Listening Only to Herself

Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

Emmylou Harris has already canceled a concert in San Diego and a radio appearance on KCRW-FM because of a cold, and I'm nervous that our interview will be next to fall to this ill-timed wrecking ball.

Not knowing how long her voice will hold up backstage at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, I try to keep the conversation focused on the question of how she has been able to remain one of the few pop figures to consistently improve over the years--rather than coast or recycle her vintage work the way most veterans do.

I make the mistake, however, of mentioning that Johnny Cash has just recorded singer-songwriter David Olney's "Jerusalem Tomorrow," a tale of spiritual search that Harris sang on a 1993 album.

"That's great!" she declares. "Is it out yet? It's such a wonderful song and it's perfect for him. There's another song, Jamie O'Hara's '50,000 Names,' that I've been trying to get to Johnny.

"It's about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it's totally apolitical and nonjudgmental, a recital of all the things people leave at the wall. I sang harmony with Jamie at a concert marking the anniversary of the memorial, and it was probably the most cathartic experience I've ever had on stage. You could feel the way people were touched by the song."

Harris, 54, spends a good five minutes on the subject, and I'm fidgeting inside, worried that her voice is going to give out before we can get back to what it is that drives her as an artist.

The breakthrough in her latest album, "Red Dirt Girl," is that Harris, long acclaimed for her flawless interpretations of other people's songs, emerges as a first-class writer.

In the 2000 collection, she talks about life and loss as evocatively as the writers she has turned to over the years, including Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard. The album earned Harris her 10th Grammy, this one for best contemporary folk collection.

"Sorry," she says finally. "I didn't mean to digress."

Looking back 24 hours later, after a second interview with Harris, I realize that her spontaneous outburst explained the drive behind her artistry better than anything she could say.

There are no other secrets to pass on. An artist can talk about avoiding distractions, such as sales charts and image, but genuine artistic drive is indefinable. It's as natural as breathing for the few who have it. Asking them to explain the drive is like asking Mark McGwire how to hit a baseball 500 feet. It's simply them.

"It really is all about passion with her," says her road manager, Phil Kaufman, when I mention Harris' enthusiasm for the O'Hara song. "A lot of people lose their edge after awhile because they run out of ideas or get jaded or stick with the same thing because it works. But she is too driven by music to ever do that.

"She's only contracted each night to do 90 minutes, but she always does two hours. When she wasn't feeling well the other day, I pointed out that in 30 shows, that's 15 hours of singing that she doesn't have to do. She said, 'But I just love to sing. What else would I do with those 15 hours that could be more exciting?"'

Harris is widely heralded as the most gifted female vocal interpreter to come out of country music since Patsy Cline a half century ago. That promise was obvious when she arrived on the pop scene in 1975 with a pure, soulful, angelic voice that turned even the dingiest honky-tonk into a pop cathedral.

On her early albums, she brought a liberating freshness to country music, exhibiting the honky-tonk heartbreak of Tammy Wynette, the innocence of Dolly Parton and the wistful longing of the late Gram Parsons, her mentor.

She also showed exquisite taste in material, pushing the boundaries of country by recording music by such varied artists as Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt and Lennon-McCartney. Almost every great country or rock artist at the time--from Dylan and Young to Willie Nelson and the Band--fell under the spell of the Birmingham, Ala., native, and invited her to sing on albums or join them on tour.

If there's anything Harris has shown more of than talent and taste over the years, it's modesty. There's a quiet dignity about her both on stage and out of the spotlight. Despite her daring in her musical choices and her reputation for championing other artists, the gracious, soft-spoken Harris doesn't see herself as a heroine.

"I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, artistic drive," Harris says at a Studio City hotel the day after the John Anson Ford concert. "I feel I've been lucky in some ways. I've had success, but not enough that I think I was ever tempted to stick to a particular sound. I never had that massive, No. 1 pop album or single.

"In fact, I got the feeling that people who listened to my records wanted me to experiment as much as I did. They seem to appreciate that I'm on some sort of musical journey and they want to come along."

Once she begins talking about the specifics of that journey, however, you see all kinds of opportunities for compromise--moments when she might have sabotaged her art if she had given in to record company warnings or desires.

One of two children of a Marine pilot dad and a homemaker mom, Harris grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and struggled with the awkwardness of adolescence. She found comfort and inspiration in the songs of such folk artists as Dylan and Joan Baez.

While waiting tables to earn money to attend Boston College to study acting, she fell in with a crowd of hippie musicians. She still remembers the first time she stayed up all night playing music.

"It was as if I found my world. There was something about music that put you in touch with yourself, that made you feel truly alive," she says, dressed casually in a simple blouse and faded jeans. "I think that excitement has always stuck with me. You always keep searching for that magic, that sense of fulfillment inside. Neil Young, who is always a model for me, says he always looks for the muse, and that's the whole thing. If the muse chooses a path for you, you follow it."

