The Unbroken Circle: Emmylou Harris – From Student to Master

The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs, or, in cases like these, discuss a classic artist at length.

Before Emmylou Harris was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, she contributed to the landmark 2000 film soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in turn helping to spur a revived interest in bluegrass and folk music. Before that, she spearheaded her own campaign to save the Ryman Auditorium from further destruction, most notably through her 1992 At the Ryman album that succeeded in its goal. Before that, she recorded a collaboration album with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 that sold more than one million copies in its first year.

Before that, she sought players for her band that brought new sounds and sensibilities to country music, with some of those names being Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, the Whites, and Vince Gill, among others. Before that, she was a singer-songwriter who aimed to revive interest in country music to outsiders who dared not think they ever could enjoy such a simple art form. Before that, she was a disciple of Gram Parsons, who dreamed to fuse country with rock ‘n’ roll and would see that dream through, in part, later on in Harris after his death. Before that, she struggled in Nashville trying to make it as a musician. Before that, she was a drama major at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, who turned to music – particularly folk and country blues – because of their “intense emphasis on lyrics.”

In other words, Harris is a musicologist at heart who represents the very heart, core, and thread holding country music together, and there are very few artists who could claim to be as influential as her. She succeeded on her own terms and introduced country music to a wider audience, all while helping to redefine it. She debuted in the mid-1970s, at a time when critics and fans claimed country music was losing its soul in the ever-ongoing debate of what was and wasn’t country music. Roy Acuff himself said at the time, “I wish that something could happen to turn it around in a different direction than it is going today.” Something did, through a historian’s reverence and a radical’s fiery vision.

Born in Birmingham in 1947, Harris moved from base to base after her father – a Marine Corps officer who became a POW during the Korean War – returned home. She spent her childhood in Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, becoming a straight-A student, saxophonist, and valedictorian of her high school in the process.

Call it a surprise, then, when she became so swept up in the 1960s folk revival that she quit college and moved to New York with her guitar in 1967. She had always been considered an “oddball” in high school, because she “kept her nose buried in her books.” She sought acceptance by singing at parties, and now it was for different reasons altogether. Not to worry, though: She landed gigs at various clubs and recorded a folk LP with Jubille Records – 1969’s Gliding Bird, which she would later describe as “a disaster.” Her first husband recorded the title track, but when the couple moved to Nashville in 1970 with their baby daughter, the industry wanted nothing to do with the long-haired “hippies.” Divorce followed and Harris was left on food stamps and Medicaid as she made a living as a waitress.

“My life, I suppose, has been a feminist one,” Harris noted once in a Nashville magazine article. “I’ve dealt with all the problems that the movement deals with. And I think of myself as being pretty aware. Like in my very early days when I was a working single mother and found that two girls, each with a child, couldn’t share a house and each get food stamps at the same address. There needed to be and there still needs to be a lot of consciousness-raising. Just to know what the issues are, what a woman has to deal with, how to make it easier for her to just live a normal life.”

By age 23, Harris and her child were living in Washington, D.C., with her parents, thinking she had forever retired out of the music business. She still sang, though, and at a chance performance at the popular nightclub Clyde’s in 1971, she met the California country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers. Member Chris Hillman told ex-member Gram Parsons about the remarkable talent he had met, who obviously agreed with Hillman when, one year later, he flew her out to Los Angeles to sing on his solo debut album GP.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons. Photo credit: Jim McCrary

In time, Parsons and Harris would become something of a magnetic duo and would share similarities in spite of one big difference. Parsons was a rock ‘n’ roller who loved authentic country music. Harris, on the other hand, didn’t care for country music “except for Johnny Cash,” she said in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary in 2019. “Folk music was what really spoke to me. I had been in New York trying to make it as a folk singer, still trying to be Joan Baez.”

Parsons’ passion rubbed off on Harris, and rehearsals for that album became something of a tutorial for Harris on the country music of yesterday – like the melodies of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and the tight harmonies of the Louvin Brothers. Her high harmonies complemented Parsons, and together they forged a new musical direction. Harris now wanted to be a country music singer.

