Emmylou Harris: The More Things Change
Originally published on Fri April 29, 2011 6:42 pm
Emmylou Harris jokes that she's a "really good ex-wife." (She has three former husbands.) She just turned 64 and wrote most of the songs on her latest album, Hard Bargain. As she tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, many of those new tracks are about taking stock of this phase of her life.
"Somehow, when you think about yourself in old age, you think you're going to be this completely different person that you don't even recognize — because you can't imagine it, you know?" Harris says. "But you are very much yourself. Obviously very changed and affected and molded by the people that you've known — people that are in your life and people that you've lost — but that core person is still intact."
There's a strain of wistfulness to many of the songs on Hard Bargain. "Lonely Girl" in particular evokes a kind of narrowing of expectations: "Wake up in the morning, and before I even notice / The sun is going down, and I'm left to wonder why," goes one verse. Harris says that kind of introspection is only natural.
"There's a certain grace in accepting what your life is and embracing all the good things that have been — but there's still an expectation of good things to come," Harris says. "Not necessarily what you expected."
Hard Bargain opens with "The Road," a tribute to the artist who kick-started Harris' career. Gram Parsons was one of the first artists to fuse country and rock music; in addition to his solo work, he sang with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. In 1971, he asked Harris to join his band after he saw her perform at a Washington, D.C., club.
Shortly thereafter, in an interview, Parsons once recalled the night he tried Harris out as a duet partner: "She just sang like a bird, and I said, 'Well, that's it.' I sang with her the rest of the night, and she just kept getting better and better. ... She's got fantastic eye contact. She can sing anything that you're doing in perfect harmony as long as you look at her."
In 1973, Parsons died of a drug overdose; he was just 26. The words to "The Road" are in part about the shock of his passing: "How could I see a future then where you would not grow old / With such a fire in our belly, such a hunger in our soul?" But Harris says it wasn't just losing someone she cared about that shook her.
"That was my work," she says. "I felt I'd found where I was supposed to be in my life and what I was supposed to do, and all of a sudden, it was as if that was just over."
Harris says she cherishes her time working with Parsons, but she dismisses the idea that he's remained the driving force in her life all these years.
"You meet a lot of people and have a lot of experiences, and they color you and stay with you — but I'm not the grieving widow," she says. "Life is much more complicated and interesting and full of zigs and zags than that."
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
When singer Emmylou Harris goes out on tour, she'll take a big black dog named Bella on the bus with her.
(Soundbite of "Big Black Dog")
Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) A big black dog, little too much gray around the muzzle, big black dog. Why she ended up at the pound is a puzzle, a big black dog.
BLOCK: Emmylou Harris surrounds herself with dogs. She runs a small rescue operation in her backyard, with a bunkhouse for the dogs there.
She lives in Nashville, shares a house with her mother, who's turning 90. Emmylou Harris jokes that she's a really good ex-wife. She has three former husbands. She just turned 64, and she wrote most of the songs on her new CD, titled "Hard Bargain."
In many of them, she's taking stock of this phase of her life.
Ms. HARRIS: Somehow, when you think about yourself in old age, you think you're going to be this completely different person that you don't even recognize because you can't imagine it, you know. But you are very much yourself, obviously very changed and affected and molded by the people that you've known, people that are in your life and people that you've lost, but you're still -that core person is still intact.
BLOCK: You mentioned people that you've lost and there is this strain of kind of wistfulness, I think, through a number of the songs that you wrote for this CD and maybe a narrowing of expectation. I'm thinking about the song "Lonely Girl."
(Soundbite of song, "Lonely Girl")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) (Unintelligible), days are growing short. The years are going fast, and time is flying by. Wake up in the morning, and before I even notice, the sun is going down, and I'm left to wonder why.
BLOCK: There's so much melancholy, I think, in this song.
Ms. HARRIS: Yes, well, I think that wistfulness and melancholy is kind of a natural state at different points in your life and especially, I think, as you get older.
