Pretty much every man I’ve known in my adult life (and a fair number of women, too) have, at least on some transcendental level, been in love with Emmylou Harris. Even the famously gruff Steve Earle waxed downright soft and mushy when her name came up in an interview I did with him last year.
But love, even for the much-adored Harris, has been no road strewn with roses.
“I have known true love, I really have,” the thrice-married, now-unattached music icon told the New York Times Magazine last month, “but obviously, it hasn’t worked out.”
Harris’ latest release, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch Records, 2000), is a veritable valentine to exquisitely painful, often dark and twisted, obsessive love. Written almost exclusively by Harris, the disc unleashes a gorgeous litany of regret and loss, isolation and yearning, set to evocatively haunting, percussion-heavy music marked by a moody, experimental fusion of country and folk-rock. “I’m entrenched in middle age, and I’ve endured some dramatic losses,” Harris told one reporter, somewhat understatedly, in response to a question about inspiration for the record. “How long does it take a mature heart to break, beautifully, into 12 pieces? Fifty-six minutes,” gushed Time magazine about the release.
“I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now,” a paean to romantic obsession driven by a droning, eerily hypnotic beat, begins: “God knows how I love you / Like a user needs a drug / And I will never be free of you / You are a poison in my blood / I tried to swim that river / And get to higher ground / I been three times under / The next one will see me drown …” and ends, “The devil is deep water baby / And I’m in way over my head / But I’d be drawn and quartered / If I could keep you in my bed / I can’t break this spell / I know the trouble that I’m in / But if I got out of the mouth of hell / I’d walk right back again / So I don’t wanna talk about it now.”
The luxuriantly beautiful “Tragedy” — a lush ballad complete with lonesome pedal-steel sounds and harmony vocals by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa — is a wrenching testimony to the death of a love affair that one partner fervently wants to keep alive. “I could have caused your heart to yield / But I was only a disturbance in the field / Of your dreams / And I will never see you cry / You won’t be with me when I die / A waste of you and me / A tragedy” … “That’s how the story goes / Our chapter’s coming to a close / We are history / But I will always think of you / Every day until my days are through / You made me believe / In tragedy.”
“Bang the Drum Slowly” is about another kind of loss. The song is an elegy to Harris’ father, who died in 1993. “I meant to ask you, how when everything seemed lost / And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed / There was still that line you would never cross / At any cost,” she sings. “I have so many regrets because there are so many things I could have learned from him that I didn’t,” Harris told songwriter Jamie O’Hara. “Just write that,” O’Hara replied, and “Bang the Drum Slowly” was born. “Everything in the song is true,” Harris once explained, adding, “That’s why it was so hard to write; I couldn’t go into the realm of fiction or poetry.”
Speaking of fiction, the title track is perhaps the most “storylike” of all the songs on the disc — and the least based in Harris’ immediate reality. The tune explores the friendship between the song’s narrator and a down-on-her-luck, “red-dirt girl” named Lillian from Meridian, Miss. “This song was king of hovering over the highway and I drove through it,” Harris explained to one journalist. “I am very, very inspired by the sound of words, and the names of some places are so melodic and beautiful. I was passing through Meridian on my way down to record in New Orleans, and that’s what started it.
“Red Dirt Girl” takes a visceral look at a life gone irrevocably wrong: “She tried hard to love him but it never did take / It was just another way for the heart to break / So she learned to bend / But one thing they don’t tell you ’bout the blues / When you got ’em / You keep on fallin’ cause there ain’t no bottom / There ain’t no end / At least not for Lillian / … Nobody knows when she started her skid / She was only 27 and she had five kids / Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills / Coulda been the dream she was tryin’ to kill / But there won’t be a mention in the news of the world / About the life and the death of a red-dirt girl / Named Lillian / Who never got any farther across the line than Meridian.”
“We all come into this world with so much potential and so many dreams,” Harris once mused when asked about that song. “Who knows why some people escape and other people don’t?” Questioned as to whether the song was in any way autobiographical, Harris told No Depression magazine, “I’m not a red-dirt girl; I’m an off-base girl.”
Harris was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1947, a self-described military brat (her father was a Marine fighter pilot from New Jersey, her mother an Alabama farm girl). She picked up her first guitar at age 16, inspired by such folk artists as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. After graduating from high school — as class valedictorian, no less — in Woodbridge, Va., she briefly attended the University of North Carolina on a drama scholarship. Music, though, was her true calling. She dropped out of school and headed for Greenwich Village, becoming a familiar club figure in the heady late-’60s folk scene. Harris married songwriter Tom Slocum not long after arriving in the Village and gave birth to a baby daughter. A move to Nashville to escape the big-city grind didn’t turn out quite the way she’d planned: Her marriage soon failed, and she ended up on food stamps, eventually moving back to her parents’ home in Virginia. But the stage still beckoned, and — brandishing that impossibly flawless, clear-as-fine-crystal voice — she began to pick up gigs in folk clubs around the Washington, D.C., area.
