One doesn't think of ethereal-voiced goddess Emmylou Harris as a sports enthusiast. But she is -- the 2001 concert movie "Down From the Mountain" outed Harris as an obsessive baseball fan who carries around a pager to send her up-to-the-minute scores. Harris would like nothing better than to catch a Durham Bulls game while she's in town this week to sing at the NC Museum of Art. She won't have time for that, but she's going to plenty of other games on this tour.
"I've already been to Yankee Stadium, plus games in Toronto, San Francisco and Washington," she said during a recent phone interview from New York City. "It just depends on when we have a day off that's not a travel day. I'm a Braves fan, which has been a little frustrating the past few years. But that's part of baseball."
Harris has never played baseball herself, except for the occasional game of wiffleball with her kids: "I was not very athletic in school. I was more into going off into the woods and trekking around, so I was a bit of a tomboy that way. But team sports, I was not into. I had one daughter who was an amazing volleyball player, so I drove the team around during junior high and high school. I applaud sports for women and regret not getting into them."
For more, the rest of the interview from this past Friday's paper is below. So is an older Harris interview from 2004, discussing a range of stuff including long-ago college days in North Carolina. Her Wednesday night show in Raleigh is, alas, already soldout.
Harris, charmed and charming
By David Menconi, News & Observer
June 20, 2008
Emmylou Harris has the sort of life and career that lesser mortals can only dream about. She moves in rarefied circles, gliding with seeming effortlessness from one incredibly cool project to the next. Recent years have found Harris touring, recording and singing with an array of big wheels including Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Patty Griffin dear friends all. Harris was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this past April.
Remarkably, all of this just seems to happen more or less on its own. A large part of that is Harris' voice, versatile and dulcet, which is a welcome addition to almost any musical context. But part of it also comes down to Harris herself, a universally beloved figure who seems to be proof that you get back what you put out into the world.
"It does seem to just kind of happen, yes," Harris says, calling from New York City. "I'm lucky that way. I'm not out there trying to drum up business, if you know what I mean. Like Mark Knopfler, who is so easy to sing with. He's really good friends with Paul Kennerley, my ex-husband, who is still like my best friend. So we ran in the same circles and it just sort of happened organically. It wasn't this music business thing of, 'Let's put these two together!' It started with him wanting me to sing a couple of songs on his album and grew from there."
Harris performs Wednesday in Raleigh at the N.C. Museum of Art, touring behind her just-released album "All I Intended to Be" (Nonesuch Records). That follows up her 2006 collaboration with Knopfler, "All the Roadrunning," on which Harris and the Dire Straits frontman conjure up vocal harmonies you just might not think possible.
Harris' angelic, lighter-than-air voice seems an odd match for Knopfler's gruff pub-rock bray, yet they fit together wonderfully. One has to wonder: Is there anybody Harris can't sing with?
"Oh, it usually works," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes it's better than others, of course. But usually you can come up with something that's at least ... interesting."
Singing with friends
Plenty of Harris' friends turn up on "All I Intended to Be," including Parton, the McGarrigle Sisters, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller (recently anointed "Artist of the Decade" by No Depression magazine) and John Starling from The Seldom Scene. Also back in the fold is producer Brian Ahern, Harris' former husband, who produced her first 11 albums in the 1970s and early '80s. This is their first full-length work together in 25 years.
"All I Intended to Be" gives a bit more prominence to acoustic instruments than has been typical for Harris in recent years. But for the most part, it continues in the vein of spectral, ethereal country-folk that Harris staked out with 1995's Daniel Lanois-produced "Wrecking Ball."
"I do think every producer puts a stamp on things," Harris says. "This might be more of a return to the simpler sound I had at the beginning. As everybody grows and changes, you add to your repertoire whether you're a singer or producer or songwriter. This is where Brian and I are at this point. But it wasn't any grand thing. We'd worked together off and on since the breakup. After the dust settled and we got to raising our daughter, certain projects would come up where I'd ask Brian for help. This was our first full project since then. Since we both live in Nashville, it just seemed like time."