I mean, there's a certain grace in accepting what your life is and embracing all the good things that have been. But I still think there's an expectation of good things to come, not necessarily what you expected.
You know, I come from a generation, and maybe it will always be, where you assume you're, you know, going to find that one love of your life and that's going to determine a great part of your life, who you were partnered with. And that hasn't been my story.
(Soundbite of song, "Lonely Girl")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I had my share of lovers. I cared for many others. I always thought there'd be another one to come along.
BLOCK: I'm talking with Emmylou Harris. And Emmylou, the first song on the new CD is a tribute to the singer who really kick-started your career, Gram Parsons, the late Gram Parsons, one of the first really to fuse country and rock music, sang with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers and asked you eventually to join his band. Let's take a listen to that, to the beginning of the song "The Road."
(Soundbite of song, "The Road")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I can still remember every song you played, long ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away. How could I see a future then, where you would not grow old, with such a fire in our belly, such a hunger in our soul.
BLOCK: Emmylou, that line abut Gram Parsons not growing old, of course he died at age 26, overdosed in 1973, very soon after you started playing together.
Ms. HARRIS: Yeah, I mean, really, I only spent about a year and not even, you know, a continuous year. You know, we did an album, we did "GP" in '72 and toured that record. And at the end of that tour, we went into the studio and recorded what became "Grievous Angel."
And all the plans to tour, and we were excited about working together, and I just thought, well, this is what I want to do. I'm having a great time. I'm learning music. I feel like I'm really finding my voice, you know.
And he turned me on to beautiful country music, the harmony singing of the Louin Brothers. And there was - I felt like I had - I was in school, you know, and I had this mentor, and I was on my way to really discovering music in a whole new way.
(Soundbite of song "Love Hurts")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) Love hurts. Love scars. Love wounds and (unintelligible).
Ms. HARRIS: You know, his death came as a shock to me, first of all losing someone that I cared for very much, you know, who was also like a teacher to me. And also, that was my work. All of a sudden, I felt I had found where I was supposed to be in my life and what I was supposed to do. And all of a sudden, it was as if that was just over.
BLOCK: I've been listening to a recording of an interview that Gram Parsons did not long before he died, talking about the first time that he heard you sing. He had come down to Washington to meet you and basically to try you out as a duet partner. Let's take a listen.
Mr. GRAM PARSONS (Singer): She just sang like a bird, man. And I said, well, that's it. And I sang with her the rest of the night, and she just kept getting better and better, the more I looked at her. She had fantastic eye contact. She can sing anything that you're doing in perfect harmony, as long as you look at her. You know, and if you raise your eyebrows, if you're going up on a note, she goes right up with you in perfect pitch. Man, she's beautiful.
Ms. HARRIS: Wow. I mean, I don't think I ever heard that. That was lovely to hear his voice, actually. You know, for everything that has happened, I can trace back to that meeting and that time, you know, being sort of under his mentorship. And it's really determined so much of my life.
BLOCK: Does it feel like - when you're on the road now, when you're singing, when you're on stage or recording, does it still feel like he's part of you in some way? I mean, it's been a long time now.
Ms. HARRIS: I wouldn't put it that way. I mean, I know that people like to think that, you know, he's the driving force in my life, and it's a very romantic thing to look at.
But, you know, he was a very important part of my life, but, you know, you meet a lot of people and have a lot of experiences, and they color you and stay with you. But I'm not the grieving widow. Do you know what I mean? That I think people have tried to sort of cast me - it's easier - it makes the story easier to - you know, and more linear. But life is much more complicated and interesting and full of zigs and zags than that.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
BLOCK: Emmylou Harris, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Ms. HARRIS: Thank you so much, Melissa.
BLOCK: Emmylou Harris, her new CD is "Hard Bargain." You can hear more of our conversation about Gram Parsons at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.