IN A SENSE, THERE WERE NO EXPECTATIONS,WHICH IS A GREAT THING FOR THE CREATIVE PROCESS. Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris dropped out of college in North Carolina to become a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the ’60s. She crossed over into country music in her duet work singing with Gram Parsons in the early ’70s, and merged country with rock in the mid-’70s with her lustrous, down-home singing style. Nevertheless, Harris hewed closely to her country roots throughout the ’80s, racking up country Grammy after Grammy. On the 1987 album Trio, she teamed up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to sing a roster of country laments; the three posed against a corral fence on the cover. It went platinum and accrued a number of hit country singles. It seemed that Harris’s coronation as a sweetheart of the rodeo was complete.
In 1995, however, Harris teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois, the man behind highly regarded albums for U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan, to make Wrecking Ball, a record that defies categorization even as it breaks your heart. “A grand experiment,” Harris calls it in Building the Wrecking Ball, a warm and shaggy documentary about the making of the album in Kingsway Studio, a house in New Orleans where instruments covered the chairs and pool tables and people like Neil Young and the McGarrigle sisters dropped by to create a new sound with an old, old soul. A critical hit of the ’90s, the crossover/genre-blending transformed Harris from country star to alt-rock heroine. This month, Wrecking Ball is being re-released along with a bonus disc of music and the original documentary.
Crystalline when singing solo, tenderly combustive in duets and trios, Harris has worked with a wide range of music-makers: Roy Orbison, Bright Eyes, Mark Knopfler, the Pretenders, and Sheryl Crow. She’s won 13 Grammys and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She also runs a dog retreat in Nashville. In other words, at age 67, Harris rules the galaxy. So graceful a queen is she that it’s easy to miss the fact that she’s been as independent as Bob Dylan in ignoring musical categories. As she remarks in the documentary, “We’re in a country, so all records are country records, in a way.” It’s a country that she’s ranged over many times in her career as a self-described “touring junkie.” Her most American quality may be that lonesome wanderer in her. Under every note seems to be a well of homesickness so deep you can’t see to the bottom of it. She brings the sound of that sublime longing to every song, duet, and collaboration she’s done. She’s a deepener by art and trade.
Ironic, then, that I was in Paris when I called Emmylou in Nashville. From this most carefully curated city, the wildflower mix of qualities in her voice—a little bit of the South, a little bit of the West, fast in tempo, inclined to enthusiasm—stood out even more distinctly. It sounded like home.
STACEY D’ERASMO: What made you decide to re-release Wrecking Ball now?
EMMYLOU HARRIS: We’ve been talking about it for a while. When it first came out, I think it took a lot of people by surprise. Perhaps even the record company at the time didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t even know where to put it in record stores. It was kind of a thing of, “Well, she’s a country artist, do we rack it in country?” Country radio hadn’t really been playing me at that point. I had had a good run with that, in my other life. It was almost like you had to decide what you were back then. [Country musician] Rodney Crowell and I joke about the fact that we were Americana before they had a name for it. We were just out there in left field. The record really didn’t get any airplay, and yet it found an audience, I think out of curiosity—first of all because Daniel Lanois has a certain mystique and obviously an amazing credibility with his success with U2 and Peter Gabriel. Some of my fans loved it and some of them were completely confused. I don’t know if I would say we were ahead of our time, but it had a real life because the street found it, for lack of a better word. The re-release is also a chance for people to see the video we shot when we recorded the album, which I think is wonderful.
D’ERASMO: It’s fantastic. It’s a great glimpse into what it is to really make music. You’re even smoking in one scene.
HARRIS: It’s so organic. It’s a real documentary of the making of a record. When you see Neil Young singing on “Sweet Old World,” that’s actually what is on the record. It wasn’t done later. The thing is, nobody was really paying attention to us when we were recording. We were being left to our own devices to make this record. In a sense, there were no expectations, which is a great thing for the creative process.
