Emmylou Harris

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY James KeastPublished May 24, 2008

What are you up to?
We just finished this record, so I just got back from a week of press in New York and London. I’m going back to New York again to sing at a suicide prevention dinner. Then I come back home and I’ve got rehearsal with my new band to get ready for this tour that starts in June. Then I’ve got a bit of time off, then I’m going overseas. When I’m home, I have a dog rescue here at my house, so that takes up every bit of my spare time. I get a lot out of it.

What are your current fixations?
I’ve just read two really great books. The March by E.L. Doctorow — I’m kind of a Lincoln/civil war buff. Then I read quite a harrowing book that’s really beautifully written called The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. I haven’t really been able to see a lot of movies — I haven’t had a chance. I just saw Charlie Wilson’s War, which I thought was very good. It’s kind of sad in a way because it was such a triumph and then we kinda blew it.

Why do you live where you do?
I came to Nashville, Tennessee in 1983 on a stopover to wherever else I was going to land. I wanted to do some writing and be closer to my parents, who at that point were living on the East coast. I just ended up putting down roots here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, I love the people here. I have access to great musicians and great studios, and [ex-husband and producer] Brian [Ahern] has moved here. I have a daughter, she lives in California now. We kind of shared her raising, even though we were divorced. I love the seasons — I missed that when I lived in California — and I’ve really become a Nashville hometown girl.

Can you name something you consider a mind-altering work of art?
I’m obsessed with music, so anytime I hear music that turns me on, I’m altered — still, after all these years.

What’s been your most memorable or inspirational gig – either one you played or attended – and why?
There have been a lot of them, but I was involved a few years ago with the 15-year anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. A friend of mine [country singer George Jones] had written a song called "50,000 Names,” which is one of the most beautiful, moving tributes to all the people who lost their lives and the families who were affected by that. I asked him to come up and sing the song; all I did was sing harmony on it, and I never felt so moved and so humbled. Feeling the response [from] those people — it’s really been America’s forgotten war. It pervades us, but we really still have difficulty knowing how to put it into our history, yet all those people were affected by it in a really specific way. No one has really addressed it, but you could really feel that you were touching people in a way and honouring them and the people whose names were on the wall. Also, it was the first time I had seen the wall, and I had a cousin who was killed over there at the age of 19. I would say, that was probably the most moving, where I really felt that I was part of something much, much greater than myself.

What have been your career highs and lows?
Well, I’ve had a lot of highs, I have to say. My career has been wonderful, not just awards or anything like that, but the great bands and musicians. Singing on a Bob Dylan record [1976’s Desire], who’s a huge hero of mine. All the different people I’ve sung with. And recently, I was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which I’m still trying to shake hands with that — that doesn’t seem quite real. Lows? There’ve been a few of those. I put out a record called The Ballad of Sally Rose [in 1985] — it was supposed to be my masterpiece. It was a huge commercial disaster. I started out with a big band and we played the record from start to finish, and by the time the reality of the financial burden came through, I had to strip down the band. I found myself playing one afternoon at a petting zoo and someone had a huge portable blaster on their shoulder, listening to the ball game in the front row, and there were big flies buzzing around and I thought "maybe I should think about other jobs.” Right after that we did the Trio record [with Dolly Parton and Linda Lonstadt], and it seems like the lows never last very long. There’s always something interesting and inspiring to do. I’ve been able to work with some of my inspirational heroes: Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Daniel Lanois, Neil Young — they’re all Canadian! I did a tour with Elvis Costello and made a record with Mark Knopfler, so career-wise, I have no complaints at all.

What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you, before, during or after a show?
My fans have always been very polite, thank you very much.

What do you think that everyone should shut up about?
That’s a good question. I think there’s a lot we shouldn’t shut up about. I think there are a lot of problems in the world and we need to keep dialogue going. I think people should stop complaining about their lives. When you look at the world, even with our own situations that seem bad, we’ve got it pretty good. You really have to sit down and count your blessings — we all have to do that.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I just had one. It was Mother’s Day – I got a call from one of my daughters and I got to see my other daughter. I live with my mother actually — we went out to walk around our new outdoor shopping centre, we had a little lunch and hung out with all my animals. Every Sunday I go to the dog park with two of my dogs. If it’s baseball season and there’s a nice baseball game on, I really enjoy that. I have a lot of those Sundays actually.

