Saturday 2 December 2000

A beautiful voice for the cause

Emmylou Harris saw the horror first-hand

Bruce Ward
The Ottawa Citizen


Music veteran Emmylou Harris had little trouble finding others to perform in an effort to rid the world of landmines.


The Associated Press / Emmylou Harris won the female country singer Grammy in 1980.

Emmylou Harris is giving landmine victims a voice tomorrow at a special Ottawa concert. And what a shining, silvery voice it is.

In a career that stretches back to the mid-1960s, Harris has never balked at singing what's on her mind. Now she's hoping her music will bring attention to a global tragedy.

Three years ago, Harris took a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam to find out first-hand about the destruction and mutilation caused by landmines. She saw amputees everywhere she went -- in the market, in restaurants, in temples, in the clinics where victims are fitted with mobility aids. She saw how their limbs and their lives had been torn apart.

Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, was with Harris on that trip. He watched her absorb it all. Having survived the wars, Harris was learning, thousands would not survive the peace. In Cambodia, people were dying every day, blown to pieces by landmines as they gathered firewood in the forest.

"It was particularly affecting for her, because her father was a career Marine pilot who was a prisoner-of-war in Korea for a long time," Muller says from Washington, D.C. "The experience gave her the ability to speak with passion on the destruction caused by landmines."

When Harris got back to the states, she was determined to tell the story of landmine victims on the other side of the world. First, Harris read the reports prepared by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In Cambodia, for example, there are more than 40,000 amputees who were maimed by landmines. There are six million landmines still buried in a country about half the size of Newfoundland. Once Harris got her mind around the horror of the statistics, she reached for her rolodex and started calling her friends.

"The people who are killed by landmines are for the most part civilians, 90 per cent are civilians," she told an interviewer at the time. "Every 22 minutes, someone is maimed or killed by a mine ... they can't plow fields, they can't farm, they can't gather firewood."

Harris, 53, is the impetus behind Concerts for a Landmine Free World, a singer-songwriter benefit tour featuring herself, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Prine and Nanci Griffith.

The sold-out concert at the National Arts Centre will be a sort of Harris-led hootenanny -- just the performers on stage with their guitars, singing to change the world. In spirit, the show harkens back to Harris' early days as a folkie in the 1960s, when she was passing the hat in coffeehouses and scuffling to get by in Greenwich Village.

The tour, presented by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, coincides with the third anniversary of Ottawa Landmines Treaty. The five-show tour hits Toronto Monday then moves to Burlington, Vt. and winds up Thursday in Somerville, Ma.

"Emmylou Harris brought the music industry to the cause, everybody from Sheryl Crow to Willie Nelson and the artists who will be playing with her in Ottawa," says Muller, who is also co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. He is a paraplegic as a result of gunshot wounds suffered while serving as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam.

"When Emmylou makes an 'Ask' (a request to perform a benefit concert), the musicians respond because of her integrity. We couldn't ask for a better sparkplug for the cause.

"We'd go down to her home in Nashville and talk to the artists she'd arranged for us to meet," says Muller. "She's been in the business a long time and everybody respects her. Emmylou helped put us on the radar."

Influenced by Harris, several musicians got involved in supporting the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. The campaign goes beyond calls for a ban, setting its sights on how best to to clear the millions of landmines that threaten people in dozens of countries, including Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo and Sri Lanka.

Funny thing is, when Harris took that trip to Southeast Asia she was supposed to be on sabbatical, a two-year break from a now 30-album career that has blended folk, country and rock with what could be called the Emmy Factor -- a steely determination to go her own way.

All in all, it turned out to be one hell of a sabbatical.

Besides her work on the landmines campaign, Harris also recorded a live album with her band Spyboy, played with Willie Nelson on his Teatro album, won her ninth Grammy for her Trio 2 reunion with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, produced the Gram Parsons tribute album, and issued her eagerly-anticipated Ronstadt collaboration Western Wall.

As a musician Harris has always worn her own kind of hat, to paraphrase Merle Haggard.

In the mid-'70s she brought country rock to a wide audience with Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner, three consecutive million-selling albums.

But she wasn't about to keep bringing "the same old casserole to the potluck supper," as she put it. Over the strident objections of her record company, she put out Roses In the Snow, a brilliant bluegrass homage.

"It was more important to me to make a statement artistically than it was to go with what they thought was a safe route," she told one interviewer. "Bluegrass was what was happening to me musically at that point."

Roses touched off the neo-traditionalist movement of the early 1980s, and helped make a star of her former bandmate Ricky Scaggs.

Then came her self-penned concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose. In commercial terms, Sally Rose was a nightmare. "I often joke that a 'concept record' is a euphemism for 'we don't hear a single.' I have to admit I was disappointed with what a disastrous commercial venture it was.

"But I had to do it. There was no question. I still stand by doing it. I had something to say."