Also serving an old-friend role are some of the songs on "All I Intended to Be" (a line from Billy Joe Shaver's "Old Five and Dimers Like Me"). The opening track, "Shores of White Sand," is a song Harris has had her eye on since Karen Brooks first recorded it in 1982. A few Harris originals are on the album, but most of the track list comes from other writers including Griffin, the McGarrigle Sisters, Tracy Chapman and Merle Haggard.
"I've been collecting songs for so long, I don't even know how I go about it anymore," Harris says. "It's just something I do, gather them up. I've always been a collector and coverer of songs. When I went to make this album, I didn't have a lot of songs written. Just a few. So I thought it was maybe time to address some of these gems I'd been meaning to get to."
'Like a shining star'
Particularly striking is "Broken Man's Lament," written and originally recorded by North Carolina native Mark Germino more than 20 years ago and a song Harris says is "like a shining star." It's a shatteringly tragic meditation on lost loves and wasted lives falling apart, narrated by a man whose stifled wife left him:
Now I live my life in silence,
Though I'm not quite in a shell.
I drink and listen to the song
"A Whiter Shade of Pale,"
Oh, "A Whiter Shade of Pale."
This doesn't seem like a song Harris could relate to. And yet she sells it.
"Well, it happens to everybody, doesn't it?" Harris says. "I have had a charmed life, but that doesn't mean I'm cut off from the universe and what people have to go through. That song is very specific in the details, but that doesn't keep you from being able to relate to it. I can relate to the mistakes one makes in relationships, including the other character who's not fully fleshed out but is definitely present, the wife.
"It's like telling a short story, reading aloud," she concludes. "Reading aloud is a lovely thing. Sometimes I'll read a passage aloud to myself if it's really stunning, to hear the sound of the words. But mostly, I read to our children. 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' is more my speed."
Sidebar: Emmylou's spiritual progeny
Emmylou Harris first gained notice as duet partner of the late great Gram Parsons, who died in 1973. She has continued to carry Parsons' stylistic flame since then, serving as inspiration to generations of singers straddling rock, folk and country:
Alison Krauss -- Fittingly, Krauss' voice played the role of siren in the 2000 movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," singing a bewitching seduction song in harmony with Harris and Gillian Welch.
Patty Griffin -- Superlative singer/songwriter Harris has long championed, and covered. Harris, Griffin and Shawn Colvin played Chapel Hill last January on a tour dubbed "Three Girls and Their Buddy" (with guitarist Buddy Miller, another Harris associate, currently playing on the Krauss/Robert Plant tour).
Beth Orton -- Dusky-voiced English singer whose electronic-influenced folk bears some resemblance to the ambient albums Harris has been making since the mid-1990s.
Tres Chicas -- The local trio of Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm would be a perfect backup choir for Harris (hint, hint). Harris has also sung with Cary's former Whiskeytown bandmate Ryan Adams.
Tift Merritt -- When Harris played on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" on June 12, Triangle expatriate Merritt was there as one of her backup singers.
Kelly Clarkson -- Seriously. Like Harris, seemingly everyone loves the season-one "American Idol" winner, even people you wouldn't expect (including uber-hip indie-rocker Ted Leo). Clarkson has even moved in a country direction of late, touring with Reba McEntire.
Emmylou, enduring: 'Always trying to jump-start yourself'
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Aug. 13, 2004
In certain circles, getting Emmylou Harris to sing on your record is not unlike the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Quavering with emotion, the angelic tones of Harris' voice make it one of the most instantly identifiable instruments in popular music. In recent years, Harris has leant her inimitable vibrato to records by Ryan Adams, the Dixie Chicks, Chieftains, Patty Griffin and countless others.
"Let's face it, when Emmylou starts singing anything, everybody just stands up and salutes," says Bernie Leadon, whose new album features Harris on two songs. "She has so much emotional weight and integrity in her voice, and is such a gracious, giving person. She sings one word, and you just believe it."
