In a career now approaching four decades, Emmylou Harris has done nearly everything an artist in the roots music field could ever hope to do, from sustaining a career in the face of Nashville’s constantly changing trends, to collaborating with Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Band, Dolly Parton, and many others.
That’s not to say she hasn’t had her ups and downs. Yet, since her acclaimed 1995 album with Daniel Lanois, Wrecking Ball, Harris has been a major factor in the rise of Americana as a serious art form. On her latest album, All I Intended To Be, Harris looks back in some ways, reuniting with ex-husband and producer Brian Ahern, and choosing material that, in several cases, she has wanted to record for years.
Yet, whether she is singing one of her own compositions or interpreting someone else’s, that unmistakably haunting voice never fails to plumb the emotional depths of each song. I connected with Harris at her Nashville home on the eve of her upcoming Canadian tour stops in Montreal on Oct. 18 and Kitchener on Oct. 20.
You’re hitting some cities off the beaten track on this tour. Do you enjoy playing in new places?
I’m happy to be anywhere, and I’m glad we’re going into Canada. I don’t believe I’ve played some of those places before, but then again sometimes I feel like Hank Snow – “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
So the new material has been fitting into the show well?
Yeah, we toured pretty aggressively last year when the album came out. In between I’ve been doing some really lovely shows with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller, called “Three Girls and Their Buddy.” We just pull from those songs that work in an in-the-round setting with one acoustic guitar. It’ll be nice to get back to a full band where we can kind of play anything. So there will be some songs from… I guess it’s still the new record. It’s the last record, anyway.
I was told that you recently took time off to do some writing.
Yeah, I’ve been off since the Fourth of July. I’ve been home, just sort of locking myself away. The last record was mainly a combination of a few songs I’d written, and some covers. That’s been a big part of my entire career; I’ve been more of an interpreter. But then every once in a while I have to set aside some time to flex my writing muscle. I don’t think I’ll be doing any of the brand new songs on this tour, unless I feel particularly inspired. I’ll wait until I record them.
In that period when you made Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace, it seemed like you were writing more than at any other time in your career. Have you felt any pressure to keep writing?
No, I think what happened was after Wrecking Ball I became reinvigorated by the sound of that record and wanted to continue with that sound. But it was really Dan [Lanois] who said, ‘You need to write for your next record.’ Guy Clark as well sort of gave me marching orders. So I thought, okay, the only thing different I can bring to the next record, if I want to recreate that sound, is to write material or at least try. I wasn’t sure I would succeed. I don’t want to say that the songs came pouring out, because for me it’s a difficult process, and I kind of have to put myself in a different frame of mind. So for Red Dirt Girl I let my band go and my crew go, and left my management and my record company. Even though I did other projects – like Teatro with Willie [Nelson], the Gram Parsons tribute record, the Spyboy live record, and the record with Linda [Ronstadt] – it suddenly felt like I was on a whole different hamster wheel.
With All I Intended To Be though, you worked again with Brian Ahern and reconnected with a lot of people from your past. Who instigated that?
Well, it was kind of time to do a record, and Brian lives about five minutes from me and has a studio there. It seemed like it was time for us to do a full record. We’d been working on a project here and there, re-releasing old albums with tracks that I had in the can. Or, if I was doing a song for a movie or something like that, I would call on Brian to help me. So it wasn’t like all of a sudden we made up and made a record. After the dust settled from the divorce, we’d gone back to being friends and parents to our daughter, so it felt like the right time to do a record with him again. He really pulled that record together. I didn’t have a clear idea in my head. I had a few songs that I needed to finish, I had some old songs that I really wanted to record, and I liked the idea of working with some of the Seldom Scene people that had been so important to me back in D.C. when I’d started this whole thing. Then we just gathered together some of the folks from here in Nashville, and over the period of a year we patched it together.
When Brian and I spoke last year, he said he always felt his role in the studio with you was to push you to incorporate different musical styles into your sound. Was some of that still there on this record?
I don’t know. Like I said, there were a lot of songs that I’d been wanting to do for a long time, like “Broken Man’s Lament.” I mean, that song came out 25 years ago on Mark Germino’s record. And the Tracy Chapman song [“All That You Have Is Your Soul”] I’ve loved that since I’d heard that on her second album. In fact, Dolly and Linda and I had toyed with the idea of doing that song back when we were doing the first or second Trio record, I can’t remember. But we decided that it was too intimate a song for three voices. And then there was “Kern River,” which is my favourite Merle Haggard song. At one point Brian said, ‘We need more songs’ – he knew how much to push me and he knew at that point I needed pushing. I was tired, I didn’t think I had an idea for a record, but he just took it a couple of songs at a time, chipping away and chipping away. So I’m grateful to him for putting just enough pressure on me. It was such a comfortable situation because we obviously have a good working relationship. I trust Brian completely, and with Donovan Cowart, who engineered it and spent hours putting stuff together, I just knew it was going to be okay. Even though I might be a little slow to get started, eventually I knew we would come up with something. It’s really important to trust the people you work with.
