- 02 Apr 21
Happy 74th Birthday, Emmylou! To celebrate, we're revisiting her classic interview with Petter Murphy – originally published in Hot Press in 1997.
Although arguably the outstanding female country artist of her generation, Emmylou Harris has always distanced herself from the Nashville mainstream. From early recordings with Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan through to her most recent Daniel Lanois-produced album Wrecking Ball, her work has been characterised by a maverick spirit and real fire in the belly. PETER MURPHY caught up with her in Dublin.
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Here's the scene. You're sitting in the lounge/reception area of Bewley's Hotel preparing for an interview with the legendary Emmylou Harris when you're introduced to Phil Kaufman, the singer's road manager of twenty years and one-time friend/minder of the equally legendary Gram Parsons.
In the summer of 1973 Parsons and Kaufman made a pact to ensure that whoever was to die first, the other would take the body into the desert and burn it instead of having one of those cry-baby funerals. The 26-year-old Parsons died two months later, burnt out from drugs and alcohol abuse. Kaufman kept his part of the bargain, stealing Gram s casketed body from an airport and taking it to the desert. He poured five gallons of 5-Star over the remains, torched them and then scattered the ashes at a natural monument near the Joshua Tree called Cap Rock. Police charged the road manager with stealing a casket. They said the body had no value.
This yarn is, of course, part of rock n roll lore, up there with the myth of Keith Richards having all his blood changed in a Swiss clinic and Johnny Cash's near-death at the hands (or beak, rather) of an emu. Thing is, what do you say to the man who cremated Gram Parsons? Nice one Phil, gotta light? Or do you slyly hum a bar of two of 'Firestarter'? As it happens, the man in question is preoccupied. "Three pounds!" he exclaims, checking the prices displayed on a cigarette vending machine. "That's five dollars! For a pack of cigarettes!" You merely nod and tut-tut at the extortionate price of, erm, smokes. Phil continues shaking his head and muses on the effect the tobacco-hawkers on Henry Street must be having on the retailers. Strange. I would've expected a dyed-in-the-beard honky-tonk outlaw to side with the baccy-rats. But then country folk have always had a better- developed sense of community than their counterparts in the pop world.
Anyway, I'm still waiting for Emmylou, and if that sounds like some surreal Sam Shepard rewrite of a Beckett play, well, that's what it feels like too. Emmylou, born almost half a century ago into an airforce family. Emmylou, who was so smitten by folk music as a teenager that she once sent Pete Seeger a fourteen-page letter asking him for advice on songwriting and performing. Emmylou, who wanted to be an actress, went to drama school and supported herself by singing in bars until one night in Washington in 1970 the young Gram Parsons (already flush with the success of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers) dropped by to sit in on a couple of tunes with her.
Parsons subsequently invited her out to California to sing on the albums GP and Grievous Angel, two titles that would, in time, come to define country-rock. Laden with songs of the calibre of 'Love Hurts' and 'Hearts On Fire', these recordings would have a seismic impact on everyone from The Stones to Steve Earle right through to Bobby Gillespie and Evan Dando. In 1975 Emmylou released her first solo album Pieces Of The Sky. A year later she found herself wrapped up in the travelling circus sessions for Bob Dylan's Desire album. Fucked that up, you can hear her groan at the end of 'Oh Sister'. Dylan, typically, let the remark and the take stand as they were.
As the Seventies progressed, albums like Luxury Liner and Roses In The Snow cemented the beginning of a twenty year relationship with Nashville that would see Emmylou inducted into the Grand Ole Opry but somehow still remain outside the more conservative boundaries of that institution. Often hailed as the queen of New Country, she has always aligned herself with the mavericks and kept her distance from the glitzier aspects of the establishment.