Harris, who plays Saturday at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park on the "Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue," sounds like such a natural singer that you might be surprised at just how much it takes out of her. Indeed, she gets so many requests to sing on other records that she's had to start being more selective about it.
"At a certain point, I had to start saying no, I can't keep doing this for everybody," Harris says, speaking by phone from her manager's office in Nashville. "As much as I'm honored to be asked, it's just too much work for me if I'm not that familiar with the person's work. So I finally decided I just have to know the person before I'll do it. It would be easier if I were a quick study and could breeze through it in a half-hour -- like Dolly, she's so fast. But after all these years ... well, I still don't understand headphones. And it's still traumatic for me. If I'm amongst friends, I don't feel so panicky and can enjoy the process. So usually I just say it has to be a close friend, or a relative."
But the thing is, Harris hasn't really narrowed the field down by much because she has a lot of close friends -- she's on a first-name basis with Dolly Parton, after all. One of the most universally beloved figures in Nashville, Harris is one of those consensus artists that almost everyone seems to like. She first gained notice as the late Gram Parsons' duet foil in the early 1970s, appearing with him on two landmark albums that defined the emerging country-rock genre. Since then, she's been influential among both country and rock singers, including her current touring partners Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch.
Before finding her voice as a singer, however, Harris spent some time around these parts. She put in three semesters at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as a drama major.
"Yes, I wanted to be an actress," she says, dramatically enunciating that last word with a snicker. "I suppose I had a certain amount of talent. But once I really got into music and realized the difference between what I knew instinctively as a singer and what I knew instinctively as an actress, you could not even compare the two. I just didn't have that chip in me for acting, and I don't feel like having acted helped me as a singer. Acting felt like an alien environment, whereas music felt like I'd found home. I suppose people who are really good at acting feel what I feel when I sing."
After Parsons' death in 1973, Harris spent the next two decades playing earthy music with rock elements, but firmly rooted in country. She fell midway between Parton's pure country and Linda Ronstadt's countrified rock, and all three women teamed up for 1987's hugely successful "Trio" project. Harris also sang on the mega-popular soundtrack of 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," as a siren's voice on "Don't Leave Nobody But the Baby" (with Welch and Alison Krauss).
Nine years ago, Harris changed artistic courses rather drastically on "Wrecking Ball," an album produced by Daniel Lanois, whose credits include Peter Gabriel and U2. On covers of songs by Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and even Jimi Hendrix, Lanois set Harris' voice within atmospheric arena-rock arrangements far removed from traditional country music, creating a strange and mesmerizing cosmic hybrid.
"You're always trying to jump-start yourself and get excited," Harris says. "If you're lucky enough to find something great at the beginning of your career, you stick to that. You have to change some, but it has to come from a combination of organic and natural change, and sometimes making a big decision to take some chances. People thought I was taking a big chance with Daniel, but I knew it would at least be interesting and I jumped at the chance to work with him. Whatever he did, it really moved me. I didn't exactly know what it was, but I wanted some of that; to see what he could do to what I did. I wasn't prepared for how beautiful and exquisite his work would be on that record.
"To me, producers are artists with particular styles and abilities," she adds. "It's really important to choose to work with a producer you trust, and not fight them. It's a formula that's really worked for me."
Harris continues in a similar direction on her current album, "Stumble Into Grave" (Nonesuch Records), sympathetically produced by Lanois understudy Malcolm Burn. Exotic rhythmic accents creep into songs such as "Here I Am" and "Time in Babylon." And "O Evangeline" reimagines Longfellow's tale of the martyred young lover Evangeline, who dies of a broken heart, as someone who goes on to lead a long and full life -- a character not unlike the 57-year-old Harris herself.
"That character is an archetype in our psyche and our culture," Harris says. "The name Evangeline conjures up certain images that we all sort of respond to, and that song does not talk about Evangeline as a young woman who died tragically for love -- which is not what happened, historically. In actuality, Evangeline lived to be an old woman who did many good works. So that's a song about growing old and dealing with your self-image, and other people's image of you that may be stuck in time."