Living in the moment, singing about the past
Emmylou Harris is trailed by a ragtag parade of eager dogs when she answers a knock at the door of the comfortable two-story home on a fenceless parcel a few miles from downtown Nashville, where she lives with her 89-year-old mother, Eugenia.
The singer and songwriter greets a visitor with the same unguarded openness with which she has welcomed in a steady stream of abandoned, abused or otherwise homeless canines as part of the Bonaparte’s Retreat animal rescue operation she’s run for the last several years.
One of them, Bella, is a large, gentle mutt who is the subject of “Big Black Dog,” one of the songs from Harris’ forthcoming album “Hard Bargain,” her first in nearly three years. It’s a lighthearted yet sincere ode to the loyalty and unconditional love that she prizes about her work with her animal companions.
“We probably give them too many human qualities, but they inhabit a world we might never understand. That’s one of the reasons they can help us be more human,” she says, settling into a small sofa in an upstairs bedroom she’s converted into a music room. It’s one of a couple of spaces at home where she likes to write.
Sheets of paper with lyrics are nearby on a music stand, a raft of guitars rest a few feet away, poised to assist when inspiration strikes. The walls around the stairway that leads to her workspace are adorned with family photos; inside her office are framed pictures and artwork of a smattering of the musicians -- Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Gram Parsons -- she’s worked with over a recording career that now spans more than four decades since her largely unheralded debut album, “Gliding Bird,” yet another animal allusion in her long, distinguished career.
“From the time you’re born until the end of your life, I think they are our dearest companions,” says Harris, her white-silver hair pulled up through a black scrunchie into a pony tail. She’s wearing a comfortable black sweater, stylish scarf and knockabout thick black pants on a cool spring day during which the area is under the specter of tornado warnings.
An interaction with an animal is far less complicated than a relationship with another human. The latter are at the heart of Harris’ new songs examining life from her perspective at 64. Married and divorced three times, she sings with more surprise than lament in “Nobody” and “Lonely Girl” about finding herself without a life partner at this point in life. “No more teenage love,” she says with an unforced grin. “Every time I do ‘Love Hurts,’ which I still do occasionally, I have to give a wry smile when I go ‘I’m young / I know ... .’ ” She sings the phrase, pauses, then adds a lightly defiant “I’m not” to the line from the Everly Brothers hit, which she famously covered in a duet with country-rock innovator Parsons in the early 1970s.
An early influence
She also addresses her long-ago creative and romantic relationship with Parsons, who helped introduce the world to the angelic beauty of Harris’ voice before he died at age 26 in 1973. His effect on her career was monumental, and the boost he gave her, musically and professionally, is something she’s returned to dozens of musicians in the succeeding years.
“The Road,” which serves as the album’s opening track, brings an evenhanded understanding of what others might look at as tragic. “I couldn’t save you, and no one was to blame,” she sings.
She has alluded to Parsons over the years, notably in her 1985 concept album “The Ballad of Sally Rose,” about a young singer making her way in the world. But “The Road” may be the most directly autobiographical song she’s written about that time in her life, raising the question: Why now?
“The first lines just came out, and from then on, all I had to do was just tell the story,” she says. “It just kind of fell out.”
In the absence of motivation to write anything more on the subject of young love, she also turns her attention to issues that still capture her attention, as in “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” her Dylan-esque recounting of the story of the African American teenager from Chicago who was killed in 1955 for speaking to a white woman on a trip to visit relatives in rural Mississippi.
The song points to her unwavering compassion throughout her career for the underdog, oppressed, the voiceless, the disenfranchised members of society, human or nonhuman. That’s taken the form of the many benefits she’s participated in, including those aiding land mine awareness campaigns, animal rescue and efforts to preserve and protect country music history.
She was a linchpin in the preservation of the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. The building came close to being leveled after the Opry moved from downtown Nashville to be part of the Opryland theme park.
Harris hasn’t appeared in the upper reaches of the country sales charts in more than a decade.
She arrived in 1975 with her major-label debut album, “Pieces of the Sky,” as both a rock-influenced rebel and a keeper of the country flame, recording tradition-minded material by the likes of Dolly Parton and the Louvin Brothers as well as genre-blind songs by Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles. She has championed the work of emerging talents including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Conor Oberst.
Another turning point
As the country establishment began turning a blind eye to artists 40 and older, Harris moved on musically, connecting with producer Daniel Lanois for her watershed 1995 album, “Wrecking Ball,” which won the Grammy for contemporary folk album -- one of 12 she’s collected in various categories over the years -- and opened a new sonic world for her, one closer to the work of U2 than country chart-toppers such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain.
“It’s rare that an artist can do something like ‘Wrecking Ball,’ which was probably her 20th record, that is that much of a reinvention, that much of a leap of imagination, and possibly her greatest record up to that time,” said David Bither, senior vice president of Nonesuch Records, the label that signed Harris five years after the release of “Wrecking Ball.”
“Paul Simon has a new record out that is one of the strongest records of his career,” Bither said. “Emmy is still making important albums. It’s not as if as you get older you stop becoming relevant, and those great artists, those we’ve been privileged to be around 30 or 40 years, it is important to be able to have them.”
After joining Nonesuch, she made another breakthrough with “Red Dirt Girl,” in which the woman who’d spent the previous quarter-century solidifying her reputation as one of the premier vocal interpreters in modern country suddenly blossomed as a songwriter, something she’d done to that point only sporadically, if impressively, on “Boulder to Birmingham” from the early “Pieces of the Sky.”
“I kind of got my marching orders from Daniel Lanois and [revered Texas singer-songwriter] Guy Clark at the same time,” she says. “After ‘Wrecking Ball,’ Dan said, ‘You need to write for your next record.’ Shortly after that, Guy -- I was sitting across from them at their house one Christmas, with Rodney -- and he said, ‘You need to write your next record, and I don’t care if it takes you five years.’ And it did -- it took me five years. But then I thought, ‘OK, I have written, and I can at least try,’ so that’s what I did.
“The other thing was, I wanted to follow through. ‘Wrecking Ball’ was such a revelation to me: the sound and the intense emotion of the music, and I knew I wanted to keep in that sonic world. But I also knew the price you had to pay for that -- because you have to make sacrifices to the music gods -- was that I needed to bring something new to the table. ... I don’t play an instrument, I couldn’t become a jazz singer; this is the voice that I have. So the only thing I could bring to the table was my own song.”
She wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on “Hard Bargain,” looking outside only for the title track, by singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, and producer Jay Joyce’s “Cross Yourself,” both spiritually attuned songs. Of Sexsmith’s song, she says, “I heard it, I don’t want to say as a spiritual, but I didn’t hear it as a love song. Although I think it can be about a particular person, whether it’s about a lover or a close friend, to me it was about the thing that keeps pulling us back into the world.
“I just turned 64,” she says with more than a small tone of disbelief in her voice. “You remember back when the Beatles sang that and you thought, ‘I’ll never be 64.’ It was like it was the end of the world. Now, it’s not young, it’s not old, it just is. So you’re in that moment.
“I think one of the keys to any kind of peace in the world is to live in the moment. I guess that’s why I love dogs so much, because they are so in the moment. They just keep bringing you back to that.”