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May 3, 2006 - 11:51

Always the maverick, country queen Emmylou Harris teams with rocker Knopfler

JOHN GEROME

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Emmylou Harris apologizes for the interruption and takes the call on her cellphone.

It's songwriter-producer Buddy Miller, and he's calling to work out details for her to sing on a new album he's producing for soul singer Solomon Burke. "Oh, I'm going to get to sing with Solomon Burke tomorrow," a giddy Harris says as she gets off the phone. "Isn't that amazing?"

At 59, Harris has a 35-year career spanning country, folk, gospel, rock and bluegrass, but she seems as charged up as ever.

Last week she and former Dire Straits singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler released an album of duets called All the Roadrunning that was seven years in the making - sort of.

They cut a couple tunes together in 1999 when Knopfler was recording his Sailing to Philadelphia album, but Knopfler decided to hang onto them.

"As soon as I heard Emmy I knew it wasn't part of Sailing to Philadelphia - I knew it was something else," he said in a recent phone interview from his London home.

Years passed, but the idea of a duets album stuck around and they managed to record a couple more songs between projects.

They holed up in Nashville to finish off the 12 tracks, with Knopfler adding the final touches back in London.

"When he was mixing it I'd get a couple songs every week and I was, like, waiting for the mail to come. It was so exciting," said Harris.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Harris was raised the daughter of a career military man in the Washington, D.C., area. She began performing during the folk boom of the 1960s and, through the suggestion of former Byrds member Chris Hillman, came to the attention of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons in 1971.

Parsons, who, as a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers fused traditional country with rock 'n' roll, recorded two solo albums with Harris, the later of which, Grievous Angel, produced the duet Love Hurts.

After Parsons' death from a drug overdose in 1973, Harris embarked on a solo career and had a hit right off with a remake of the Louvin Brothers' If I Could Only Win Your Love.

"I wanted to be a country artist because I wanted to carry on what Gram was doing, even though I didn't quite understand it because I had only worked with him a year," Harris said. "I just experimented and did what I felt was right."

Her instincts proved to be sound, and throughout the 1970s and '80s she had a string of hit songs such as Sweet Dreams, Two More Bottles of Wine, Beneath Still Waters and three that paired her with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, including the No. 1 To Know Him is To Love Him.

She also recorded with an eclectic mix of musicians from Neil Young to Bill Monroe and had a knack for hiring up-coming talents for her band, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee.

But by the 1990s her streak as a country hitmaker had ended and Harris, liberated from the commercial pressure of mainstream radio, took an alternative rock sound with Wrecking Ball, recorded with Young, Steve Earle and U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr.

"I know there's some people who wonder what happened to me when I made Wrecking Ball," she said. "But they were probably only along for a short part of my journey, and that was great, but I'm in it for the long haul.

"I'm lucky enough to have a core audience that will zig and zag with you so you don't have to put out the same thing record after record. If there's any pressure at all, it's that your fans are expecting you to zig and zag. They want to see what you're going to do next. They want you to follow your muse."

With her two most recent albums, 2000's Red Dirt Girl and 2003's Stumble Into Grace, Harris has emerged more as a songwriter than an interpreter, penning most of the songs herself or with a co-writer.

She contributed two songs to the latest project with Knopfler - Love and Happiness and Belle Star. Knopfler wrote the other 10, many of which are about relationships and perfectly suited to the male-female treatment they receive. The first single, This is Us, for example, is about a couple reflecting on memories of their lives together, from their courtship through their marriage, children and anniversary.

Harris sees the song in the context of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a thread that runs through two other tracks, and as she discusses it, she begins to tear up.

"The idea is that you're going into someone's house and on the refrigerator almost everyone has those snapshots at the beach or the barbecue or wedding pictures from the reception that are not posed. After 9/11, the pictures people brought down to the site for the most part were those kinds of pictures," she said.

Knopfler, who first met Harris in the 1980s during a tribute to guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, said their shared experiences of being parents and of going through broken marriages adds credibility to the material. Harris' fragile soprano opposite Knopfler's craggy monotone compounds it.

"As soon as you hear her taking the line, you see the character. She's not just a girl singing anymore; she's much more representative of something female," said Knopfler, whose moody, signature guitar work winds through the album. "I think that's a depth that comes from her massive experience and ability."

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