If Emmylou Harris has attained living legend status, it is as an enduring
queen of country music. It's a deserved reputation if you strip away her recent
achievements, which have little to do with country music yet continue
unbroken the thread running through her nearly 30-year career. Harris'
real talent -- only fully revealed in the past five years -- has been her
ability to thoroughly reinvent herself while remaining true to her original
sensibility. Today, by force and choice, she has given over her
country crown to the vacuous likes of Shania Twain. But she remains what
she's always essentially been: the high-plains diva. The diva of loss.
Harris was born on April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, Ala., but grew up as an Army brat in the Washington suburbs. She abandoned college to sing in folk clubs,
eventually winding up in Greenwich Village, where she cut an ill-fated solo
album. She moved back to D.C. and continued playing. One night she was
introduced to Gram Parsons, a young singer-songwriter looking for a female
singer. Much has been made of Harris' passionate relationship with Parsons, and
rightly so. As a Harvard dropout on a trust fund, he hardly had country
music in his soul, but he loved it and wrote it and gave Harris the
direction she might not have found otherwise. They made two albums together
before he died in the desert of a drug overdose in 1973. On those albums,
Harris was the angel who both anchored and elevated his rough-hewn
warblings. Whatever the intricacies of their personal relationship, his
life gave her the voice. His death gave her the sensibility.
Not surprisingly, Harris' first three solo albums after Parsons' death were haunted by loss. She worked with musicians he had worked
with. She reinterpreted a number of his songs. A photograph of Harris
against the desert and the sky -- straight dark hair, gauzy dress, starkly
beautiful face -- would set her image. Every lyric of "Boulder to
Birmingham," a direct response to Parsons' death, offers insight into
everything she's done since. Her vocals on these albums, particularly on
the slow songs, are so achingly pure they take your breath away. But it is
a single "Hallelujah" from the Parsons song "She" that stands out in her
singing. She pushes her voice just hard enough for the purity to falter
into hoarseness. That one word is filled with darkness and joy and sexual longing,
the sound of the angel coming down to earth.
As the '70s ended and country music edged toward "Urban Cowboy,"
Harris became the uncompromising traditionalist, a lone voice of
authenticity in an era of mechanical bulls. With "Blue Kentucky Girl" and
"Roses in the Snow," her most purely country albums to date, she cemented
her reputation as queen of a country genre that looked back with taste and
reverence. The records were regarded skeptically by industry bigwigs but
were embraced by critics and, ironically, by those who would be embarrassed to
call themselves country, much less bluegrass, fans. Emmylou was the thinking
man's country star. Forever the young woman on the cover of "Roses in the
Snow" -- austere beauty holding steady amid strands of silver, a bit of
bruised lipstick, a pale shoulder against a woodsy backdrop, the earthly
angel -- her vocals perfectly matched the image, treading an ever-narrower
path. Too bad the angel got restless.
Most of the people I know who own Emmylou Harris records have one or two from the '70s. Few, besides those of us willing to follow our diva wherever
she might lead, have noticed that by the end of the '80s, at the time of
"Bluebird," she is no longer the dark-haired beauty against the sky. Her
hair is more silver than black, the dress less gauzy as she twirls in an
empty white room, a city room. A black-and-white close-up reveals a face as
delicate as cut glass. On "Lonely Street," sounding as empty as the room on
the cover looks, the voice that had once soared reaches for the sky and
cracks. The voice is about loss now too.
Looking back, I see songs from "Bluebird" as the first signs of Harris'
'90s reawakening. There would be others, as she dropped her longtime
Hot Band to go all acoustic and as her record company dropped her. She
divorced for the third time; the material got more spiritual; the tattered
yet reinvigorated voice returned to the front of the mix, tinged now with a
mature blend of sexuality and despair. It all came together in the
perfectly titled "Wrecking Ball." Given the luxury of picking
her producer, Harris chose Daniel Lanois, known for producing U2. For those out
of touch with her since 1980, the new voice -- light as a feather, rough as
sandpaper, a razor-edged break between her lower and upper registers -- was as shocking as the harshly grainy cover photo. A missed note in a
Bob Dylan tune stays. She sings Gram's part now, too. The sensibility hasn't
changed a bit.
Since then Harris has toured the world with her "Wrecking Ball" band, who bring a needed freshness to her country repertoire. Lately, she's been singing with musicians who were kids
in her heyday: Luscious Jackson, Beck, the women of Lilith Fair. She's still
singing with people she's always sung with: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, the McGarrigles and her musical soul mate, Linda Ronstadt, with whom she's just released a duet
album called "Western Wall." She's bringing heartbreak to new places. To
see how far she's come and how little she's strayed since the beginning, check out the rooftop photograph inside "Western Wall" and listen a few times to her own tunes as well as David Olney's gorgeous "1917." They're why I've been
listening for more than 20 years. The country angel is gone; the high plains
diva is here to stay.