Over the years, any number of articles have posited Emmylou Harris as a country renegade, which she truly was when she first picked up the torch of her friend and mentor, country-rock iconoclast Gram Parsons.
Such stories--including one in the August issue of Vogue--usually go on to note how long it took the Nashville music scene to accept Harris.
Tales of such adversity make for good copy. But at least one person says it wasn't actually like that.
"You know, that's really not true," Harris said by phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. "I don't know where that got started, because I was really accepted right off the bat without even trying to be accepted. I did an album ("Pieces of the Sky" in 1975) where I didn't have any idea what was going to happen with it, I started getting No. 1 country singles, and Nashville has always opened its arms to me. So I never had any resistance from Nashville."
She's feeling kind of cozy with the country bastion herself. She's lived there since the mid-'80s, is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and is president of the Country Music Foundation ("I'm sort of their cheerleader," is how she describes the job). These days, she's referred to as the First Lady of Country and the Godmother of the New Traditionalists, among other laudatory titles.
This still doesn't guarantee that everything goes exactly as she would have it. Her recent "Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman" is as beautiful a country album as one is likely to hear this decade, but it stalled at No. 32 on the country chart and dropped off entirely after 12 weeks.
It's enough to give one an achy, breaky heart.
The live album was her debut recording with her band of the last two years, the Nash Ramblers. She assembled the acoustic, bluegrass-steeped group after throat problems aggravated by singing over electric instruments caused her to disband her legendary Hot Band. For 15 years, the group had been a home for such monster players and future stars as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, James Burton and Albert Lee.
The Nash Ramblers more than live up to the challenge of following the Hot Band, playing with a near-magical empathy and skill. The group is made up of ex-Blue Grass Revival fiddle and mandolin player Sam Bush, onetime Burrito Brother Al Perkins, drummer Larry Atamanuik, guitarist Randy Stewart and bassist Mark Winchester, who recently replaced the group's original bassist, Roy Huskey Jr.
Backed by the mountain-stream purity of their strings and vocal harmonies, Harris has never sounded better than on the current album, which was recorded in concert last year at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
To Harris, it's no great secret why the album didn't chart well:
"The record company didn't think there were any singles on it. So there was very little airplay, because right now if you don't have a Top 40 radio hit, you just don't get played. It's selling well overseas, and it's doing well here, considering there hasn't been any airplay."
Although she differs with her label about the potential of the album's songs, she's not overly upset about the situation.
"I still don't know what a hit single is after all these years, though I certainly think that everything on the album is as good as anything I've heard on the radio. But I've managed to survive radio before, so I don't calculate my career or my success by radio."
She does have mixed feelings about the state of country radio.
"In one sense, I think it's really good now, because certainly the people who are having mainstream country success now, there's no question that they are country artists. I think there was a time a few years ago when what stations played was sort of a more watered-down pop music, which was neither fish nor fowl.
"But it seems to be there are artists that are sort of left of center, that are slightly different, that are pushing the envelope a little bit, who are getting left by the wayside. I'm speaking more of up-and-coming artists who really need that radio exposure to be known--I've already got a constituency out there. These new artists need a place to be heard.
"I think there's room for many different variations on the country-music theme. Growing up on the radio in the '60s, you get spoiled because you heard so many different types of music. I don't think there's a radio format that showcases that kind of taste, and I think there's a lot of people who have a more eclectic taste than is being represented by radio now."
Harris may be used to getting her share of hits and misses, and one gets the impression that any fretting she's done over the Ryman album's poor sales is on behalf of her band, which she is justly proud of.
"I'm really enjoying this lineup a lot," she said. "It's really helped me to be working in a slightly different territory. Even though I'm able to do all my old material with them, it feels fresh and new. I got a whole new lease on my music when I changed the band."
Unlike most live albums, which rehash an artist's old hits, the Ryman album contains a set of songs that are new to Harris, ranging from tunes by Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle to an Everly Brothers classic to songs with bluegrass titan Bill Monroe.
Some of the selections, Springsteen's "Mansion on the Hill," Nanci Griffith's "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" and Stephen Foster's 1850 "Hard Times," might seem a response to the hard times many Americans are indeed going through. Harris claims she wasn't using them to make a statement.
"The songs just happened to come my way," she said. "I've just got an ear for a song that rings true to me, whether it's talking about a personal relationship or a broader relationship of people around the world. I can't really explain what my criteria is, it's just what appeals to me. I don't think that I look for any particular type of song that has to deal with political things or whatever.
"Politics baffle me. It scares me a little bit, and I tend to want to keep my politics private. But I do believe that music can help people, just with their own everyday problems, fears, anxieties and pains. A song sometimes can give you some kind of comfort even if it's just bringing you face to face with what you're having to deal with. It's been helpful to me, music has.
"In that sense, I suppose my music becomes political, but not to deal with particular issues; to me, it needs more of a universal meaning. Like 'Hard Times' is just basically about people having to struggle. That song was written over a hundred years ago. It's a never-ending battle, but it's one that we can't abandon just because it's always going to be with us. I think you have to try to help people in whatever way you can."
The Alabama-born singer, 44, began her career singing in folk music clubs in the Washington, D.C., area. Initially, when she'd venture a country song, it would be with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
"This was when I first started out doing folk music, and I really didn't understand the heart and soul of country music. I didn't understand that until I met up with Gram Parsons."
Parsons, who died of drug-related causes in 1973, led the Byrds into country music in 1968 and the following year formed the barrier-breaking country-rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers. The singer heard Harris perform in a club and enlisted her to join his band and sing on his "GP" and "Grevious Angel" solo albums. He is largely credited with bringing a much-needed honesty, introspection and rock sensibility to country. Some of Harris' best songs, "Boulder to Birmingham" and those on the concept album "The Ballad of Sally Rose," can be easily interpreted as being about Parsons.
She doesn't write many songs, and considers her best talent to be interpretation. She and Kieran Kane, formerly of the O'Kanes, have written a tune that may appear on her next disc. She's recorded six songs for that album but won't finish it until she is done touring in late September.
Harris typically tours in the summer, so she can be in Nashville during the school year. She has two daughters from different marriages. Harris and her husband, songwriter Paul Kennerley, are separated.
Harris feels she's missed some things by adopting the musician's touring life but can't foresee giving it up.
"Having this new excitement about music with the Nash Ramblers has sort of catapulted me into a whole frenzy of what I feel is creative energy. Sometimes you feel that 'I've just been doing one thing all my life. Maybe I should try something else.' But when you have something that you feel is a gift and that you're good at, and maybe it's something that's helpful to other people and also something you get a lot out of yourself, maybe you should stick with it."
Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers play Monday at 7 and 10 p.m. at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow, Santa Ana. Both shows are sold out. (714) 549-1512.