Hand color tinted photo of Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris (born April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American singer-songwriter and musician. In addition to her work as a solo artist and bandleader, both as an interpreter of other composers’ works and as a singer-songwriter, she is a sought-after backing vocalist and duet partner, working with numerous other artists including Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Mark Knopfler, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell, and Neil Young.
Emmylou Harris is the daughter of career military officer Walter Harris and his wife Eugenia. Walter Harris, a member of the Marine Corps, was reported missing in action in Korea in 1952 and spent ten months as a prisoner of war. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Emmylou Harris spent her childhood in North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, where she graduated from Gar-Field Senior High School as class valedictorian. In high school she also won a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she began to study music seriously, learning to play the songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar. Leaving college to pursue her musical aspirations, she moved to New York, working as a waitress to support herself while performing folk songs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. She married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969 and in the following year recorded her first album, Gliding Bird. Harris and Slocum soon divorced, and Harris and her newborn daughter Hallie moved in with her parents in the Maryland suburbs on the edge of Washington, D.C.
With Gram Parsons
Harris soon returned to performing as part of a trio with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. One night in 1971, members of the country rock group The Flying Burrito Brothers happened to be in the audience. Former Byrds member Chris Hillman, who had taken over the band after the departure of its founder Gram Parsons, was so impressed by Harris that he briefly considered asking her to join the band. Instead, Hillman ended up recommending her to Parsons, who was looking for a female vocalist to work with on his first solo album, GP. Harris toured as a member of Parsons’ band, The Fallen Angels, in 1973, and the couple shone during vocal harmonies and duets. Harris was quite pleased, and invested a lot emotionally in their relationship. Later that year, Parsons and Harris worked on a studio album, Grievous Angel. Parsons died in his motel room near what is now Joshua Tree National Park on September 19, 1973, from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol. Parsons’s Grievous Angel was released posthumously in 1974, and three more tracks from his last sessions with Harris were included on another posthumous Parsons album, Sleepless Nights, in 1976. There was one more album of recorded material from that period of time that was packaged with the name, Live 1973, but was not released until 1982.
The working relationship between Harris and Parsons is of great importance in country and country-rock music history. Parsons offered Harris a study in true country music, introducing her to artists like The Louvin Brothers, and provided her with a musical identity; Harris’s harmony and duet vocals, on the other hand, were lauded by those who heard them, and helped inspire Parsons’ performances. His death left her devastated at an emotional and musical crossroads. She eventually carried on with her own version of Parsons’ musical vision, and was instrumental in bringing attention to his achievements. Harris’s earliest signature song, and arguably her most personal one, “Boulder to Birmingham”, written shortly after Gram’s death, showed the depth of her shock and pain at losing Parsons. It was, according to her best friend Linda Ronstadt, the beginning of a “lifetime effort to process what had happened”, and was just the first of many songs written and/or performed by Harris about her life with (and without) Parsons.
I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham I would hold my life in his saving grace. I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham If I thought I could see, I could see your face. —”Boulder to Birmingham” lyrics by Emmylou Harris
The Hot Band
Warner Brothers A&R representative Mary Martin introduced Harris to Canadian producer Brian Ahern, who produced her major label debut album, Pieces of the Sky, released in 1975 on Reprise Records. The album was surprisingly eclectic, especially by Nashville standards, including cover versions of The Beatles’ “For No One”, Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and The Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love”. It also featured “Bluebird Wine”, a composition by young Texas songwriter Rodney Crowell, who was the first in a long line of songwriters whose talents Harris has championed. The record was one of the most expensive country records produced at the time, featuring the talents of James Burton, Glen Hardin, Ron Tutt, Ray Pohlman, and Bill Payne, as well as two tracks (“Before Believing” and “Queen of the Silver Dollar”) that were cut with the Angel Band. Two singles were released: “Too Far Gone”, which initially charted at #73 (a 1979 reissue hit #13), and Harris’s first big hit, “If I Could Only Win Your Love”, a duet with Herb Pedersen (later a founding member of The Desert Rose Band), which peaked at #4.
Executives of Warner Bros. Records (Reprise Records’s parent company) told Harris they would agree to record her if she would “get a hot band”. Harris did so, enlisting guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen Hardin, both of whom had played with Elvis Presley as well as Parsons. Burton was a renowned guitarist, starting in Ricky Nelson’s band in the 1950s, and Hardin had been a member of The Crickets. Other Hot Band members were drummer John Ware, pedal steel guitarist Hank DeVito, and bassist Emory Gordy, Jr., with whom Harris had worked while performing with Parsons. Singer-songwriter Crowell was enlisted as a rhythm guitarist and duet partner. Harris’s first tour schedule originally dovetailed around Presley’s, owing to Burton and Hardin’s continuing commitments to Presley’s band. The Hot Band lived up to its name, with most of the members moving on with fresh talent replacing them as they continued on to solo careers of their own.