It was in D.C. that Harris experienced a life-changing meeting with brilliant county-rock-visionary-cum-troubled-bad-boy Gram Parsons. As legend has it, while playing at a club called Clyde’s in 1971, Harris caught the attention of members of country-rock pioneers The Flying Burrito Brothers — a band Parsons had just left to go solo — who happened to be in the audience. They were blown away by Harris’ voice, beauty and stage presence, and — knowing Parsons was looking for a female duet partner — recommended her. Her connection with Parsons was immediate and soul-deep, and he brought her to L.A. to record and perform with him — turning her on to such country idols as George Jones, Loretta Lynn and, of course, Hank Williams along the way. And Harris made an amazing discovery: She loved country music — a genre she’d previously dismissed, as any good folkie did at the time. But Parsons’ brand of country was sometimes edgy and full of surprises. Harris had found a home. And a tasty little genre now trendily called “alt-country” was born (Parsons himself called his sound “Cosmic American music”).
“I lucked into this whole thing,” Harris told one reporter about her discovery by Parsons and subsequent fame. “One little millimeter off would have made all the difference.”
The hard-living Parsons — not wholly unexpectedly — died of a drug overdose in a hotel room in the California desert in 1973, an event Harris once described as “an amputation.” But she was no grief-stricken, adoring female singer overshadowed by a formidable male icon who died glamorously (in the hedonistic eyes of some) — at least not for long. Harris recorded her first solo effort, the country-infused Pieces of the Sky — on which she covered a diverse lot ranging from Merle Haggard to the Beatles — in 1975. The album (produced by Brian Ahern, who became her second husband) became the first of eight consecutive million-sellers for Harris.
Early releases such as the Grammy-winning Elite Hotel (1976), Luxury Liner (1977) and Quarter Moon in a Ten-Cent Town (1978) firmly established her place in the country-rock canon. Record-company executives, delighted with Harris’ cash-generating potential, pushed her to continue recording in the same vein. She had other ideas, however: In 1979, Harris released Blue Kentucky Girl — a straight shot of pure country. “I wanted other people of my generation who had dismissed country to appreciate the beauty and subtlety of it,” Harris told Newsweek this year. “I was a woman with a mission. I did fail in a way, though: What I was doing has nothing to do with the white-bread appeal of country radio now. It’s nothing like I envisioned it would be. Sometimes I distance myself. I feel like I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I used to be a country singer but I never inhaled.'” Blue Kentucky Girl garnered Harris her second Grammy.
In 1980, Harris released the bluegrass homage Roses in the Snow. “It was more important for me to make a statement artistically than it was to go with what [record-label executives] thought was a safe route,” she has said of that record. “And bluegrass was what was happening with me musically at that point.”
Harris has gone on to win a total of nine Grammys, including one for 1995’s universally acclaimed Wrecking Ball — perhaps her greatest musical departure yet. Produced by the New Orleans-based Daniel Lanois — known for his moody, atmospheric work on such groundbreaking releases as Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (1997) and Willie Nelson’s Teatro (1998) — Harris brought a gorgeously hypnotic edge to such songs as the title track, penned by Neil Young; Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”; and Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl.” Harris has performed and recorded, usually at their humble bidding, with a string of bona fide legends — Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Neil Young among them (and that’s the short list) — and now has become a bona fide legend herself. Recently, Harris was presented with Billboard magazine’s prestigious Century Award.
Red Dirt Girl is Harris’ 29th solo recording, but only the second on which she wrote the bulk of the songs (11 out of 12 tunes, to be exact). For 30 years, Harris has infused other songwriters’ work with her elegant-yet-earthy musical vision. “I’ve spent my career as an interpreter,” she recently told Newsweek. “The idea of writing a bad song horrified me. But I knew if I was going to do another studio record, I just had to write it myself, and either sink or swim.”
Looks like Harris is swimming strong, though sometimes in deep and tumultuous waters. Her much-lauded “crystalline” voice is beginning to bear the marks of too many cigarettes and late nights on the road — but the slight breaks and cracks only serve to unearth a hard-won grace that somehow manages to turn heartbreak into a thing of ravishing beauty.