D’ERASMO: What is it like to revisit the record now, both musically and personally? When I was looking at the documentary, one of the things that stuck out is that you recorded it in Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, 10 years before Katrina. It’s like it comes from a city that doesn’t exist anymore. Kate McGarrigle, who has since died, comes into town with her sister, Anna, to record “Goin’ Back to Harlan.” What is it like to go back to that moment, and that breakthrough?
HARRIS: Of course, a great loss for me was Kate, such a great friend and inspiration. She and I were the same age, and it does make you focus on your own mortality. You get to a certain age when that becomes something that colors your life. You don’t obsess over it, but it is something that you’re more aware of, perhaps, than you were 30 years ago.
D’ERASMO: Many things must have happened to you since the making of Wrecking Ball.
HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely. For me, Wrecking Ball was a watershed, if that’s the right word. Before that, I felt, especially at the record company, like I’d done my bit. I’m not really on the radio, but I still had my loyal fans, I was still able to make a living touring. But it had gotten to a point where the record I made just before it, Cowgirl’s Prayer in 1993, we put a lot of energy into it, and I was trying to be a good Girl Scout and give radio something they could play without compromising myself. Basically I was told, “You’re just not invited to this party anymore.”
D’ERASMO: Did they say why?
HARRIS: Not exactly. I was too old, I think.
D’ERASMO: Are you joking?
HARRIS: No. [laughs] If you reach the age of 40, it’s a young person’s world in the view of a lot of people. But I will say that there were some good people at the company [Elektra] who were disappointed with the reaction to Cowgirl’s Prayer. They came to me and said, “Listen, we’ve done our best, we don’t know what to do. Who would you like to work with?” I had become a huge fan of Daniel’s first solo record and the record Oh Mercy  that he’d done with Bob Dylan. Phone calls were made, and the next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with Daniel, and we just decided to make a record. Once again, it’s that thing of low or no expectations and being given a free rein. I mean, I’ve always had that anyway, and there’s a certain fearlessness to Daniel’s work. The sounds and turbulent rhythms that he brought to these songs really inspired me.
D’ERASMO: I’m not a musician, but what I was noticing when I was listening to the album again is that it seems as if a lot of the songs, like “All My Tears,” have simple melodies, but there’s something that happens with the beat, with the percussion …
HARRIS: Those turbulent rhythms. [laughs]
D’ERASMO: It makes it very dark and very deep.
HARRIS: Yeah. That’s Daniel, and the people that he brought together. It wasn’t a huge band. It was Larry Mullen, Tony Hall, Daniel, Malcolm [Burn], and myself. People think the more you put on a record, the more exciting and emotional it’s going to be. Sometimes I think that works, but for me, what they did leaves more room for vocal interpretation, and what I was hearing was so inspiring that I think it raised the bar for me.
D’ERASMO: The record is killer. I was almost coming undone listening to it again. You’ve said it’s a very emotional record. Why was it particularly emotional for you?
HARRIS: I think it was a certain time in my life. My father had died the year before. A few years earlier I had a divorce, I was living alone, except my mother had come to live with me. I was just going through a lot of changes. I’ve always lived through music and expressed myself through music. I chose “All My Tears” because I had sung on Julie Miller’s version of that song, so I was aware of it. “Orphan Girl,” I loved. I had met [singer-songwriter] Gillian Welch. And I had heard Kate and Anna perform “Goin’ Back to Harlan” a few years earlier, and just absolutely loved the way they did that song. It evoked something in me. At our first meeting, Dan gave me a huge book of Dylan songs. Malcolm suggested “Every Grain of Sand” and he also brought Neil Young’s “Wrecking Ball.”
D’ERASMO: It feels like a hungry ghost record. In the songs, there are so many hauntings, suicides, meetings that are never going to happen again. It’s heartbreaking.
