Sisterly songbirds flock together
Country-rock stars Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou
Harris unite for a disc of 'grownup songs.'

GEOFFREY HIMES
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 4, 1999

New York -- Emmylou Harris is indulging in a little self-analysis to explain the latest turn in her career. "I don't have a sister of my own," she muses, "so I adopt them. I adopted Linda. And Kate and Anna."

Harris is referring to Linda Ronstadt, and to Montreal sisters Kate & Anna McGarrigle. All four singers appear on the lovely new country-pop album, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (Asylum), Harris and Ronstadt's first duo album, although they have been singing together since 1974. And in fact a true sisterly feeling comes through, as the two old friends join voices in songs by Rosanne Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Sinead O'Connor and others.

But when it comes to sisterhood, both Harris and Ronstadt stand in awe of the McGarrigles, who appear on three of the cuts. "Kate and Anna are amazing," Ronstadt says. "They're unseparated litter mates."

"They smoke each other's cigarettes and finish each other's sentences," Harris adds. "And there's nothing like their harmonies."

"Emmy and me are close, but not that close."

" 'Emmy and I,' " Harris amends.

"You see?" Ronstadt bursts out. "We don't finish each other's sentences -- we correct each other's grammar!" And the two women dissolve into very sibling-like laughter.

Harris and Ronstadt are ensconced in a $700-a-night hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side this morning, doing promotional interviews for the new album. Despite the posh surroundings, they look more as though they have got together for coffee and gossip at a kitchen table. Ronstadt is barefoot, her red-painted toenails tucked beneath her as she curls up in a plush chair, dressed in a blue denim jacket and rolled-up dungarees. Harris is wearing a simple white pullover, and cotton pants in a hideous green print.

"We're mostly doing phone interviews," she explains. But while they're a bit shy about photo sessions these days, both women seem quite comfortable with their age. Harris refuses to dye her long hair, which has turned a snowy white, pinned back by a big black clip. And ever since she adopted two young children, Ronstadt has stopped worrying about her weight, which has expanded considerably.

"I'm 53 and Emmy's 52," Ronstadt says. "We've been around a bit and know a thing or two. One thing we know is there's more than one kind of love. We're concerned not just with romantic love, but also with the love of friends, the love of family."

"There's a deep emptiness in most people," Harris adds, "and there are many ways to fill it other than romantic love. In fact, romantic love may be the least reliable way to fill it. We're trying to find songs that speak to that emptiness."

Western Wall is not the only 1999 project for Harris and Ronstadt. This month they launch a U.S. tour, and Trio II, the sequel to their Grammy-winning 1987 album with Dolly Parton, was finally released this year, after five years in the vaults. It's not just sisterly affection that makes the partnership work. The two veteran country-rock singers have relied on each other's complementary strengths ever since the original Trio helped both singers survive slumps in their careers.

Harris was acclaimed as a singer's singer immediately upon her emergence, alongside the Byrds' country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, in the early seventies. Despite some solo successes after Parsons' death in 1973, and continuing demand for her vocals by artists from Roy Orbison to Neil Young, her own bluegrass-flavoured and conceptually ambitious efforts in the eighties were commercial flops. It took Trio to expose millions to the cult performer's name. (Webmistress note: 3 of her albums from the 1980's have been certified Gold)

Ronstadt's problem was just the reverse. She was a megastar in the seventies California folk-rock scene, with hits such as You're No Good and the McGarrigles song Heart Like a Wheel. In the eighties, her records still sold well, but she seemed artistically adrift, mocked for attempting jazz standards and for a middling tribute to her Mexican roots. Trio brought her renewed respect from critics and other musicians.

Their first album as co-leaders sprang from a similar impulse, beginning with a phone call in 1993. "I was looking for songs for my next album," Ronstadt recalls, "and as I always do, I called up Emmy, because she's the best song scout in the world. She stays up later than I do and hangs out more. . . . So I called her up and said, 'Do you know any grown-up songs?' "

"That's important," Harris says, "because you're different at 50 than you are at 30, so you're interested in singing about different things. Springsteen is an example of someone who has grown up; he's writing about things now that he didn't even know about at 20 or 30." She also mentions Bob Dylan's recent song, Not Dark Yet. "He had to have gone through everything he's gone through to capture that heartbreak and weariness. There are no shortcuts."

"We had the idea," Ronstadt continues, "of doing an album of songs by other female singers and having the songwriters sing with us." They asked Dolly Parton to contribute, which diverted them into the Trio follow-up. But Parton's schedule became hopelessly complicated -- "Dolly told us, 'When you have too many irons in the fire, it's not long before one comes back and burns your ass,' " Harris says -- and when a 1994 promotional tour was called off, so was Trio II's release.

Ronstadt released two pop albums and Harris put out Wrecking Ball, her acclaimed collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois, and the live disc Spyboy, before they returned to the duo project. Ronstadt invited producer Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton) to set up a studio in Tucson's Arizona Hotel to record Western Wall. Meanwhile, Asylum Records decided to release Trio II after all.

"You have this long drought," Harris notes, "and then all of a sudden, it's rain, rain, rain, wonderful rain. The Trio album had a particular sound, a traditional country sound with lots of harmony singing, and we didn't want to repeat that on the duo album. The new album . . . was more a case of, 'Let's dive into this orgy of songs and do whatever the song requires.' "

"I think songwriters like Randy Newman and Bruce Springsteen hold up our end of the century," Ronstadt adds, "just as George Gershwin and Cole Porter held up their end. And, in the middle, there's a lot of people jumping up and down going, 'Whoopee!' "

"But you need 'whoopee' too," Harris insists.

Instead of "whoopee," though, Western Wall has many elegant, dreamy arrangements reminiscent of Harris's Wrecking Ball, dwelling on themes of spirituality, the sorrow of death, and cultural collisions along the Mexican border. "It was important that this album was made in Tucson," says Ronstadt. "I have small children at home and I don't want to leave them for very long. But because we weren't in Nashville or L.A., we were isolated from the music industry and were able to concentrate on our work.

"Plus my family all lives in Tucson, and we still get together and sing all the time, just living-room music, which is the feel we wanted on the album. We've too often delegated music to the professionals. Even worse, we've subjected music to the insult of putting it on television, which is like dipping a gardenia in kerosene. I get so upset about things like that, and this album is a kind of antidote.

"The album is a product of the give-and-take between Emmy and me," she adds. "I sit and scream, 'The world is falling apart! The whole culture is going to the dogs!' And Emmy says, 'Yeah? So what are we going to do about it?' I want to blow up all the television stations, and she says, 'No, we can get some good music on TV to counterbalance the bad.' She always finds a way to channel my energy and frustration." Just as a good sister should.

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