Rather than pursue acting, Harris headed for New York City in the late '60s, landing an audition at A&M; Records. A label executive wasn't impressed by her folk-edged versions of such songs as Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles."

He handed Harris some records and advised her to think about shifting her style. The records were by Claudine Longet, a pop singer who was getting some attention at the time for her whispery vocals. In Harris' first act of musical independence, she walked out of the A&M; office and threw the records into a trash can on 57th Street.

If Harris knew she didn't want to be Longet, she didn't really have a strong idea of what she did want to be artistically. She made an album in 1970 for Jubilee Records titled "Gilded Angel," but it was a mishmash of pop and folk styles.

She ended up back at her parents' home with her daughter, Hallie, from a short-lived marriage to songwriter Tom Slocum. (Harris, who is now single and lives in Nashville, also has a second grown daughter, Meghann, from her marriage to record producer Brian Ahern.)

The Jubilee experience had been so frustrating that she resolved to confine her musical ambitions to the local folk scene. It was in a Washington club that she met Parsons, whose blend of country-music sentimentality and rock commentary has influenced countless musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Elvis Costello to the Eagles.

Parsons was looking for a female singer for his band, and he schooled her in the unchecked honesty and passion of such landmark country singers as Haggard and George Jones.

After Parsons' death from a drug overdose in 1973, Harris used that vision to build her career. She signed with Warner Bros. Records, whose Reprise label released "Pieces of the Sky." Country radio programmers and fans fell in love with Harris' versions of such country classics as Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams." Meanwhile, hip pop-rock fans were marveling at her versions of such tunes as Simon's "The Boxer" and the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere."

That love affair would continue through three more albums balancing the country and rock elements. It was a winning streak that most artists would have continued mining, but Harris started feeling restless by 1979. She wanted to dig deeper into traditional country music.

That led to some more moments of truth. She says her record company warned her against making a hard-core country album at a time when country radio was looking for pop-friendly fare, but she proceeded with "Blue Kentucky Girl" in 1979. She says it also warned her she was going to ruin her career if she followed that with a bluegrass album, but she turned in one, "Roses in the Snow," in 1980. Like her five previous albums, both were certified gold (sales of 500,000).

Harris' gutsiest moves artistically came after her sales slowed in the early '80s. As radio began a search for new, younger voices, Harris was increasingly exiled from playlists. She could have become so disillusioned and simply joined the country nostalgia parade, crisscrossing the country doing her old hits.

But she continued following her muse. Her most ambitious album of that period was a partly autobiographical 1985 concept album called "The Ballad of Sally Rose." This time the record company warnings were right. The record made it only to No. 176 on the pop chart. But Harris believed in the album so much that she took her band on the road and toured extensively in support of it. That left her deep in debt. After all the acclaim, she was back at square one.

Still, she didn't cave in.

Harris kept experimenting, dissolving her electric Hot Band for an acoustic group in the early '90s, then hooking up in 1995 with producer Daniel Lanois on the "Wrecking Ball" album. It was a sonic adventure that applied many of the turbulent textures Lanois had used on the records he made with U2 and Bob Dylan.

The album struggled commercially, but the music rejuvenated Harris and inspired her to even greater heights in "Red Dirt Girl."

"She constantly challenges herself and I think the challenge she set after 'Wrecking Ball' was to test herself as a writer so she could make the music even more personal," says her manager, Ken Levitan, who has also worked with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. "She loved the sound of 'Wrecking Ball,' but she didn't want to make 'Son of Wrecking Ball,' so she had to dig inside."

The depth and candor of the songs on "Red Dirt Girl" would stand out on an album by any of our most acclaimed songwriters, so they were doubly impressive coming from someone known chiefly as a singer.

Whether writing in the title track about someone unable to escape from the soul-draining circumstances of her surroundings or dealing with romantic obsession in "I Don't Want to Talk About It Now," Harris filled the album with haunting, often desperate tales of isolation and yearning. In the latter tune, she sings, "I tried to swim that river / And get to higher ground / I been down three times under / The next one'll see me drown."

Although the album still hasn't been embraced by country radio, it has found enough of an audience to remain on the country best-seller list for more than eight months and has sold an estimated 850,000 copies worldwide. That's her biggest hit since the '70s.

So it's no wonder Harris sang several of the album's tunes at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Once again, the concert was scheduled for 90 minutes, but she stretched it to 105 before she went off.

When I asked a stagehand if she stopped short of her normal two-hour mark because she was feeling weak, he smiled and shook his head. The only thing that got Harris off the stage early was the theater's curfew.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday July 26, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction Album title--"Gliding Bird" is the title of Emmylou Harris' 1970 debut album. The title was incorrect in a July 22 Sunday Calendar story. For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction Album title--"Gliding Bird" is the title of Emmylou Harris' 1970 debut album. The title was incorrect in a July 22 Sunday Calendar story.
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