Billboard May 8, 1999
"Harris Is Century Honoree: Country Artist To
Receive BILLBOARD's Highest Accolade"
by Chet Flippo
NASHVILLE-In a musical career that has gone from stretching the boundaries of country music by encompassing pop, rock, folk, gospel, and blues to safeguarding country's traditions and bringing them to a larger world, Emmylou Harris has for decades set the standard for integrity and for innovation in country music. Along the way she has produced a remarkable body of recorded music, as well as a living legacy in the form of alumni of her bands: This extraordinary bandleader has tapped and nurtured the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Tony Brown, Vince Gill, Emory Gordy Jr., Hank DeVito, The Whites, and Albert Lee. Her collaborative work with the late Gram Parsons was a groundbreaking effort.
As an artist, her career spans vast distances: from putting The Louvin Brotheres' traditional lament "If I Could Only Win Your Love" on the country chart to recroding the masterpiece album "Wrecking Ball", which shattered musical boundaries and defined alternative music. As a leader, she's a member of The Grand Ole Opry, she has been president of The Country Music Foundation's board of directors, and she continues to be mentor at large to Music Row. As a songwriter, artist, bandleader, musicologist, industry leader, and innovator, Harris, due to her underappreciated ongoing contributions to the world of music, has been named the 1999 recipient of "The Century Award", BILLBOARD's highest honor for distinguished achievement. She will be presented with "The Century Award" live in December at "The BILLBOARD Music Awards", which will be televised on Fox.
Harris will become the eighth recipient of "The Century Award", as determined through ongoing confidential consultation by BILLBOARD editor Timothy White and publisher Howard Lander with hundreds of artists and industry professionals.
Previous artists who have been honored with "The Century Award" are George Harrison (1992), Buddy Guy (1993), Billy Joel (1994), Joni Mitchell (1995), Carlos Santana (1996), Chet Atkins (1997), and James Taylor (1998).
"As both a truly venturesome, genre-transcending visionary and a provocative guardian of counry music's living heritage, Emmylou Harris has uncompromisingly advanced the cause of roots music in our nation and its artistic and cultural resonance around the world," says White.
"Besides possessing an exquisite voice that's immaculate in its spirit yet deeply seasoned in its poignance, Emmylou has also proven herself as a gifted instrumentalist, eloquent songwriter, and incomparable bandleader. After touring with The Flying Burrito Brothers and with Gram Parsons until 1973, she drew new generations of fans to classic country from the mid-'70s onward, by recording startingly fresh interpretations of songs like The Louvin Bros.' 'If I Could Only Win Your Love' and Buck Owens's 'Together Again.' Her later recordings with greats like Roy orbison, Don Williams, and Willie Nelson reminded old and young alike that heartfelt music erases all boundaries of time and space.
"Emmylou's respect for Parsons' music and importance also kept his pioneering alloy of country and rock on the front burner, where insurgent country devotees could discover it, just as her conviction for country's new traditionalism preserved the music's vibrancy when many tried to dilute it. And those familiar with her 1996 Reprise Archives 'Portaits' boxed set, one of the finest such anthologies ever, know the breadth of her bold legacy.
"Harris's recordings are the sound of a brave, honest, intelligent heart, digging deeper to help us all grasp music's ability to alter our inner and outer worlds for the better. Anyone who thinks music and those who make it cannot change and even revolutionize the way our culture sees itself should acquaint themselves with her incomparable body of work. Such ongoing achievements are the reason why BILLBOARD can think of no artist more deserving of 'The 1999 Century Award' than Emmylou Harris."
Reached at her Nashville home during a quick stop between concert dates, Harris was utterly surprised and grateful to hear the news of the award.
"Wow!" she says. "To tell you the truth, I'm floored. I'm very honored. I don't know what to say. I always just take this gig one day at a time. You don't really look back very much. You're not very objective about things; you're just sort of subjective. It's very nice to know that a bunch of people have been looking around and gathering up all the details and paying attention."
Emmylou Harris was born April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala., to Walter Rutland Harris and the former Eugenia Murchison. Her father was a Marine pilot who had been shot down during the Korean conflict and was a prisoner who Emmylou was 5. He safely returned and was awarded The Legion of Merit award for valor.
The family moved often, throughout the South, and after high school, Harris studied drama at The University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
She embraced folk music and country blues and began performing in coffeehouses. She trasferred to Boston University, where the folk scene introduced to New York's Greenwich Village. She became a regular at Gerde's Folk City, along with friends such as Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg.
In 1970, Harris recorded a first album, "Gliding Bird" (Jubilee Records), that is no longer available.
Harris married during this period, but the union, which produced a daughter, was brief. After the marriage ended, Harris and her daughter went to live with her parents on a farm outside Washington, D.C. and Harris played clubs there. She formed a trio, with Tom Guidera and Gerry Mule, and one night at Clyde's, some of The Flying Burrito Brothers were impressed by her. Burrito Chris Hillman soon left the group but recommended her to Parsons as a potential Burrito Sister.