Elite Hotel, released in December 1975, established that the buzz created by Pieces of the Sky was well-founded. Unusual for country albums at the time, which largely revolved around a hit single, Harris’s albums borrowed their approach from the album-oriented rock market. In terms of quality and artistic merit, tracks like “Sin City”, “Wheels”, and “Till I Gain Control Again”, which weren’t singles, easily stood against tracks like “Together Again”, “Sweet Dreams”, and “One of These Days”, which were. While Elite Hotel was a #1 country album, the album did sufficiently well as a crossover success with the rock audience. Harris appealed to those who normally disapproved of the country market’s pull toward crossover pop singles (“Together Again” and “Sweet Dreams” both topped the country charts). Elite Hotel won a Grammy in 1976 for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.
Harris’ reputation for guest work continued. Aside from contributing to albums by Linda Ronstadt, Guy Clark and Neil Young, Harris was tapped by Bob Dylan to perform on his Desire album. Harris also filmed one of the studio sequences, owing to her touring schedule, in The Band’s The Last Waltz, singing “Evangeline”.
Burton left the Hot Band in 1976, choosing to remain with Elvis Presley’s band, and was replaced by English guitarist Albert Lee. Harris’s commercial apex was Luxury Liner, released in 1977, which remains one of her definitive records. On Luxury Liner, Harris’s mix of songs from Chuck Berry (“(You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie”), Gram Parsons (the title track and “She”), The Carter Family (“Hello Stranger”) and Kitty Wells (“Making Believe”) illustrate a continuity and artistic merit to country music often overlooked at the time. Despite Top Ten singles with “C’est La Vie” and “Making Believe”, the album’s best known track is the first recorded cover of Townes Van Zandt’s classic “Pancho & Lefty”, which would be a #1 hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983. At the end of 1977, Crowell left the Hot Band to pursue a solo career; his replacement was bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and singer Ricky Skaggs.
Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town signalled a slight change of direction from Harris’s previous three albums. Rather than mixing classic and contemporary, the album is made up largely of recently written songs, though from a wide variety of writers. “Two More Bottles of Wine”, written by Delbert McClinton, became Harris’s third #1 single, “To Daddy”, written by Dolly Parton, went to #3, and a third single, “Easy From Now On”, went Top Twenty. The album included two songs apiece from Crowell (“I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”) and songwriter Jesse Winchester (“Defying Gravity” and “My Songbird”), and Utah Phillips’ “Green Rolling Hills”.
The Roots Records
In 1977 (January), Harris married Brian Ahern. Their (Harris’ second) daughter, Meghann, was born in 1979. During this time, Harris cut three studio albums that reflected a shift toward traditional country (the industry, on the other hand, was about to embrace Urban Cowboy). The first key to the change in direction was her Grammy Award-winning 1979 album Blue Kentucky Girl. Apart from a cover of The Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me”, the album was largely made up of classic-styled country material in the vein of Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. One of her best-loved albums, the record includes songs ranging from The Louvin Brothers’ “Everytime You Leave” to Willie Nelson’s “Sister’s Coming Home” to Gram Parson’s signature “Hickory Wind”. Wesley Rose took special interest in Harris’ recording of “Beneath Still Waters”, which became a #1 smash.
A Christmas album, Light of the Stable, was released in 1979; its title track featured backing vocals by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young, all three of whom Harris had been working with sporadically since the mid-1970s, and would continue to collaborate with through the 2000s. (Harris, Parton and Ronstadt began working on a planned trio album during this time, though it would remain unfinished for nearly a decade; a few of the tracks recorded for the project surfaced on the women’s respective solo albums in the interim.) The album is largely acoustic, featuring readings of traditional fare such as “Silent Night”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel”.
In the 1980s, Harris pursued country music’s history even further with the bluegrass-oriented recording of Roses in the Snow, featuring Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Albert Lee, Emory Gordy Jr. and Jerry Douglas. Harris’s versions of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” were strong singles.
In 1980, Harris recorded “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” with Roy Orbison. The duet was a Top 10 hit on both the Country and Adult Contemporary charts. They would win the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. She would also be featured on Paul Kennerley’s concept album The Legend of Jesse James, which also featured Levon Helm of The Band and Johnny Cash.
Pop-chart success, songwriting
In 1981, Harris reached the Top 40 on the Billboard pop chart with a cover of “Mister Sandman”—again Top 10 Country as well as Adult Contemporary—from her Evangeline album. (The album version of the song was a track from the ill-fated Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, but neither Parton’s nor Ronstadt’s record companies would allow their artists’ vocals to be used on the single, so Harris re-recorded the song, singing all three parts.)
