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Emmylou Harris: Finding Songs, One at a Time

Sept. 8, 2007

"For me," says Emmylou Harris, "it's always about finding a song, one at a time, that I love and that I can make my own." With her luminous, bell-clear voice, Harris has been turning up great songs and taking full possession of them for almost four decades, as documented on Songbird, a new and comprehensive four-CD, 78-song box set.

Harris, 60, has traveled countless musical paths in that time. An aspiring folk singer, in 1971 she was recommended to groundbreaking country-rocker Gram Parsons by Chris Hillman, the fellow Byrds alumnus who left the folk-rock band to co-found the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons. Singing harmony with Parsons, alongside the Fallen Angels band, Harris helped create a new merger of traditional country sounds with a rock 'n' roll spirit; the music Parsons made before his death in 1973 has left a lasting mark on both country and rock ever since.

In the 1970s and '80s, Harris recorded a series of unpredictable masterworks, from the loose-limbed rock of "Elite Hotel" to the crystalline bluegrass of "Roses in the Snow." She also recorded with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings; sang with Bob Dylan on his 1975 album "Desire"; and joined the Band for their historic farewell concert, the Last Waltz. The 1987 "Trio" album saw Harris combining forces with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; it sold several million copies and was nominated for a Grammy as Album of the Year. "It all followed in some kind of path, unfolding in front of me," says Harris of her career, "and I just said, 'Well, OK.'"

She continued to explore different musical forms into the 1990s, taking a radical new direction with the moody, atmospheric sound of producer Daniel Lanois (Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel) for 1995's astonishing "Wrecking Ball." The next few years saw Harris concentrating more on her own songwriting, and remaining musically closer to rock than to Nashville. Still, in 2002, CMT ranked her No. 5 on its list of the "40 Greatest Women in Country Music."

Most recently, Harris worked with Elvis Costello and with new sensations Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams; played a featured part singing harmony in Neil Young's 2006 concert film "Heart of Gold"; and recorded a duet project with Mark Knopfler, "All the Roadrunning," followed by a joint tour and live album. On an August afternoon, Emmylou Harris explained the planning, execution, and revelations of the ambitious "Songbird" set, which is subtitled "Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems." The die-hard Atlanta Braves fan also took a moment to celebrate the unlikely triumph of the St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel, and to reflect on the late-season pennant races. "Every day is exciting right now," says Harris. "Baseball just breaks your heart, doesn't it?"

MSN Music: Can you describe the process of putting "Songbird" together? How did you go through this massive amount of material and make these selections?

Emmylou Harris: It was kind of a two-part project. The first two discs are songs from my solo albums, so that was a little easier -- I eliminated all the songs that were on greatest hits packages and other compilations, with just a few exceptions. A lot of them are the studio tracks I really loved that never made it into the live performances. So for that part, we had some parameters, and it worked out to a couple songs from each release, pretty much.

The third and fourth CDs are taken from collaborations, outtakes, soundtracks -- and I had no idea how much stuff I had done over the years. James (Austin, the set's co-producer) would FedEx me tapes, and every few days, more stuff he'd found would show up.

There were some things that I knew ahead of time I wanted to include, like the demo of "All I Left Behind" -- I thought that was really a little jewel -- and some of the things from the "Legend of Jesse James" project. And also the tribute records, some of those you can't find anymore, like the Gram Parsons record (1999's "Return of the Grievous Angel," shepherded by Harris). The outtakes from "Trio" are just stunning. I made a copy of one of those songs for my mother, and she was literally the only person who had it.

What were the biggest surprises that turned up?

The alternate version of "Clocks" -- I didn't even know we had any alternates, we did that record (her obscure 1970 debut, "Gliding Bird") so fast. And the song "Falling in a Deep Hole," I still don't remember when and where I recorded that. I knew it had to be in my Washington years, when I came back to stay with my family and raise my daughter, and there was this wonderful couple (Bill and Taffy Danoff) who helped me on the club scene, and that was one of their songs. At first, I didn't even recognize it, it was just vaguely familiar. I still don't know where James even found it. Even after they told me what it was, I still wasn't sure. Is that terrible?

"The outtakes from "Trio" are just stunning. I made a copy of one of those songs for my mother, and she was literally the only person who had it."
--Emmylou Harris

So it's great to be able to -- I hate to use the word, but to be able to share those things. It was a good opportunity to gather things that were very special, but not attached to any of the solo releases. There's really so much to choose from, I could almost put out another volume!

As you listened to all of these songs, what did you hear changing in your own voice? How do you think your actual singing has evolved?