While together, though, they wouldn’t be accepted in country music. With Parsons as the “face” of the duo, his image was the definition of rock ‘n’ roll decadence. But their many fine duets speak for themselves: “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning,” originally recorded by Carl and Pearl Butler, and plenty of tracks on Parsons’ follow-up, Grievous Angel: “Love Hurts,” “In My Hour of Darkness,” and a re-imagined Parsons classic in “Hickory Wind.” Before that album was released, however, Parsons died in 1973 from alcohol and drug abuse at age 26, leaving Harris devastated.

In 1975, after being offered a solo contract by Parsons’ record company, she recorded two albums dedicated in part to him and to the country music she had grown to love. The first album, Pieces of the Sky, included an original track as a tribute to Parsons in “Boulder in Birmingham.” Composed with Bill Danoff, she worked through her loss with music, as any great country artist would do.

“That song was very important,” she told the Guardian in 2018. “Words can be so powerful to help you express something you otherwise can’t. And everyone has experienced loss, so even though the song is deeply personal, I can understand how people can relate to it, having to lose someone who is very close to them.”

The album also included tributes to Merle Haggard (in “The Bottle Let Me Down’), Dolly Parton (in “Coat of Many Colors”), and George Jones (in “One of These Days”), among others. The former folkie was “obnoxious,” in her words, “trying to get people to listen to everything.” A single, a cover of the Louvin Brothers classic “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” became a top 10 country hit the year the album was released. And the former folkie who couldn’t make it in Nashville was now welcomed. Jeanne Pruett said, in regards to Harris’ arrival, “She came onto the scene a little bit different, because she came in kinda from the underground side … But she’s as country as a can o’ kraut.” Harris still didn’t care about success and popularity, though – simply getting to play the music was the reward.

Success followed anyway, first with a chart-topping rendition of Buck Owens’ “Together Again,” then with Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams.” Her music, as one Los Angeles critic noted, “was more country than Nashville.” She assembled a leading ensemble of instrumentalists who’d comprise her Hot Band, where several notable country musicians got their own starts. One of them was Rodney Crowell.

In 1975, Harris heard Crowell’s songs after meeting in Washington, D.C. late after a gig. One of them was “Till I Gain Control Again,” a simple meditation on love and what’s required of it. Recorded for her second album that year, Elite Hotel, Harris called it poetic, further stating “That’s what is brilliant about the classic country songs: you can’t get too wordy.” Crowell would become the Hot Band member she’d grow closest to, she’d later say, “like my kid brother.” Crowell would agree: “We just took traditional country music, and Southern rock ‘n’ roll, and rockabilly, and just played it. Just let it have its voice. And it was good fun.”

Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell. Credit: Columbia Records

Indeed, Harris was opening for acts as diverse as Merle Haggard to Bob Dylan to James Taylor, and FM stations would find certain songs to play for their progressive fans while AM stations would find different ones for their hard-core country listeners. She’d also become an early champion of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” (later made famous by Willie Nelson and Haggard), after hearing it when she opened for him in 1968, before her career really took off. “I had never heard those kinds of lyrics with those melodies; the haunting quality in his voice was like the ghost of Hank Williams,” she once said. She’d record the song for her 1977 Luxury Liner album.

She was not traditional, though, and she wasn’t bluegrass and she wasn’t rock or country-rock, for that matter. She was all of that and more, able to be everything while making it all fit seamlessly under the country music umbrella. Crowell’s departure from the Hot Band made room for Ricky Skaggs, who brought with him to the band a deeper connection to bluegrass music. And as the ‘70s roared and country music’s men were branded as outlaws while its women were being geared for pop-crossover success, Harris continued following her own muse. When her record label tried to push her in that direction, she confounded them by turning in the hard-country collection of 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, and followed it up with an outright bluegrass album in 1980’s Roses in the Snow. Rather than be commercial flops, though, they too would be million-selling projects.