There’s still some of that Wrecking Ball vibe on the album, which has in a lot of ways become a signature sound for you. Was Brian conscious of that?
I don’t know. We just wanted each song to work. I mean, the three songs we cut with [The Seldom Scene’s] John Starling, Mike Auldridge, and Tom Gray had a totally different sound at the beginning. There were also a bunch of things that Brian and I cut together just in the living room and added other instruments later. Then when he wanted to cut some songs with the band, I had to come up with ideas that would work for that. The fact that it has that sonic thread, as Brian calls it, coming from all different periods of time over the course of that year, and the different musicians with different styles, I mean, that’s what he’s brilliant at. Over the years we’ve done records where we’ve cut the whole thing with one group – Roses In The Snow for example where we got these great bluegrass players together and cut the record. On the other hand, Brian has the ability to imagine ahead of time what musicians can make the songs shimmer and then put it all together and make it work. That’s why I’m not a producer.
Since you made All I Intended To Be, have you noticed the audience for country music changing, perhaps drawing in more mature, sophisticated listeners, like the people who got into the Robert Plant/Allison Krauss collaboration?
The moniker of country has become so elusive for me. I’ve been lucky that I just have a fan base and an audience that come from all different kinds of musical backgrounds. So my audience probably listens to a lot of different kinds of music. I love that Allison Krauss/Robert Plant record and I don’t think I would characterize it in any way other than calling it pop in the sense that it’s popular. With country, I don’t really know what it is right now. I mean, the people that I listen to are my best friends; I listen to Patty Griffin and Buddy and Julie Miller and Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. I find myself inspired just through that small arena. Sometimes I think that I’ve got to broaden my listening, but as long as Bob Dylan keeps putting out great records and Neil Young keeps putting out great records, and my friends the McGarrigles continue to inspire me, then sometimes it’s hard to look outside that, you know?
Is it important to you to stay in touch with a lot of the people you’ve collaborated with over the years?
I think it just happens naturally. We all live in the same town, pretty much. I see Lucinda Williams occasionally, and she continues to inspire me. I’m hoping to see Linda [Ronstadt] next month when I go up to the bluegrass festival in San Francisco where she lives. So yeah, it does kind of become an extended family.
It’s a smaller world than most people imagine it to be, then?
I guess so. In one way Nashville is a small town within a big town in terms of the music community. I mean, Vince Gill and I are going out to L.A. at the end of this month to do a show for the Country Music Hall of Fame, which will be a songwriters-in-the-round thing. So I’ll be able to hang with Vince a little bit, and I think Dwight Yoakam is also doing it. All of these things eventually bring you into contact with people, usually in a musical way, and friendships develop from that. You don’t have to see the people every day – I see dogs every day.
Yes, I can hear them in the background.
I have this dog rescue at my house and sometimes I feel like the only group I can communicate with are dogs. There’s a lot of rabbits out there in our yard, and they like to get close to the fence and taunt the dogs.
Before I let you go, I’d like to get your thoughts on Canadian music given how much of a role Canadians have played throughout your career.
Well, obviously I was married to a Canadian, and married in Halifax. And probably the majority of the artists that have inspired me over the years, like Neil Young, Kate & Anna [McGarrigle], and later on Daniel and Malcolm [Burn] have been Canadian. I guess you could say that just by an accident of geography – Bob Dylan grew up like, a mile from the border – that’s he’s really a Canadian. And Joni Mitchell, I remember seeing her back in 1971 at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I was stunned. Must be something in the water.
That’s exactly what Robbie Robertson told me.
Yeah, and The Band. They’re probably still my favourite musical group.
Finally, I have to ask about your association with Hank Snow too. What are your thoughts about him?
Well, when I came to country music in my early twenties, after being a bit of a snob about it like most of my generation who sort of looked down our noses at country music because we didn’t know any better, Hank Snow was one of those icons that I immediately embraced at the same time as I discovered George Jones. I mean, bluegrass was okay back then because it seemed closer to folk, but I really discovered the greats of country music all at around the same time, and Hank Snow was certainly one of them. I ended up cutting “I’m Movin’ On” on my live record, Last Date. It was our opening number then.
So did you and Hank develop any sort of bond?
I didn’t really know him well. He was already a legend. Obviously I met him because back at the beginning they had me on the CMA awards show, and in fact I think he even wrote me a letter after I’d done “To Daddy” by myself with just an acoustic guitar, saying how impressed he was. That was pretty great.