the time weren’t listening. I really felt I was a woman with a mission. And then serendipitous things happen; the fact that I got a record deal. and then that record was so successful. came as a great surprise to me.’
That record. the classic Pieces of the Sky. was the first of a to-date total of 22 albums, which have so far earned her six Grammies and eight gold discs. Though her popularity within the hard-core country world has declined since the early 80s. the diversity she brought to bear on the music has ensured from the start that her fan—base was broad enough for her to keep ploughing her own furrow. And in recent years the wheel has come full circle. With the success of artists like Nanci Griffith. Mary-Chapin Carpenter. lris DeMent et al. the mainstream musical climate is once again highly receptive to Harris’s sounds. particularly the stripped- down. folk-orientated style she’s recently adopted. with her all-acoustic band the Nash Ramblers. Her new album Cowgirl ’3 Prayer. a beautifully arranged. exquisitely
‘I had to keep going, even though at the beginning it was only in bars, playing five nights a week to
people who most of the time weren’t listening. I really felt I was a woman with a mission.’
honed collection of songs by writers including Lucinda Williams and Leonard Cohen. sits comfortably and confidently among the work of today‘s ‘New Country' artists and singer- songwriters.
As for the current American boom in mainstream country. Harris regards it with a considerable amount of scepticism. ‘There’s a general kind ofcloning mentality that seems to be taking over the record companies and the radio.‘ she explains. ‘So you have Garth Brooks. who is extraordinarily talented — and then you have ten Garth Brooks clones. instead of Garth Brooks and ten other artists who each have their own style. Because of the success of country music just now. if you don‘t have a Top 5 hit with your second single. you‘re dropped — which is the normal process. I‘m not singling ottt country. it happens with any kind of music that becomes enormously popular. lt‘sjust bothersome when you know there are a lot of exciting things happening. exciting artists out there. but they‘re not getting heard, because what they do doesn't fit a certain very narrow play format. Look at Steve Earle. Lyle Lovett. Nanci. all these people who went on to worldwide acclaim. and country music — it didn‘t even close the door in their faces. because it hadn't bothered to open the door in the first place. kd lang is another example. one of the most respected singers in the world right now. and she came to country first. but they didn‘t listen to the songs. to the voice. all they could look at was the hair and the clothes. it’s just absurd. I don‘t want to come on like some kind of sour grapes person. it’s not that I’m saying oh. they don’t play me. so they can’t know what they‘re doing, it’s wanting the music to be as full as it can be.‘ 'J Emmy/oil Harris and the Nash Ramblers play the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on May 30. Cotvgirl ’s Prayer is available on Grapevine Records.
The List 20 May—2 June 1994 7