In 1995 the then 48-year-old, thrice-divorced mother-of-two made the most daring, and probably best album of her career. Produced by Daniel Lanois and featuring contributions from no less than Neil Young and Larry Mullen, Wrecking Ball combined spellbinding soundscapes, songs to die for (courtesy of Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Lanois himself) and That Voice. Capable of conveying a sense of almost metaphysical suffering, Emmylou Harris is blessed with the vocal powers of a drunken angel. And at last she was equally served by the musicians, the material and the producer.Unbelievably (or perhaps not) mainstream country circles didn't get that album, labelling it too experimental for their tastes. Nevertheless Wrecking Ball deserves to be included alongside Patti Smith's Gone Again and Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels as one of the great healing records, a musical poultice for psychic scar tissue.
Back in Bewley's Hotel, the room is getting crowded. You're jostling and joshing with members of Harris band Spyboy (featuring a New Orleans rhythm section that's amongst the best you've ever seen, anywhere) who are enjoying a rare day-off on their European tour. Emmylou arrives and the room empties. You break the ice by asking after her health. She explains that a bout of food poisoning has left her unable to palate anything but the blandest fare. She's a gracious, soft-spoken woman, grey, gaunt and quite beautiful, cool eyes peering out over the top of her purple-rimmed glasses. She asks one of the crew-members to fetch her a ginger-ale and you begin.
Your father was a marine pilot. Did all that moving around give you itchy feet from an early age?
Well you know it's funny, we actually didn't move very much for a service family, but there was never any place that I really thought of as the old home place except perhaps my grandparents place down in Alabama that we would go to on vacations. But there was a sense of carrying your home around with you. We were a very close family and wherever we pitched our tent that was home, it was okay because we all had each other. I think it really kinda grounded me and made me very adaptable. Maybe my road manager wouldn't say so when I get grumpy in the middle of the week over something, but for the most part I've got pretty good road chops. I think it teaches you that home is really where the heart is, with the people that you love, and that it doesn't have to be a particular place, although I suppose at some point I longed for that. I've lived in Nashville for nearly fourteen years and I like it there okay, but I don't feel a terrible attachment to it. My mother and one of my daughters is living with me there now but that could all change tomorrow and I would probably very happily go off someplace else. There's no piece of earth on the planet that . . .
Has your name on it?
Besides my tombstone!
Referring to the time you wrote that letter to Pete Seeger you once commented 'I had no credentials. I hadn't suffered.' Is it really necessary to suffer in order to sing?
The blues? (laughs) Well country is white man's blues really. Country and bluegrass I guess. I think that you do have to have a certain depth of experience in order to sing with any credibility. I think ultimately we're probably born with a sense of future suffering. I think we're aware of it, like some kind of primal memory, and the older we get and the more we go through the more it reveals itself to us.
I read in one of your interviews that you have something of a problem with chirpy songs.
Well, may I quote the late great Townes Van Zant which was so odd that the name of one of his albums was The Late Great . . . (Van Zant died on the first of January this year P.M.), he said, 'There are two kinds of music, there's the blues and there's Zippity Doo-Da,' and Zippity Doo-Da I suppose has its place once in a while, but I think ultimately the only music worth really singing is songs that deal with that deep dark side, because even when you re experiencing great happiness, somehow you know that there's something just around the corner. On the other hand there s the flipside Ralph Stanley sings The darkest hour is just before dawn. And so we sort of carry on, don't we? We look for those moments of great joy that are going to balance out those times of terrible sorrow and everything in between. I think you just have to go along for the ride with as much of your sense of humour and humanity intact as possible.
Did you know Townes Van Zant?
You know, I feel like I knew him through his music and through mutual friends. I met Townes years ago briefly in New York City he was a great friend of Jerry Jeff Walker's who was singing and playing in the clubs the same time as I was back in the late Sixties. Townes came up from Texas and did some shows at Gurdy's Folk City where I was also, and I really thought I was seeing the ghost of Hank Williams up there on stage. I mean, here was a man who was obviously cutting his own path down the lost highway, even as far back as then. His voice was extraordinary. But even as he got weaker physically there was still that wonderful mournful quality in his voice, and of course the poetry that came out of him just kept getting better and better.
