Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HARRIS, Emmylou

(b 2 April 1949, Birmingham AL) Singer, bandleader; the queen of country rock: she has been the most successful of many artists bringing country values and sounds to good songs from every genre, raising country out of the ghetto of minority musics. She began as a folksinger covering Joni Mitchell songs in NYC '67; her first album Gliding Bird '69 on Jubilee didn't sell (with orchestral arrangements by Ray Ellis); anyway the label folded. She was singing in clubs when she was discovered by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman; she sang with Parsons on GP '73 and Grievous Angel '74; the symmetry of their work together is best demonstrated on Gram Parsons And The Fallen Angels Live 1973 (issued '82), notably on 'Love Hurts'.

After Parsons's death '73 she emerged virtually singlehandedly blazing the way for a whole genre: her enchanting proper debut Pieces Of The Sky '75 included a tribute to him, 'From Boulder To Birmingham', covers of the Beatles' 'For No One', Shel Silverstein's 'Queen Of The Silver Dollar', Dolly Parton's 'Coat Of Many Colors'; also songs by C&W stars Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers.

She has continued pulling her material from wherever she likes and making it her own, also guesting on countless albums including Bob Dylan's Desire '75. Her Elite Hotel '76 included songs by Hank Williams, Don Gibson, Buck Owens, Lennon and McCartney, Parsons/Hillman, Rodney Crowell; she was also co-writing songs with Crowell and others; the band included James Burton, Glenn D. Hardin on keyboards, fiddler/mandolinist Byron Berline, other first-class talent. By the time of Luxury Liner she was fronting the aptly named Hot Band, with Crowell, Albert Lee, Ricky Scaggs; the album included 'Poncho And Lefty' by Townes Van Zandt, 'C'est La Vie' by Chuck Berry. Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town '78 included guests Willie Nelson, the Band's Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, an exemplary set including 'Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight' by Crowell and Donivan Cowart (she guested on Crowell's sessions).

Strong rumours at the time of a joint album by Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Parton were stalled by their guest appearances on Blue Kentucky Girl '79. By the end of the decade she was obviously one of those artists whose work will be celebrated for decades to come: vocally she used all of the traditional techniques in country music with consummate skill -- the catch in the voice, the sob in the bending of a note -- yet every album reached high in the pop LP chart (Luxury Liner reaching no. 21). Roses In The Snow '80 included a cover of Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Boxer'; Light In The Stable '80 was an Xmas album; Evangeline '81 was predictably charming, but her performance of Robbie Robertson's title song with the Band in a sequence specially shot for The Last Waltz '78 (film and three-disc set) was even better. Cimarron '81 was inspired, including Bruce Springsteen's 'The Price You Pay'; also work by Paul Kennerley, on whose concept album The Legend Of Jesse James '80 she guested. Live album Last Dance was a nice souvenir. In '75--6 she had two entries in the Hot 100 singles chart (a cover of the old Chordettes hit 'Mr Sandman' from Evangeline made the top 40 '81), but greater singles success was found in the country chart; her duet with John Denver 'Wild Montana Skies' was no. 14 '83; three hits in the top 30 '84 included top ten covers of the Johnny Ace '55 hit 'Pledging My Love', Kennerley's beautiful 'In My Dreams', both no. 9, both from album White Shoes '83: the usual stellar cast included T-Bone Burnett and Bonnie Bramlett; other standout tracks included the title song by Jack Tempchin, Donna Summer's 'On The Radio', and a fascinating rework of 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend': the old Jule Styne chestnut was slowed down into erotic cynicism, effectively creating a new song (reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt's '79 rework of 'The Boy Can't Help It', originally Little Richard's hit 'The Girl Can't Help It').

The Ballad Of Sally Rose '85 was a concept album co-written/produced with her by Kennerley, including Waylon Jennings, Parton, Ronstadt, ace session drummer Russ Kunkel, many others. (She married Kennerley '85, divorced '92.) 13 '86 included a cover of Springsteen's 'My Father's House', carrying on one of the most successful series of albums in American white popular music. The long-awaited set with Parton and Ronstadt was worth waiting for; they joked about calling it the Queenston Trio, then Twisted Sisters; the beautiful Trio '87 was a top five country album including hit single 'Telling Me Lies' (co-written by Linda Thompson and Betsy Cook). She also trio'd with the Judds on a lovely track 'The Sweetest Gift'. She duetted with Earl Thomas Conley on 'We Believe In Happy Endings' '88 for a no. 1 country hit. Her album Angel Band '87 was followed by Bluebird '89 (including her last major chart hit, 'Heartbreak Hill') and Brand New Dance '90; Duets was a compilation and there have been two best-ofs called Profile. Live At The Ryman '92 was a low-key album, with a new acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers (Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass, Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, Al Perkins on dobro, banjo and guitar, Jon Randall Stewart on banjo and guitar and Larry Attamanuik on drums); this was a return to country basics but didn't sell, and was followed by a switch to Asylum, away from Warner Brothers after 20 years: she had outlasted all her friends there, and John Condon at Asylum wanted to look after her. (WB put out a compilation Songs Of The West, a marketing exercise.)

Cowgirl's Prayer '93 was a return to form; then she adopted an electric trio (Daryl Johnson, bass; Buddy Miller, lead guitar; Brady Blade, drums), and Wrecking Ball '95 won a Grammy as best contemporary folk album, produced by Daniel Lanois and in some ways a change of direction: a harrowing set of grown-up melancholia, with explicit yet ambiguous religious innuendos (Dylan's 'Every Grain Of Sand', Gillian Welch's 'Orphan Girl'), with backup from Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the McGarrigle Sisters, most singing harmony on her versions of their songs; other writers included Jimi Hendrix and Julie Miller, plus two Harris co-authors: 'Deeper Well' with Lanois and 'Waltz Across Texas Tonight' with Crowell, her first collaboration with him in 20 years. Some of her old fans professed to dislike Wrecking Ball, but once again she had put together a set of songs from every part of the wood that all go together; when Lanois left the Wrecking Ball tour, he was replaced by songwriter/guitarist Buddy Miller, whose Your Love And Other Lies '95 was highly rated. Portraits '96 on Reprise was a three-CD Emmylou compilation, '74-92 tracks including six previously unreleased.

Old Yellow Moon (2013) and The Traveling Kind (2015) were gorgeous duet albums with Crowell: they had always loved singing together and finally made it legal. By then she had 13 Grammies and he was a Grammy-winning songwriter, having had songs covered by everyone from Van Morrison to the Grateful Dead.