HARRIS: I was asked to sing on Steve Earle’s record [Train a Comin’, 1995], the first one he made after getting out of prison and kicking drugs. I came in and sang on something, and he dropped the finished record in my mailbox. I came across “Goodbye,” and I played it, and played it, and played it, and played it, and I just couldn’t believe how beautiful and deeply moving this song was. I think Dan understands how certain things that seem really simple are actually incredibly important to the emotional impact of the song. So Dan brought Steve in to play on that. When that worked out really well, and we wanted to do “Sweet Old World,” I was doing it more like an anthem, and Dan heard something different. He said, “I want to bring Lucinda [Williams] in and play on that.” We slowed it way down, even to the point where I needed to change the key to find that sweet spot. I think we raised it up, and it made the song even more vulnerable.
D’ERASMO: Yeah, it’s a killer.
HARRIS: It’s talking about suicide, but it’s also a love song to the world. There’s nothing sentimental about it. With other writers, it could become bathos. She dodges that bullet every single time. She goes to that place that every good writer aims for: the truth.
D’ERASMO: I was also curious, there’s something you say in the documentary: “F is the key of love.” What does that mean?
HARRIS: Oh, that’s just a bawdy joke. You know, the F-word. That’s from Rose Maddox, that wonderful bluegrass, old-time country singer who passed away some time ago. Before she died, I did a few shows with her. She’d get up and say, “Okay, boys,” she would name a song, and she’d say, “It’s in F, the key of love!” [laughs] A tip of the hat to dear Rose Maddox.
D’ERASMO: I know that you’re famous for your collaborations—with Beck, Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, obviously Gram Parsons, and the McGarrigle sisters. The range is astonishing. But I wondered how you would describe the quality that you bring to these collaborations. Whenever I hear you do something or collaborate with people, the song is transformed. The way that you sing “Wrecking Ball” is utterly different from the way Neil Young sings it, and then when you sing it together, it’s this wonderful other thing on its own. What do you think you bring to these duets and reinterpretations?
HARRIS: It’s not something that you think about. You have the voice that you have. I’m an untrained, unschooled harmony singer. I don’t really know what it means when somebody says, “I need you to do the high baritone,” or something like that. In duet singing, you have every note available to you, except for the lead. So, to me, the voice is always just another melody. It’s like a dance. You’re following someone else’s lead, and you just hope for the best.
I DO FEEL A LITTLE EMBARRASSED AND ASHAMED THAT I WAS SORT OF SAYING, ‘OH,YES,I USED TO DO COUNTRY MUSIC, BUT I DIDN’T INHALE.’ WHICH IS NOT TRUE AT ALL. I INHALED THE HELL OUT OF COUNTRY MUSIC. Emmylou Harris
D’ERASMO: You don’t ever think you’re leading?
HARRIS: Oh, no, when you’re duet singing, you’re following. I think everyone’s voice is unique. Although sometimes when you listen to the radio, it makes you wonder. [laughs] A lot of stuff sounds the same to me. But in its purest form, the human voice—no one really sounds alike. When you combine another voice that is uniquely different in telling a story with a song, it’s always thrilling to me. Even when it’s siblings. Of course, Kate and Anna had that beautiful sibling sound, but I can always tell when Kate is singing and when Anna’s singing. The same with Don and Phil Everly, and the Louvin Brothers, and so many sibling sounds. But there’s something about two completely disparate voices, and a man and a woman singing. Of course, that’s what I count as my musical beginnings with Gram. Singing harmony with him, and singing country, makes you do a very pure allegiance to the melody. Nobody’s interested in going off into the stratosphere and seeing what acrobatics you can do. Which is good for me, because it’s not like I won’t let myself do those things—I’m unable to do those things.
D’ERASMO: In ’95, you had to do a lot of explaining about crossing musical boundaries and blending genres. Do you feel you still have to explain that?
HARRIS: No, I don’t have to do that anymore. But I do feel a little embarrassed and ashamed that I was sort of saying, “Oh, yes, I used to do country music, but I didn’t inhale.” Which is not true at all. I inhaled the hell out of country music.
D’ERASMO: What quality in country do you think you inhaled particularly?
HARRIS: That simplicity and that loyalty to the melody. Simplicity can intensify the emotion. When you’re just singing a beautiful melody with a story that’s true to the heart, you don’t need a lot of embellishment. For me, it’s always about the song. It’s not about you; it’s not about anything else that’s going on. What you’re focusing on is to tell that story and to sing that melody.