I don't know if I really hear much that's different. Each record was such a steppingstone, one album followed another followed another. Even something like "Wrecking Ball," which for some people was so jarring -- I had a lot of those songs on tapes that I kept of songs that I wanted to record sometime. Then we went in with Dan (Lanois) and Malcolm (Burn, engineer) and it took on that sound, which seemed to shock some people, but it just energized me. It seemed like such a natural progression. But it's hard for me to be objective about those things, because I'm at the center of it.

So on the first two discs, these are songs I had chosen for my solo work, where a lot of the rest are things that people asked me to do. With the tributes, it's like you're given a homework assignment, though you do have to get very involved. The "Jesse James" stuff already existed, and I was chosen to play a dramatic role, so to speak, and those two songs were designated for me. It's all part of the musical journey. A lot of it is about responding to other musicians and other ideas. I love the collaborative part -- even on your own records, you don't ever work in a vacuum.

A few of your collaborations with Gram Parsons come at the top of the first disc. What did you take from your work with Gram that stayed with you in the years that followed?

Well, there's a jarring difference from "Clocks" -- where I was really a Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell wannabe -- to the song that comes next (Parsons' version of the Louvin Brothers' "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night"). I had never played with a band before, or with a drummer. Singing with Gram really honed my voice, helped me to counteract the sweetness but still keep it in there. And not being at the center, in the spotlight, I think that helped me find my own solo voice -- of course, I would have had to find it after Gram died anyway.

But with Gram, I found that I loved playing with a band, that I loved that country music of the Louvin Brothers, loved singing harmony. But since I came to music as a folksinger, that was always still in me, too. It was almost like the big bang, when everything really started for me as a vocalist and as a stylist.

Were you aware at the time that it was such a transformative influence?

It's a very natural, very blessed thing -- you don't think about it, you just know that you've found the place in the world where you're supposed to be. You always carry those moments with you, those things that change you forever. And then as I went on to work with all these other amazing musicians, it was a very creative time. It built my confidence up, I learned to trust my instincts and learned how to make records. In that protective, creative environment, I was able to continue the process of becoming a singer. Remember, most of my work is as an interpreter; only recently have people taken me seriously as a songwriter, though I did write before on (1984's) "Ballad of Sally Rose" album.

Why didn't you explore your songwriting more actively earlier in your career?

There were always lots of songs out there that I wanted to sing, and there weren't many people covering those songs. I was one of the first to hear Rodney Crowell's songs, I heard Townes Van Zandt when he was still relatively unknown outside of a certain literary following. So I had these writers -- that was brand-new, incredible stuff, and it was like striking your own vein of gold.

Gram was among the first to explore connections between country music and rock and folk, and to break those barriers down a bit. How do you think the relationship between the genres seems at this point?

It's kind of an odd situation with -- I suppose they call it "Americana" now. I'm not saying that Gram is totally responsible for that music, but he was certainly right there, bringing those things together, before other people were. So now you have people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, all mixed in with Townes and Guy (Clark), and you don't hear a lot of that influence on mainstream country radio. In fact, it was really because of the lack of interest in the "Cowgirl's Prayer" album, which was more traditional, that I felt I could go farther out in left field with "Wrecking Ball."

Still, though, I think it's pretty healthy, with the Internet and satellite radio. You don't have to be on top 40 radio for people to hear you. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" sold millions of copies and won all those Grammys, and it got hardly any airplay on country radio. But you have to be positive -- a lot of people who had never heard bluegrass bought that record and heard Ralph Stanley, which has to be a good thing, and then went deeper into it and discovered this incredibly rich vein of music, which you're not gonna hear unless you're listening to your local NPR station on Sunday morning. The point being that the music is actually available now -- before, you had to go find the Japanese imports!

Mainstream country radio is poorer for not playing this stuff, but I also understand the engine of top 40, and it's always going to be there. It's not new and it's not going to go away. And I think we're in a lot healthier situation because of these new formats, and even music that gets onto soundtracks. There's a much more expansive, well-educated, more open audience out there. You're not just gonna hear one kind of music on their iPods.

As "Songbird" makes clear, in recent years you've become known as much for your harmony singing and accompaniment as for your solo work. Do you have a different approach, a different plan of attack, whether you're singing for your own session or singing alongside someone else?

I don't approach it differently. Your voice is an instrument, and it needs to serve the song, to serve the project. You need to find the best way to get the emotional impact of the song across, and each song is different.

Musicians, at least the ones that I work with, are really pretty egoless about the music. People might have a hard time believing that, but it really is true. Like with the "Trio" record -- whoever sang the lead was whoever would sound best on that particular song, and we all thought the harmony was just as important as the lead.

So in that environment, it's easy. It's not, "Am I coming off well?", "Do I have enough time to do this?" It's really about sublimating yourself to the music, and that's the most important thing.

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