I was very greatly influenced by the poetry that he brought to those country melodies. He fused folk and country together in way that I don't think anyone had ever done before and truly was the heir to the Luke The Drifter throne. Hank Williams talked more specifically about the common man whereas Townes got into real deep soul-searching territory with it, but still the melodies remained very accessible and his lyrics extremely poignant.
When you began working with Gram Parsons did you have any idea that the records you d make together would have such a major effect on both country and rock music?
I didn't even really know who Gram was. I was kind of this myopic folk singer and didn't really have a great sense of what was going on out there in rock n roll. I mean, I did a little bit, I don't want to oversimplify it too much, I was obviously a great fan of The Band and I sort of had heard of The Flying Burrito Brothers, sort of had heard of the name Gram Parsons. So it wasn't until I actually got right in the thick of working with him and touring with him that I figured out what a hell of a great singer he was. Extraordinary voice. But it was very subtle. A very interesting fragility to it. But I became so obsessed with country music and bringing country music to a whole other audience which is what he of course had been doing and the idea of 'Oh, this is great! We gotta go out an we gotta play this and we gotta get a band together!' I was just on fire with that poetry of country music that had kind of eluded me before.
I was acquainted with the Carter Family, but it was much more the mountain music and perhaps the Celtic thread that I was aware of. I didn't really get or understand what the big deal was with George Jones until after I worked with Gram and I started really singing that music and understanding the restraint, the passion that is in the restraint, the economy of phrasing, the economy of words and melody. That's just so powerful and beautiful but it appears to be very simple and people don t realise how difficult it is to do it well and to do it with soul. But I felt that what Gram was doing had enormous potential he was back with a solo career and he seemed so focused and that's why I suppose his death surprised me so much because I really didn't know how much trouble he had been in before and how much damage he had done to himself.
Your collaboration with Dylan on Desire would've pushed you further into the world of rock n roll.
There were a a lot of people who became interested initially in what I was doing because of the Gram connection and then other people because of the Dylan connection and some of them I think took a look and were still disinterested and others became interested and explored it and maybe went out and bought a George Jones record! I suppose the Dylan sessions might have appeared chaotic I really was so focused on trying to sing along with him. My job was to look at the words and watch him at the same time as the track was being cut. Obviously there were a lot of people playing at the same time but I think that Dylan's got method in his madness. I think he probably knew exactly what he was doing then, like a painter who throws it up on the canvas to see what s gonna come out. I never got a sense that anybody was very worried about anything.
In a way you've come full circle with that approach on Wrecking Ball, cutting a lot of the vocals live and so on. This must put you at odds with a lot of modern country music which has gotten very slick and over-produced.
A lot of music in general.
Do you think that Nashville has gotten any less conservative over the years?
It's probably less conservative politically but it's more conservative musically. I think it's lost a lot of its imagination and fire. I think maybe the two best country records out are Buddy Miller who ' on the road with me, his record Your Love And Other Lies has got a lot of that fire and live feel to it, and Steve Earle's Train A Comin', that was a great country/folk album. I mean, I was in on those sessions and I know how live those were. Steve is like, one take and you've got it. And he's right. He understands that if you've got it, don't mess with it. That's still one of my favourite records. And you won't hear anything like that in the States. You won't hear Townes Van Zant, you won't hear Steve Earle, you won t hear Lucinda Williams. You won t hear anything with any kind of raw, washed-in-the-blood power. Where is the spirit of the Carter family? They re nowhere to be found, it's not in country music anymore.
You do ally yourself with a lot of the outsiders don't you?