“I was actually told that it would be a disaster, and one of them turned out to be my most successful record in the sense that it went gold earlier than any of the other records did, because there was this huge audience for bluegrass music that the regular music industry didn’t know about. I mean, bluegrass music people sold their records from the back of the station wagon. All of a sudden, this was a bluegrass record that was able to be put into the music business machinery.”

She’d also continue seeking out and spotlighting raw talent, like when she recorded Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” from a self-described woman’s point-of-view, significantly changing the tempo and rhythym while still keeping the spirit of the message intact. It would become her third of seven number one hits in 1978. And other artists would learn from her: Crystal Gayle would record “Til I Gain Control Again,” the Oak Ridge Boys would record “Leaving Lousiana in the Broad Daylight,” Lynn Anderson would record “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and Waylon Jennings would record “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”

Solo success, though, began to decline by the mid-’80s. The release of the autobiographical concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose in 1985 marked a huge personal achievement for Harris, but, sadly, wasn’t much of a commercial success. Then, in 1987, she participated in a collaborative effort with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for Trio, which spawned hit singles like “To Know Him Is to Love Him” and “Telling Me Lies” and spotlighted works by female writers, including Jean Ritchie, Linda Thompson, and Kate McGarrigle, among others. All three artists, too, knew the power of drawing on the past to craft the future: Harris would reach into her traditional repertoire for “Farther Along,” and Parton would learn “Rosewood Casket” from her mother.

Dolly Emmy linda
From left to right: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt

Johnny Cash once remarked to journalist Patrick Carr that, “Every so often country has to get back to Emmylou Harris,” but Harris represented the divide that was starting to form in country music’s mainstream and alternative worlds in the 1990s. Alternative country drew part of its roots from Harris: From her ‘70s albums that combined common country music themes of marriage, home, and work with a modernist folk and singer-songwriter irony; her musical melting pot of styles made seamless; and her influence on artists like Rodney Crowell who’d have further influence on artists like Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark and, through others, would inspire some of country music’s richest recordings of the 1980s.

But by the early ‘90s, Harris’ legacy and influence was widely acknowledged by a new crop of female artists, including, among others, Joy Lynn White, Faith Hill, Lisa Stewart, Ronna Reeves, and Lari White. She was moving away from her role as a mainstream country artist, performing three 1991 concerts at the severely decayed Ryman Auditorium, all of which brought attention to the importance of the long-closed relic and helped spur a successful renovation campaign. Starting on May 1, 1991, Harris started a series of shows at the mother church that stretched into 1992. For almost 20 years, the Ryman’s legendary acoustics had gone virtually unused, save for a being the source of a few movie scenes between Nashville (1975), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and Sweet Dreams (1985). And now the home of country music was alive with sound again.

Captured in 1992’s At the Ryman, Harris performed with an all-star acoustic band in Sam Bush, Roy Husky Jr., and Jon Randall, and the bluegrass-inflections of the show predated a roots movement of a different variety that would occur nearly nine years later. She even brought on aging patriarch of bluegrass Bill Monroe, who had first appeared on the Ryman stage in 1939. The album reminded people of the building’s phenomenal acoustics and place in music history. A building about to be destroyed was instead saved by an $8 million renovation project spearheaded by Harris and begun by Gaylord Entertainment. It reopened as a performance venue on June 3, 1994, with Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and Marty Stuart cutting the ribbon and featuring a lobby with bronze statues of both Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl in it. Starting with one weekend in 1999, it began hosting Opry performances again.

Harris, meanwhile, would move towards the alternative wave she helped inspire in later years, crafting the experimental rock album Wrecking Ball in 1995 and championing the songwriting of artists like Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams. She’d also stress her own songwriting with albums like 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble into Grace.

Today, Harris is regarded as a thread tying country music and its history together, and is one of its most essential artists. And though her love for the genre came later in life, she arguably knows its core appeal better than anyone. “I think people have always, from the beginning of time, had a need for stories. If you go back to these old ballads, they seem to be telling your story. They seem to resonate with something in your experience. And, to me, the best songs are universal in the message they have … For me, the sad songs are the best because they make you feel better because, somehow, they connect you to the world: the fact that we’re maybe all in the same boat.”

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