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Grace Notes

Emmylou Harris works the fringes of country music

By Greg Cahill

THE CALM VOICE stirs gently over the phone line like a soft summer breeze. It's country star Emmylou Harris calling from Nashville. Proving that old adage that still waters run deep, Harris--a Grand Ol' Opry member and past president of the staid Country Music Foundation--unleashes (calmly, of course) on the country music establishment, all in defense of singer, songwriter, and country music renegade Steve Earle.

"Steve is so understanding of all that great core tissue that is the real pulse of country music," Harris says, "and that is completely invisible in what is happening in country music right now, at least on that hugely successful scale. You know, that generic, bloodless stuff that is churned out? I'm completely mystified by it. We've now become musical producers of what is comparable to the Big Mac--you know what you're going to get every time you open up the wrapper."

She pauses and then adds with a faint chuckle, "Actually, it doesn't even taste as good as a Big Mac."

The most admired and influential female vocalist in modern country music, Harris, 50, is anything but predictable. Under the guidance of New Orleans producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Neville Brothers), her latest disc, Wrecking Ball (Reprise), deftly melds the heartfelt yearnings of country music's pathos for people with the moody passion of alternative rock.

The hypnotic disc marks a radical shift from the traditional country albums that preceded it.

Those include 1992's hoedown Live at the Ryman, a far-flung assortment of acoustic covers performed at the original home of the Grand Ol' Opry and featuring bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, and 1994's plaintive Cowgirl's Prayer, an introspective collection of folksy covers that featured songs about "that inner search that we all find ourselves in."

But Wrecking Ball also moved away from the Nash Ramblers, the awesome quartet of Music City pickers that backed Harris for four years. "They were a great band and had given me a renewed live performing existence," Harris says of her old bandmates. "But as for going back into the studio [with them], I felt two ways: I could go back to a more traditional country record or I could go even further into the frontier and the fringes, an area I've always courted."

She chose the latter.

The result is a compelling sojourn into the human spirit. Harris says that her latest project grew out of a series of songs she wanted to record, including Neil Young's title track and "Orphan Girl" by folk waif Gillian Welch. But, more important, it was a chance to work with producer Lanois, who enlisted the rhythm sections from U2 and the Neville Brothers to help out on the album.

"He has such a gift," Harris says of Lanois. "He stirred me and moved me in ways that no other producer ever has. There was no questioning about whether this was going to turn people off or what impact it would have on my career. I knew that my true audience was plugged into my more eclectic side anyway--they are the ones who have stuck with me through all my zigs and zags.

"So there was never any doubt that I wanted to enter into this experiment."

FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS, Harris--a six-time Grammy winner--has straddled the fence between the traditional Nashville establishment and the so-called progressive, or New Country, movement--the only country artist welcome in both camps.

She began as a student of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, a onetime Byrd who blended elements of country's down-home past with the back-to-the-earth sentiments of '70s rock. Actually, it was ex-Byrd Chris Hillman who discovered Harris and introduced her to Parsons. Harris struck up a close friendship with the troubled musician before Parsons' 1973 death, contributing her trademark sad soprano harmonies to a pair of records--G.P. and Grievous Angel--that included some of the finest duets ever recorded.

Harris went on to record with Parson's Hot Band, releasing her first true country album, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. Over the years, she has forged a soft country-rock sound, sometimes lending her immaculate tone to folk and bluegrass settings and at times even flirting with rock.

Harris takes little credit for her successes, choosing instead to call her career a series of "fateful incidents. "Things just seem to happen," she says of her serendipitous nature. "You try and keep yourself open to that. I mean, certainly having Gram Parsons fall into my life had a huge impact on me. And then being able to work with the Hot Band and Rodney [Crowell], coming out of nowhere and having that kind of musical soulmate come along at a period when I suddenly found myself at center stage was just an extraordinary blessing.

"So I was really lucky."

FATE STEPPED IN again when Harris underwent what she calls a creative dry spell a few years ago. "[Bluegrass mandolinist and Nash Ramblers frontman] Sam Bush all of a sudden became available and I was able to go to bluegrass school for a while," she marvels, "and to get back to focusing on the vocals and to plow some new ground there with a project that was new and exciting."

When the opportunity arose to work with Lanois, Harris knew that she was on to something that would prove creatively challenging and rewarding.

Ask her what drives that serendipity and Harris laughs gently. "If I knew that I would probably be writing a book," she says. "You just accept it. There's certainly some power out there that is moving in and out and you just have to respect that."

So why is Harris here?

"To sing," she says solemnly. "I look at my voice and my abilities as a gift. I don't feel that I can even take any credit for it, but it's such a huge presence in my life. It is my life. It's my identity, it's everything. And it's given me a great deal of joy and a sense of purpose--I can't imagine my life without it. So when times get tough I just think, 'Well, I know I'm supposed to be doing this,' so I've just gotta keep plugging away and eventually I'll end up doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

"I have a blind faith that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that my job basically is to pay attention and be ready when the call comes, whenever that may be."

How does it feel when she's hitting the right notes? "It's marvelous," she says. "I mean, those are the moments of joy that you are grateful for. You know, you have to be prepared for the worst [in life] and then be gracious enough to accept the joyful times when they take you by surprise."


Emmylou Harris performs Sunday, June 29, at 8:30 p.m. at the Mystic Theater & Music Hall, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N, Petaluma. Tickets are $20. Call 765-6665 for information.

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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