It's inevitable that eventually Emmylou Harris will be regarded as a grand dame of country music instead of one of its freshest young voices. But after more than two decades in country, much of that time as its reigning queen, Harris' music still seems as fresh as ever.
Her changes in musical direction haven't been nearly as overt as her pal Linda Ronstadt's, but Harris has nonetheless steered her talents in a number of challenging directions. She first attracted attention in the early '70s (after an independently released 1969 solo album went ignored) working with country iconoclast Gram Parsons until his death in 1973. Her 1975 "Pieces of the Sky" album was far closer in spirit to Parsons' pioneering country-rock sensibility than to the Nashville music machine, yet won over enough listeners to go to No. 1 on the country charts.
Harris' Hot Band was similarly persuasive, performing with such fire and excellence that old-line country fans scarcely noticed what upstarts they also were. Along with having boasted such talents as James Burton and Albert Lee, the group was an incubator for fresh muses Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs.
From that powerful base, Harris has assayed more traditional styles, the highlight being 1980's bluegrass-heavy "Roses in the Snow." In other directions, she's recorded everything from Bruce Springsteen and Donna Summer songs to classic pop tunes such as "How High the Moon." The semi-autobiographical 1985 album "The Ballad of Sally Rose," all co-written by Harris and British songwriter Paul Kennerley (now her husband of six years), was one of the most ambitious song cycles country music has produced. Her gospel-oriented "Angel Band" album of 1987, meanwhile, achieved its musical intimacy by being recorded in Harris' living room.
Harris owes her latest endeavor, in part, to some microbes. Speaking by phone Tuesday from Tucson, Harris, 43, explained that she disbanded the Hot Band two years ago because of persistent throat problems.
"I thought it might have been due to singing over electric instruments, but it turned out to be a viral bronchitis and probably had nothing to do with that. But I felt like a quieter sound would help me. And I think psychologically, I was starting to feel it was either time to quit entirely or try something entirely different."
What she's been trying since last year is the Nash Ramblers, a band she assembled from some of the finest acoustic players in country. Harris and the band perform tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. The group comprises mandolin and fiddle player Sam Bush, Dobro player Al Perkins, guitarist Jon Randall Stewart, acoustic bassist Roy Huskey Jr. and drummer Larry Atamanuik.
After she disbanded the Hot Band, Harris said, "I really didn't know what I was looking for. I'd never really put a band together this way. With the Hot Band, I inherited a band that Gram had put together, where this was starting from scratch and hoping everything would work out. And it has beyond my wildest dreams, really. It's wonderful for me to see this becoming a band . They're all great players, but now they're coming up with a real band style of their own.
"Sometimes in good bands forming, I think it's all serendipity. It's just the right players being there at the right time and forming this wonderful unit. Right at the time I started looking, the New Grass Revival broke up, which made Sam Bush available. (Ex-Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas member) Al Perkins had recently moved to Nashville and was an old friend. Then the rest of it fell together."
Harris has worked in acoustic formats before, notably on "Roses in the Snow" but says the Nash Ramblers isn't simply a bluegrass outfit.
"It is that, but it's a real hard-driving band," she said. "I don't feel that any of the energy or excitement of the Hot Band has been sacrificed by going to acoustic instruments."
While it was hard for her to part with the Hot Band, it would have been harder still, she said, "except we're all still friends. . . . We're really almost family."
The Nash Ramblers hadn't rolled off the assembly line yet when Harris recorded her current "Brand New Dance" album last year. They have just recorded a new album with her, though: a live set taped at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the home for 30 years of the Grand Ole Opry. The album is due in January.
Like 1982's "Last Date" concert album, the set isn't just a live hits package, but a collection of songs Harris hadn't tackled before. In selecting them, she said, "I wanted the songs to be either very familiar or vaguely familiar to audiences. We did a Stephen Foster song, 'Hard Times Come Again No More,' on up to Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen songs, three by Bill Monroe, as well as the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams, of course."
While other country singers grouse about the dearth of good songs these days, Harris never seems to be at a loss for finding ones she's able to put her feelings into.
She said, "So far--knock on wood--I've never had any trouble. We just recorded 17 songs for the live album, and I've already started planning the next album. I've got a whole bunch of things that I'm pretty excited about going in the studio with.
"Music is so much a part of my life--it isn't like I have a whole lot of outside interests--and so I listen to music all the time. And all my friends are musicians and songwriters, and there's a constant exchange of 'Have you heard this?' "
Harris also looks farther afield for her songs than most country acts do. Her musical enthusiasm encompasses Springsteen--she's now recorded five of his songs--and Richard and Linda Thompson. It was Harris who brought Linda Thompson's "Telling Me Lies" to the 1987 "Trio" album she recorded with Ronstadt and Dolly Parton.
With the exception of "Sally Rose," Harris has never been a prolific writer, but her offerings have been particularly scarce of late.
"I've been toying with a few ideas. I finished a few things that I'm not sure if I like yet. If I get an idea I feel is strong, then I pursue it, but I don't feel a lot of pressure to write. Right now there's so many good songs I get excited about that come completely intact and finished that it's very easy to procrastinate."
Harris has reached a level of success where she doesn't need to follow the grueling year-round road schedules many country acts keep. Instead, she doubles up on the gruel during the summer months so she can be at home during the school year. Despite all that is said about the difficulties of the musical life, Harris thinks she has it easy compared to most working mothers.
"Anyone who's trying to raise a family and is holding down a job, I think it's pretty hard for them. I think I may have it pretty easy because in the summer my youngest daughter is with her father, who I'm divorced from, so I wouldn't be with her anyway. My oldest daughter is 21. She's in school, working, and is looking to get her own place. She comes out and sees me on the road during the summer whenever she wants. And the rest of the year I can plan a fairly normal schedule where my hours can coincide with my youngest daughter's school hours. I'm there at meal times to cook."
Such a schedule is a luxury Harris didn't have when she, as a mother with a young daughter, made the difficult decision to pursue a musical career two decades ago.
"Whether it was right or wrong," she said, "I pretty much committed myself to music. My parents were there to pick up the slack and be surrogate parents to my oldest child. And I really did miss her growing up. I did, and that is something I can't change and will never be able to retrieve. I regret that I didn't have those years with her. Fortunately, in her mid-teens she came back to live with me. We got a second chance, and we're building a relationship now. It's what I've got and I'm grateful for it."
Her main interest outside of music, she said, is "being a homemaker, which I really enjoy. I don't really have any other outside interests that take me skiing or boating or anything like that.
"Really, I suppose, I'm sort of happy. It sounds very boring, but I'm actually very happy with the way things are now, with my life and the way this band is going. It's all very exciting to me."
* Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers play at 8 and 10:30 p.m. tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $29.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.