GRAMMY lifetime achievement award winner, Emmylou Harris has had a truly remarkable career. The 74 year old has inspired millions across the years and has become a staple of the country, folk and bluegrass genres. Over the years she has worked both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with a range of different people and is very well respected by those working in the industry. Her latest record allows Harris to take a trip down memory lane as the recordings of her Nashville concert, with the Nash Ramblers, in 1990 is unearthed.
Where it all began
A lot of stalwarts of the genre got their start in the industry by being surrounded by music, perhaps their parents played in a band or their grandparents had them singing in church before they could even talk. For Emmylou Harris, her childhood was very different; she grew up on a military base as her father was in the marine corps and so Harris wasn’t exposed to a lot of music growing up. “Music wasn’t really a big part of our lives, my parents weren’t against it or anything. We went to an Episcopal Church, which is not known for its great melodies or hymns and the record store was just the one on the base.” Nevertheless, Harris managed to find records that jumped out at her and inspired her at the time. “There was a particular record I loved called ‘The Voice of Ireland’ by Ruby Murray. I listened back to it years ago and thought ‘God, this is so overly orchestrated’ – nothing that I would like now as far as production, but you can’t take away the beauty of those songs. Songs like Galway Bay, they have beautiful melodies. I think we had one Elvis record as well that unfortunately had Old Shep on it, which is the saddest song in the world if you’re a dog lover!”
It was clear from an early age that Harris had a knack for performance as she won a drama scholarship to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and it was here that she began to study music. Around this time, she began to really hone her craft as a songwriter. “I would say for the most part, I write from personal experience, although I have written some songs, I suppose about social issues – a few of them. For example, I wrote a song about Emmett Till and I wrote some other songs that I was actually asked to sing at a Unitarian Church, that deal with the struggle for enlightenment – songs like The Pearl and Cup of Kindness but for the most part it comes from personal experience.” She began to collaborate with other writers and artists but her process remained the same for the most part. “I bring a few lines and an idea to the process. I usually write the same way each time, although on the last record I wrote for, which was ‘Hard Bargain’, there were a few songs where I actually got a melody first, which is very unusual for me. I usually start almost exclusively with lyrics.”
Despite having so much success as an individual, as a solo singer, Harris took part in some historic and very beautiful collaborations over the years. One of her first collaborations was with Gram Parsons of The Flying Burrito Brothers, their vocal harmonies captured audiences hearts every night as the pair shone on stage together. They became great friends and collaborated up until he suddenly passed away. During this time Harris turned to another good friend and fellow performer who offered comfort to the grieving Harris, Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt and Harris would later team up with Dolly Parton as they created ‘Trio’. “There’s just nothing like singing with other people, you know, because everyone’s voice is unique. So when those voices combine, you create another voice that can’t exist without that other person. It’s just a joy, I’m so grateful to have worked with so many of these people who have now become dear friends – almost like my extended family.”
Whether it was Harris taking centre stage as a soloist, singing back-up for Parsons or harmonising with Ronstadt and Parton, one thing prevailed for Harris – it was all about serving the song. “I don’t think your mindset changes from one performance to the next. If you’re singing a duet on somebody else’s work, that is their work, and you’re conscious of that. Like doing harmonies to go along with that lead, you’re making sure you’re not overshadowing, you’re just trying to partner with them so you have to be mindful of that. But ultimately, in any situation it’s about serving the song. So you just become other instruments, just like the lead guitar player, or pedal steel player. That’s just a wonderful experience.”
Flawless yet real
For her latest album ‘Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert (1990)’ Harris is able to take a trip down memory lane to reflect upon the shows of the past – something we have all missed this past year. The recording no one knew existed is of a home town show in Nashville in 1990 where Harris was performing with the Nash Ramblers. “Oh, it was extraordinary to hear it again because I had forgotten that we even recorded that night. None of my band remembered it and even our producer Alan Reynolds. I think shortly after that we all did a regular sort of Country Album and then we did ‘At The Ryman’, which was all songs that we just sort of sketched out and then recorded on the fly at the Ryman. I guess it just got lost in the shuffle so it was an incredible surprise.”
The band was so professional, so tight that it barely needed altering. The memories of that magical time came flooding back to Harris. “To hear that band, fresh off the road, because we had been touring pretty heavily. When I heard it, I was astonished, there was not one single note that had to be changed, there was not one single fix… We could have probably put it out exactly as it was. It’s completely, purely a live performance captured like a photograph in that moment, that concert captured in time. So, it was a real gift to hear it. I’m very proud of it. I’m very grateful that I had that band and I had that experience with those guys.”
Harris and her Ramblers found hidden treasures within the lost recordings and discovered new favourites within their past repertoire, including her favourite song on the record. “Oddly enough, my favourite song is the song I think that we had all forgotten about. It somehow disappeared from the Ramblers repertoire. It’s a song called The Price I Pay which Sam starts to lead. It’s a very fast, furious, wonderful showcase for their brilliant playing and a great vehicle for this duet which Sam and I do, written by Chris Hillman.” She remembers the moment they heard it once again, “I didn’t even recognise the song when the introduction started and Sam, who played that intro had the same reaction. I’m excited that people will get a chance to hear it again.”
A glance to the future
For Harris, the awards and accolades that she has won over her fifty year career fall away, it is the music she has made alongside her good friends that brings her pride. “I’m very grateful for all the awards but, you know, it’s all about the music. It’s the work and being able to do my own music and to work on other people’s music. I wish I could pinpoint one moment, but I’m sort of grateful for all of them.” But whilst she takes a moment to pause and look back on past performances with the release of this new album, the world begins to open up again and she snaps back to the present, glancing tentatively to the future. “I’m finally getting back on the road. A lot of the dates that were postponed last year are coming back, so I’m getting back to touring. I am trying to work on a memoir in my spare time as well, and I had a lot of spare time here recently” she laughs before concluding with a little nugget of life advice; “I kind of look on each day as an adventure, I’m thankful, I’m grateful for each day that I have with my family, my friends and my animals.”
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