Harris and Parsons discovered they were musical soul mates, and she sang on his album "GP" in 1972. They toured together and cut his finest work, the album, "Grievous Angel", in 1973. Parsons died soon after of a drug and alcohol overdose. Harris, devastated, returned to D.C., where she and Guidera formed The Angel Band. They signed with Reprise, moved to Los Angeles, and cut the album "Pieces Of The Sky" in 1975. That included her tribute to Parsons, the song "Boulder To Birmingham".
Thus began a long string of sparkling albums. The album titles themselves evoke the different eras of Harris' career: "Elite Hotel", "Luxury Liner", "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town", "Blue Kentucky Girl", "Roses In The Snow", "Evangeline", "Cimarron", "White Shoes", "The Ballad of Sally Rose", "Angel Band", and "Bluebird", to name a few. Along the way, her Hot Band and Angel Band were a who's who of young musicians and songwriters, from Skaggs to Crowell and the rest.
She and Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt had been takling for years about a trio album-Ronstadt and Parton (along with Neil Young) had sung backing vocals on Harris's Christmas single "Light Of The Stable"-and finally recorded together in 1986. "Trio" became a huge seller, and Harris followed that with "Duets", which included pairings with the like of George Jones and Nelson.
Harris became a Nashville pillar, the conscience of the country music community and a born leader for that community.
In 1991, she reopened downtown Nashville's boarded-up Ryman Auditorium, which had been silent since "The Grand Ole Opry" vacated the premises for the suburbs in 1974. For three nights, from April 30 to May 2, she recorded an album and a TV special with her superb band, The Nash Ramblers, including Sam Bush.
"Emmylou Harris And The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman" was a Grammy-winning recording event that subsequently led Ryman parent company Gaylord Entertainment to renovate and reopen the old building, in turn leading to the revitalization of the Lower Broadway section of downtown.
She toured with The Nash Ramblers for years, occasioning rave reviews such as this one, from BILLBOARD in 1994: "If Emmylou Harris wasn't already president of The Country music Foundation board of trustees, her recent performance at The Beacon Theatre in New York was more than enought to qualify her. Drawing mostly from her own repertoire, Harris and her top-notch band, The Nash Ramblers, satisfied her older fans and secured her place with the new ones, with the unpretentious, traditionally styled country/folk music that she is known for.
"The two numbers Harris performed from her latest Asylum album, "Cowgirl's Prayer"-nestled as they were amid classics from her nearly 20-year career-made it apparent that she was as vibrant as ever. The self-penned 'Prayer in Open D', in particular, revealed an artist who continues to nurture her talent."
"Cowgirl's Prayer" drew unanimously favorable reviews but did not catch on with country radio, where massive changes were under way.
In 1995, as it became apparent that country radio's increasingly youth-oriented format was squeezing out a whole generation of country artists-including Harris, Nelson, Jones, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings-Harris acknowledged the change gracefully and proceeded to reinvent herself in stunning fashion.
She looked outside country music, turning to producer Daniel Lanois and the result was the epochal, Grammy-winning 1995 album "Wrecking Ball".
(Harris has won a total of eight Grammys, six of them for her solo work, the latest earned for "Same Old Train", a track from the 1998 "Tribute To Tradition" compilation for Columbia's Nashville division.)
In 1998, Harris again confounded critics with her "SPYBOY" album, which she and her guitarist Buddy Miller produced from live sessions at Nashville's Exit/In. There was only one song on the album that she hadn't recorded before (Lanois' "The Maker"), and Harris told BILLBOARD that the rest of the album "came about actually as a result of a desire to interpret that one brilliant song about a personal spiritual journey.
Now, in 1999, she's back on the country albums charts again with Asylum Records's "Trio 2", the second installment of the Emmylou/Parton/Ronstadt collaboration. And she and Ronstadt decided to do a duets album for Asylum.
Evelyn Shriver, president of Asylum, says, "So, here we have three women in their 50's, who country music has turned away from, and they're turning country music on its head again.
"What I like about Emmy, above and beyond her talent," continues Shriver, "which is obvious, is her kindness and her appreciation of unknown talent and her drive to further the cause of people she respects. She loves music so much and is so respectful of music that comes from somebody's heart. It's not about fame or success to Emmy; the bench mark is the caliber of the music. That's all she cares about. She has been a wonderful spokesperson for country music and should be embraced more by the industry that she's helped so much and is so respectful of. In many ways, I don't believe that the industry has been that respectful of what she has brought to it."
Harris has also worked on thr tribute "Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons", due July 13 from Almo Sounds. Proceeds from the album will benefit the campaign for a land-mine-free world, sponsored by The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (BILLBOARD BULLETIN, Feb. 22).
"Emmylou is one of the most creative artists of any genre," says Asylum VP of A&R Susan Nadler. "She's constantly able to reinvent herself. She's incredibly enduring and elegant and articulate, with an unmistakable voice."
For now, Harris is looking beyond the next thing. "'Trio 2' with Dolly and Linda finally came out. Linda and I finally did the album we've been talking about ever since we first met," she says. "That was just mastered, and that'll be out in August, and we'll do a little bit of touring behind that. And I've been pretty busy on this Gram Parsons tribute project."
And after that? "Well," says Harris, "I've been trying to do some writing again. That's sort of my goal for my next solo record: to have more of my own songs."
Copyright Billboard 1999
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