You respond to something, it's like feeling that sense of home. You find it in a song or in the way a person sings. The first time I saw Steve Earle was in a little club around the corner from my house. I went in and it said Steve Earle and the Dukes and I said 'God I don't know who this guy is but he's got a great name!'. It was Steve and a drummer and a bass player and he played 'The Devil's Right Hand' and I thought, 'Jesus Christ!' This is why you 'e in this business. To just be able to come across somebody singin' a song like that. You wait for those moments. And then there are dry spells but you just gotta trust that eventually you're gonna be able to hear something like that. And then Lucinda, she is just an extraordinary writer. She writes my whole life. I don t think she s ever written anything where I didn't say 'This is me!' She's been spying on me!
Did becoming a mother change your attitude to writing and performing at all?
No it didn't. It probably should have but it didn't. I think that parent/child relationship does suffer when you're in the music business. I made a lot of mistakes with my first daughter. Fortunately I had two very wonderful parents who were there and willing to pretty much take up the slack when I was not able to give her my literal presence in her life. She was pretty much raised by them. I'm really lucky in that she lives in Nashville now and we're great friends. We see each other every day. So it ' like we've got a second chance at a life together. But you just have to learn to balance a little more with your time.
When my youngest came along I made a conscious effort to limit my touring. Because of the nature of the custody agreement with the father and I, he had her in the summer and I had her during school year so I only toured during summer and I was pretty much able to stick to that. And her father and I have a good relationship so it can slide in and out. It wasn't this thing 'You have her back by . . .' It was the kind of thing where we could help each other with that, and so she grew up as a child of a broken home, but with it working as best it could with two very supportive parents who loved her very much and were very committed to parenting her.
I think it's really, really hard dealing with the change in the traditional home where one parent basically stays home and parents and the other works regardless of whether it's a man or woman. Maybe I'm just old fashioned but we're still trying to figure that out cos there's got to be a nurturer there. I don't think it matters whether it's the father or mother. Hopefully both of them can do it. It must be extraordinarily hard, in this day and time where it's so hard to support yourself and have kids, for a couple trying to raise a family and keep that centre and having to juggle daycare and stuff.
Country music seems to be one genre where the artists, particularly male, are willing to sing about domestic issues; family, divorce, infidelity, all that stuff. A lot of rock n roll is more preoccupied with being young and skinny and off its head.
Yeah, I guess you're right. I would think that Bruce Springsteen is the exception. On Human Touch or Lucky Town I get them confused there's a song called 'I Wish I Were Blind'. It's like a country song, like the Hank Williams of "Today I passed you on the street/And my heart fell at your feet, the idea of I wish I were blind when I see you with this other man". The pain of it. I think Springsteen deals with not specifically domestic issues but certainly there's a maturity in his writing.
I have always kinda thought that he was a country songwriter and he's got that very straight Everly Brothers-type phrasing, very elongated vowels. A very natural singer. The Ghost Of Tom Joad carries on from Nebraska, that was another kind of Luke The Drifter/Woody Guthrie picking-up-the-mantle-of-the-common-man folk song album, but it also had songs about relationships like 'My Father s House', that primordial swamp in there. It doesn't matter how good or bad a relationship you have with your father, there's sorrow in that song. Even when my father was still alive there was something about it, it was like a dream that I'd had that I didn't remember until I'd heard that song.
How's your relationship with the Country music industry at the moment?
I'm a part of the establishment just by virtue of being around so long, but I've never been influenced or pressured to do anything I didn't want to do as far as my own records are concerned. This idea that there's pressure is just such a lie. I mean, I know it's difficult, especially now for young artists comin' up, and if you don't have a hit single the first time out of the shoot they'll drop you, but there are plenty of small independent labels out there and if you have the fire in your belly you will find an audience. You might not sell a million, a million and a half records, but you can make your living. I just think ultimately that music is the most important thing.
At this point the press officer knocks to give me my second set of marching orders in as many minutes. I've been monopolising the talent, and BP Fallon's outside checking his watch and no doubt putting some obscure hex on me for eating into his allocated interview time. I collect my belongings, shake hands and leave the legend as she scouts out a clean ashtray and snatches a quick smoke.
Smoke. Isn t that where we came in?