What advice should you have taken but didn’t?
"Don’t buy that studio.” It was like "Let’s take all that money and flush it down the toilet.” Everyone has a studio — this was before ProTools, but that’s all we did was make records, Brian and I, and we had the chance to get this building. Finally, someone said "if you were booked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’d still be losing money.” I don’t know if we really got the advice, but we certainly should have known better.

What would make you kick someone out of your band or out of your bed, and have you?
I have actually had to kick someone out of my band — they were a heavy drinker, and it wasn’t fair to the other members of the band. It was a very hard thing to do, because you understand that this was a disease that this person had.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I have wonderful memories of Canada — I was married to a Canadian, in Canada. I think it’s beautiful up there, and I love to play up there. I think of long bus rides though.

What was the first LP, 8-track or CD you ever bought with your own money?
I remember I bought a single by Fats Domino called "Blueberry Hill” for my brother for his birthday. I was probably around six years old.

What’s been your most memorable day job?
I had a job being a hostess in model homes, near where my parents lived. I was a single parent at that point and didn’t really have many skills. I’d had a failed attempt at making music in New York City. I had the place all to myself. I would keep my guitar in a closet and when no one was around, I would take it out and play music. It was pretty nice job — pretty cushy — until they discovered I couldn’t type. Fortunately by then I had made some friends who were making music in Washington, DC. Shortly after that, I was able to start making music in clubs there.

How do you spoil yourself?
I get a manicure and pedicure once in a while. Going to the movies is a real treat too.

If I was playing music I would be...
I would be doing full-time animal rescue.

What do you fear the most?
I think on a real gut level, that I’m going to get onstage and forget the words to a song. That’s not a terrible fear. It’s happened a few times — the audiences are very forgiving. I think the idea that I wouldn’t be able to sing any more — that would be very difficult for me. So much of who I am is wrapped up in it — I’m not talking about the celebrity of it, I’m talking about work and what you do well.

What’s been your strangest celebrity encounter?
When I got asked to sing on Bob Dylan’s [Desire] record. I thought he was asking for me specifically, but he just wanted a girl to sing harmony with. I didn’t have time to think of it too much because I showed up at the studio and we just started working. I guess that was a little strange. I kind of realised that he had just said to the producer to get him a girl singer. I thought "well, it’s still pretty cool.”

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Probably Abraham Lincoln — I think he was one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived. I would ask my mother to cook, and she’d make her famous garlic cheese grits.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Probably spending more time at home.

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
I actually mentioned this to friends of mine: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have this beautiful song called "I’m Not Afraid to Die.” I also mentioned to [the Seldom Scene’s] John Starling that I’d like him to sing at my funeral and he could pick whatever he wanted.

Emmylou Harris owns one of the most beautiful and distinctive voices in country music — one that she has shared with co-collaborators throughout her career. Since she first came to prominence as a harmony singer with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, with whom she collaborated on his two classic solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel. At the urging of friend Linda Ronstadt, she embarked upon a successful solo career, while continuing to collaborate with many music icons of the day: Bob Dylan, the Band, Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and many more.

After surviving through the country music nadir that was the 1980s, Harris reemerged in 1995 with one of her career-best albums, Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois. That brought her to a new generation of fans, and she capitalised on the momentum, collaborating with Ryan Adams and participating in T-Bone Burnett’s O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Her work in this century has included pairing up with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Elvis Costello and a duo album with Mark Knopfler, and this month, she drops her first solo record in five years, All I Intended To Be, inviting Canadian folk icons Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Dolly Parton and others to join her in a celebration of song. Joining a chorus of voices still holds more appeal for her than going her own way. "It’s being inspired by the group effort,” she says. "You’re inspired in a different way by all these wonderful sounds and voices and ideas.”

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