With a career that has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, garnered a remarkable 12 Grammy Awards and stirred music lovers for more than thirty years and counting, Emmylou Harris has been rightfully hailed as a major figure in several of America’s most important musical movements of the past three decades. A steadfast supporter of roots music and a skilled interpreter of compelling songs, she also has been associated with a diverse and dazzling array of admiring collaborators from Bright Eyes to Tammy Wynette and from Neil Young to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
The songbird’s contributions to country-rock, the bluegrass revival, folk music, and the Americana movement are widely lauded, and in recent years Emmylou Harris certainly has carved out a sound that is uniquely her own. Her 1995 Wrecking Ball was a watershed album for her, combining several world-music elements with acoustic instruments, driving percussion, and a folk/roots flavor, and in general catching audiences by surprise, as Harris yet again reinvented her sound. The new style would evolve on a number of Harris’ subsequent releases, including 1998’s Spyboy, 1999’s Western Wall (a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt), 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble into Grace.
Harris took up guitar as a teenager inspired by the folk music of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Judy Collins. Starving-artist stints in New York City and Nashville led to regular club work in Washington D.C. where Chris Hillman first saw Emmylou perform. Hillman and country-rock visionary Gram Parsons had been band mates in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, but now Gram was on his own doing solo material, and had told his former band mate he was looking for “a chick singer” for his first solo record.
Hillman had seen Harris perform at a club in DC and told Parsons about Emmylou, but neither gentleman knew how to get in touch with her until a chance encounter between Harris’ babysitter, Hillman and Parsons led to Emmylou on a plane to Los Angeles in 1972 to sing on Parsons’ first record. Harris went on to become Gram’s permanent duet partner and, as such, set a new standard for harmonies and duet vocals.
“I lucked into this whole thing,” she comments. “One little millimeter would have made the difference. If my babysitter hadn’t been at that Flying Burrito Brothers concert and given Gram my phone number, if Gram hadn’t come into my life, who knows what would have become of me?”
After Parsons’ untimely death, Emmylou emerged as a solo star with Pieces of the Sky in 1975. The album electrified the country-music world, becoming the first in a series of annual gold or platinum albums through the ‘70s. Her next 3 releases (Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon in a Ten-Cent Town) made her an unquestioned country-rock leader, and since then Emmylou Harris has been regarded as a key figure in the movement that united rock audiences with country traditionalists. She made country music “hip” and brought it to a vast youth market for the first time. Then she led the way back to neo-traditionalist sounds with 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl. The following year’s Roses In the Snow paved the road toward the bluegrass revival during the ‘80s – an era of urban cowboys and country-pop. Emmylou rose to become the authentic voice of country with these albums, as well as Evangeline, Cimarron and Bluebird.
By the early 1990s Harris changed her sound again with the acoustic band The Nash Ramblers and honored one of country music’s most legendary concert halls with the Grammy-winning Live at the Ryman CD of 1992. Just three years later, Emmylou took a leading role in yet another musical revolution—the Americana movement that gave country music its “alternative” wing. Continuing to expand boundaries, this time Emmylou paired with producer Daniel Lanois and reinvented her sound for her 1995 watershed album, Wrecking Ball, for which she earned another Grammy award. The album was hailed by critics as a masterpiece and portrayed a new side of Emmylou – spiritual yet sexual, and a woman with very eclectic tastes. She followed Wrecking Ball with the live album Spyboy and closed the decade with a powerful album of duets with Linda Ronstadt, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.
With 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou released the first album of her career that was nearly entirely comprised of Harris-penned songs. The album, and its follow-up, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, revealed a remarkable songwriting talent in Emmylou Harris, and further demonstrated Harris’ diverse musical influences, mixing world music instrumentation and rock rhythms into her country and folk confidence and verve.
The wide range of Harris’ repertoire is mirrored by the musicians who have sought her out as a collaborator. She has recorded with artists from such diverse points on the musical compass as The Band, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Bright Eyes, Bob Dylan, Little Feat, Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, Bill Monroe, Lyle Lovett, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, Lucinda Williams, and George Jones. Stars such as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jon Randall and The Whites have emerged from the ranks of her bands.
Harris is invited to perform everywhere from colleges and Universities to Carnegie Hall and from the massive Bonnaroo jam-band rock festival to bluegrass events, headlining San Francisco’s annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and making a nearly-annual visit to Telluride, Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “That just delights me,” admits Emmylou. “It proves what I’ve always thought: that people are eclectic in their tastes, just like me.” For the most part, I think people just want to hear good music.”
Billboard magazine honored Emmylou Harris with its prestigious Century Award in 1999, aptly calling her a “truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder. The Los Angeles Times praises the unfaltering quality of her work, saying, Emmylou Harris “has made consistently outstanding musical choices over her 35-plus-year career.” But perhaps even more outstanding than her selections, is her beautifully crystalline voice, about which the New York Times says, it “inhabits her songs like a wraith, intangible but omnipresent.”
In 2007, Rhino Records celebrates Emmylou’s distinguished career with a 4-CD, 1-DVD boxed set featuring previously unreleased material, demos, studio tracks, collaborative work with other artists, and a DVD of videos and performances beginning with The Hot Band in the 1970s. Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems releases September 18, 2007. Her forthcoming studio album will release on Nonesuch records in the spring of 2008.