D’ERASMO: I was struck in listening to Wrecking Ball, and it’s true in your other work, too, how many songs are in the voices of characters: “I am an orphan girl,” “My name is Emmett Till,” “I work the double shift.” It’s like these are souls telling their stories. I never think that any of these people are you, but somehow you must feel close to them to express them with so much heart.
HARRIS: A good song deals with the human condition, and the truth of the human condition. I mean, obviously in a song like “My Name is Emmett Till,” I’m telling this story in the first person, and I can absolutely never know what Emmett Till went through. But I can be touched as a human being. I really did feel like I was channeling that song, if I could be so bold as to say that, because I could never experience what it’s like to be black in this country. But what’s the point of being alive if we can’t feel connected to those around us?
D’ERASMO: It seems as if you’ve done more of your own writing in recent years. I’m wondering what that experience is like for you, since you’ve gotten such power and creative leaps from collaborating and interpreting.
HARRIS: I think I was intimidated early on, and I probably still am a little intimidated, because I’ve been fortunate enough to sing songs by great writers like Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan. After Wrecking Ball came out, Dan and Guy Clark said to me, “You need to write for your next record.” So I really cleared a path in my life. I left the road, which was very unusual for me. I left the record company, I left my management. I didn’t want anything pulling on me. During that time, I did other projects that weren’t my particular records. I did Teatro  with Willie Nelson, I put out the live record, Spyboy  with my band, and I was executive producer on Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons . But Red Dirt Girl  was the result of that different path. I still don’t write a lot. I managed to write for the Hard Bargain  record, but once again I cleared my schedule and didn’t do any touring or anything for three months.
D’ERASMO: Why do you like to tour so much?
HARRIS: Because I’m good at it. [laughs] And I love singing. The joy of singing live—I don’t think I will ever stop that. I get a lot of sleep on the bus. I bring two dogs with me, who keep me grounded. I guess that’s just in my soul. It’s good to know that you’re good at something. As long as you feel that you’re not repeating yourself, that you’ve got good new material, that you somehow make the old material shimmer. I’m not going out there and doing the same material every night. I have this amazing audience of fans who have been listening to me, some of them since 1975. Some of them are new, I think probably starting from Wrecking Ball. Also, I’m a working girl. I need the money. I do have a working dog rescue, which is not a money-making activity.
D’ERASMO: [laughs] No, but you will go to heaven.
HARRIS: I’m so grateful that I’m able to do something about this passion that I have for shelter animals. In a strange way, it completes me. It means so much to me and makes me feel like I’m truly making a difference. I really believe that we have a responsibility, almost a sacred responsibility, to the animals that share this planet with us.
D’ERASMO: When you finished Wrecking Ball, did you know that you had broken through? What did it feel like in those first weeks after finishing it?
HARRIS: As soon as we did the first track, I knew there was something going on. I wasn’t thinking in terms of success or radio play. As an artist, I was so thrilled. I was almost shaking with the sense that I couldn’t wait to play it with my musician friends. It wasn’t like showing off, it was like: this is music, this is what we do, this is what we’re all about. You look for those moments when you’re stirred, when you’re moved by something. You feel so blessed and grateful that the muse has shone down on you, that you were able to be a part of something that you knew was real and true, and it didn’t matter how other people reacted to it.
D’ERASMO: What song have you not been able to write that you would really like to write?
HARRIS: Boy, I don’t know. That’s a good question. Every song that I start to write, I wonder if I’ll be able to write it. Rodney and I have been writing over these last few weeks. We’ll just start with a melody and come up with an idea and talk about, well, what is this? It’s a daily thing. The Indians have a saying that the best way to catch a horse is to build a fence around it. I know there’s a horse there. Now I’ve got to start building that fence.
STACEY D’ERASMO IS A NEWYORK-BASED AUTHOR AND PROFESSOR AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. HER NOVEL WONDERLAND IS OUT IN MAY.