September 6, 1998
Emmylou Harris: Bending the Borders of Country
Her hair is a cool, dazzling silver. Her band is a blend of New Orleans funk, rootsy country and jagged, spooky rock with a drummer sporting Dennis Rodman hair. It's 95 outside, but she's wearing a black, ersatz patent-leather jacket, sipping hot chicken noodle soup and shivering in the air-conditioning at the Rockefeller Center studio where she's taping an appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
By PETER APPLEBOME
Emmylou Harris has always zigged when the rest of the music world has zagged. But after doing country long before it was remotely cool, and then getting exiled by country radio along with virtually everyone else over 40, she seems more adept than ever at finding the seams between the formulas emanating from Nashville and the commercial no man's land, vaguely known as alternative country, outside the Nashville mainstream.
Ms. Harris, whose new album, "Spyboy," is a live career retrospective that's more a reimagining of her past than a look back at it, has fashioned one of the more intriguing musical careers in the country environs. But whether it's an indication of how to push the borders of country or a reminder of just how hard it is to try is anyone's guess.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Outsider Emmylou Harris at a recent taping of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
"I'm fortunate in that for me there's life beyond radio," said Ms. Harris, now 51, who first came to prominence while singing harmony with the seminal country rock artist Gram Parsons in the early 1970's. "I stick my head in the sand and get to do the kind of music I want to do."
Ms. Harris, whose early ties to Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers left her with one foot in rock and the other in country, has never been a traditional Nashville success story.
She first came to town as an outsider with a suspect rock pedigree and is now regarded as something of a keeper of the flame while Nashville churns out contemporary pop country. Born in Birmingham, Ala., into a traveling military family, she first planned to be an actress, then gravitated to folk music and then became an integral part of Parsons's hip country hybrid.
After Parsons's death in 1973, Harris put together a band that included several of Elvis Presley's musicians and recorded "Pieces of the Sky," a mix of pure hard-core country like the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and more eclectic material. It became a No.1 country album and helped pave the way for a new generation of country artists with crossover appeal like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. Ms. Harris went on to win seven Grammys and has since become, with Marty Stuart, one of the Nashville artists most involved with country's history and heritage.
A new live album by Emmylou Harris is not so much a career retrospective as it is a reimagining of her past.
And as country devolved toward the current vogues for hunks and hunkettes in hats, she took an adventurous detour in 1996 with "Wrecking Ball," her collaboration with the famed producer Daniel Lanois that merged country instincts, Ms. Harris's high, aching soprano and Mr. Lanois's eccentric rhythms, chiming guitars and ragged edges.
The collaboration with Mr. Lanois, best known for his work with Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel and others, seemed an unlikely one, but she said it always made sense to her.
"No matter how far out he gets and how much fancy technological stuff he does, you always feel the melody and the song is at the center of it all," she said. "I wanted him to take my voice and my vision and make me an instrument, another color in that landscape, another of his paintings, so to speak. I like the way he's fearless. He'll really try anything."
Her new album named for her band -- the name "Spyboy" comes from the New Orleans term for someone who comes before a Mardi Gras parade to get the audience excited -- follows in the same spirit. The band includes the bassist Daryl Johnson and the drummer Brady Blade, who played on "Wrecking Ball," and the Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller, who's very much a part of the Americana-alternative country scene.
It includes songs from throughout her career refracted through the Lanois prism, with the most affecting being the newer pieces like, "All My Tears," written by Mr. Miller's wife, Julie Miller, which mixes gospel lyrics with dark, spectral rock instrumentation.
"Wrecking Ball" was a huge critical success that won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album and helped re-energize her career. Her current projects include a Gram Parsons tribute album she's helping to oversee, singing with Willie Nelson on his new album "Teatro," plans for a duet album with Linda Ronstadt and the release of a sequel to the 1987 "Trio" album she did with Ms. Ronstadt and Dolly Parton.
That it took a noncountry album with a New Orleans producer to get her airplay -- on adult alternative rock stations -- is a metaphor for Nashville in general, which is awash in wonderful music, much of it ignored by country radio and the big labels.
"I'm a bit rootless; I had to discover my bloodlines through Gram," she said. "But Nashville at its best is a small town. Lucinda Williams lives two doors down. Nanci Griffith isn't far away. So's Harlan Howard, the granddaddy of all the great songwriters. The songwriting community is truly extraordinary. There's nothing in New York that could compare with songwriter's night at the Bluebird Cafe. One night, I saw Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark doing a benefit for a low-income dental clinic. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen, and you wouldn't see it anywhere else."
She laments the way so many of her favorite Nashville artists -- artists who get labeled more as Americana than country like Ms. Williams, Gillian Welch, Mike Henderson, Kieran Kane and Jamie O'Hara, not to mention country legends like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash -- don't have a natural space on country radio or in the big-label Nashville mainstream. But Ms. Harris has been around long enough to know that the music business needs to create new stars and discard old ones. And she doesn't fault the most successful younger artists.
"People bash Garth Brooks, but Garth is just a guy who has a great voice, made some great records, and it's not his fault the music business went crazy looking for clones of Garth. Sounds like a horror movie. Clones of Garth! But it's not his fault. Is he supposed to change so everyone else can change? All I know is that I don't hear as much interesting stuff on country radio as I know is out there. I wish they could mix it up a little."
On the other hand, she said, categories are becoming so blurred that perhaps the limitations of country radio and mainstream Nashville mean less than they once did.
She has expanded her audience by touring with the Lilith Fair, and Ms. Williams's new album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," is getting a lot of attention, even if it will never be played on country radio.
"Someone said to me that country is probably in danger of disappearing as a genre, just like the blues," she said. "Maybe it's becoming absorbed into a more global musical picture. I don't know if that's true, and I don't know if it's necessarily bad. Maybe it's a reflection of the way we live, and it's O.K. as long as we have the pure forms of music to listen to and be inspired by. People ask me what's country music, and I say I don't know if I know. And I'm not sure I care. I know what it was in the past. But when I listen to Lucinda Williams's record, I don't care what they call it. They can call it 'Bertha.' I just think it's a masterpiece."
The chicken soup has gotten cold, and she needs to get back to taping the show. And she's been around long enough to know that musicians are better off obsessing about their music than obsessing about the music business.
"I've managed to survive for 25 years," she said. "There were times when my record company couldn't do enough for me and times when we couldn't agree on what I should be doing. But you can only spend so much time worrying about whether radio likes you or understands you or that kind of thing. If you're going to let that stop you, you probably shouldn't be doing this."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company