With her new album, Red Dirt Girl, Harris has a lot more to say. She wrote all but one of the album's 12 songs, her most extensive songwriting project since Sally Rose.

Her Grammy-winning 1995 album Wrecking Ball featured Harris singing songs by legendary rockers such as Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix. Harris knew she couldn't follow that record with something like Son of Wrecking Ball, another collection of covers.

She figured the one totally different element she could bring to the new album was her own songs.

"I made the decision to write, and I think it was because of Wrecking Ball," Harris told the Associated Press in a recent interview. "I had to raise the stakes a bit. I almost didn't have a choice. I couldn't go back in the studio and just do another album of covers...I had to see what I was made of."

On Red Dirt Girl, Harris examines everything from an obsessive lover affair (I Don't Want To Talk About It Now) to abortion (My Baby Need A Shepherd). In Bang The Drum Slowly, an affecting tribute to her father, a Marine fighter pilot who died in 1993, Harris sings: "But the song of my life will still be sung by the light of the moon you hung."

The title song, a gem, is about small-town life in Alabama, and how it consumes a girl named Lillian who loved her "bluetick hound Eddie." Lillian dreamed of getting out but never makes it any farther than Meridian, a town just across the state line in Mississippi.

"I think this was hovering over the highway, and I drove through it," Harris explained in speaking about the songs on Red Dirt Girl.

"I am very, very inspired by the sound of words, and the names of places are so melodic and beautiful. I was passing through Meridian on my way down to record in New Orleans and that's what started it.

"But what really took it over the edge for me was on a night off in New Orleans, we went to see Boys Don't Cry. It unnerved me, not only because of the violence and the homophobia, but also because of the underlying theme of how trapped those young people were. We all come into this world with so much potential and so many dreams. Who knows why some people escape and other people don't? The key is the lyric, 'There won't be any mention (of Lillian's death) on The News of the World.' "

The album, like Wrecking Ball, was produced by Daniel Lanois. On the lament Tragedy, co-written by Rodney Crowell, the harmony vocals are by Patti Sciafla and Bruce Springsteen.

"They were in New Orleans performing. It turned out they had the next day off after the concert, so they came over. It doesn't get any better than this: to be sitting in a living room with them just a chair away, singing live, doing it together," said Harris. "Patti and I started singing. Then Bruce started adding a third harmony part after we did out duet. God, what a sound."

With Red Dirt Girl, Harris measures up to the praise heaped on her by Billboard when she was honoured with the magazine's Century Award last year. Editor Timothy White described her as "a truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder." Harris has been called a role model for a generation of younger performers, particularly women. But she's not comfortable with that characterization.

"I don't think of myself as a leader," she says. "I don't like the pressure that goes with that word. I think if I've done anything, I've somehow managed to survive doing exactly what I wanted to do. I think I got into music at a time that was very special. I was just successful enough to be given a license to do whatever I wanted and to be left alone."

Meanwhile, the landmines campaign is steadily making progress.

"It is a long, slow job," said Muller. "But it is going to get done. There's still 60 million to 80 million landmines in the ground in 70 countries, and there are 300,000 to 350,000 people who have survived being blown up by landmines. We have a lifelong obligation to them for things like medical treatment and mobility aids. We are making progress but it's slow."

Part of the problem is that it costs between $1 and $3 to make a landmine, but to clear it and remove it from the ground costs from $500 to $1,000. The basic tools used to remove landmines are a bayonet and a sensitive metal detector.

Two months ago, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines released its second-annual landmine monitor report, which found that the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the ban movement are having a major impact.

According to the report, this progress is shown by:

?A dramatic drop in landmine production (from 54 known world-wide producers to 16);

?Reduced use of landmines in recent years;

?A growing number of governments are ratifying and implementing the ban treaty (now there are 101 ratifications and 138 signatories, nearly 75 per cent of the world's nations);

?Increased destruction of antipersonnel mines (more than 22 million destroyed, including some 10 million since March, 1999);

?Increased funding for humanitarian mine action (more than $211 million in 1999 alone, an increase of about a third over 1998).

"The next step is to get the key players to sign the ban treaty -- the U.S., Russia, China and Pakistan," says Muller. "In the U.S., the military is driving the train but we are talking to them and moving forward."

When the job Muller talks about finally gets done, it's a safe bet Harris will still be singing about human needs and emotions, singing her mind like always.

"I do thrive on this" she said.

"I love playing music. I love the act of singing. And I love good songs. If the music didn't excite me, I would quit in a minute. Because I have to be inspired. With this new direction, I feel like I have turned a corner, so I think I can ride this pony for a while now. I needed something new, and this has shifted me into warp speed. All of a sudden, I'm in a place I didn't even know existed before."

One of the songs on Red Dirt Girl is titled J'ai Fait Tout, which translates as "I did all I could."

Truth, that's something you could say about Emmylou Harris.


UP

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.
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