Harris moved to Nashville in 1982. White Shoes in 1983 included an eclectic pairing of the rockish reading of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with a remake of the Donna Summer hit “On the Radio”, as well as tracks from a diverse group of songwriters such as Hot Band member Crowell, Sandy Denny and T-Bone Burnett and was the her last album produced by Brian Ahern until All I Intended to Be in 2008.
Harris’s major-label releases thus far had included few self-penned songs, but in 1985 her songwriting skills were much in evidence with the release of a concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose, for which she co-wrote all of the songs. The album was semi-autobiographical in theme, based loosely on her relationship with Parsons. Harris described it as a “country opera”, and a “huge commercial disaster”. Her co-writer and producer on the album was English songwriter and musician Paul Kennerley, writer of the hit singles “Born to Run” (on Harris’s 1981 Cimarron album) and “In My Dreams” (on White Shoes). Kennerley also produced her next album, Thirteen. They were married in 1985 and divorced in 1993.
In 1987, nearly a full decade after they’d first attempted to do so, Harris teamed up with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for their long-promised and much-anticipated Trio disc. The album was the biggest commercial success of Harris’s career, spending five weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (also quickly reaching the Top 10 on the Pop Albums chart), sold several million copies and produced four Top 10 Country hits, including “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, which hit #1. The disc was nominated for the coveted Album Of The Year Grammy award (given to U2 that year for The Joshua Tree) and the three women won the statuette for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal; the album’s Linda Thompson-penned track “Telling Me Lies” reached #3 Country, #25 Adult Contemporary, and was also nominated for a Grammy as 1987’s Best Country Song.
Harris also found time in 1987 to release a solo album, Angel Band, featuring traditional gospel songs, on which she worked with, among others, rising country star Vince Gill.
In 1989, she recorded two songs with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume II. In a snippet of studio chatter included on one of the tracks, she talked during the recording session about her beginnings and how music had changed:
Years ago I had the experience of sitting around in a living room with a bunch of people and singing and playing, and it was like a spiritual experience, it was wonderful. And I decided then that was what I was going to do with my life was play music, do music. In the making of records, I think over the years we’ve all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect. We’ve lost the living room. The living room has gone out of the music, but today I feel like we got it back.
Around 1991, she dissolved The Hot Band and formed a new band of acoustic musicians—Sam Bush on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass and vocals, Larry Atamanuik on drums, Al Perkins on banjo, guitar, Dobro guitar and vocals, and Jon Randall on guitar, mandolin and vocals—which she named The Nash Ramblers. They recorded a Grammy Award-winning live album in 1992 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, which led to the $8 million restoration of the facility into a premium concert and event venue. It was her last album with Reprise Records.
By the 1990s, Harris started receiving less airplay as mainstream country stations began shifting their focus to the youth-oriented “new country” format. Harris’s albums Bluebird and Brand New Dance (1989 and 1990, respectively) received ample critical acclaim and sold reasonably well, yet her chart success was on the wane. 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer—the first album since her switch to Elektra Records—was critically praised but received very little airplay, and its lead single, “High Powered Love” charted very low, peaking at #63, prompting her to shift her career in a new direction.
In 1995, Harris released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade, Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan. An experimental album for Harris, the record included Harris’s rendition of the Neil Young-penned title track (Young himself provided guest vocals on two of the album’s songs), Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”, Julie Miller’s “All My Tears”, Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”, Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back to Harlan” and Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl”. U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. showed up to play drums for the project. The album received virtually no country airplay whatsoever, but did bring Harris to the attention of alternative rock listeners, many of whom had never listened to her music before.
Harris then took her Wrecking Ball material on the road, releasing the live Spyboy in 1998, backed with a power trio comprising Nashville producer, songwriter and guitarist Buddy Miller and New Orleans musicians, drummer Brady Blade and bassist-vocalist-percussionist Daryl Johnson. In addition to performing songs from Wrecking Ball, the album updated many of Harris’s career hits, including “Boulder to Birmingham”.
Also in 1998, she appeared prominently on Willie Nelson’s moody, instrumentally sparse Teatro album, produced by Wrecking Ball producer Lanois.
During the summer of 1997 and 1998, Harris joined Sarah McLachlan’s all-woman musical touring festival, the Lilith Fair, where new artists like Patty Griffin could share new experiences and ideas with seasoned musicians like Harris and Bonnie Raitt.
In January 1999, Harris released Trio 2 with Parton and Ronstadt. Much of the album had actually been recorded in 1994, but remained unreleased for nearly five years because of record label and personnel disputes, conflicting schedules, and career priorities of the three artists. Trio 2 was much more contemporary-sounding than its predecessor and was certified Gold. It included their version of Neil Young’s classic “After The Gold Rush”, which became a popular music video and won another Grammy—this one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. Harris and Ronstadt then released a duet album, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, later the same year. The two superstars toured together during the fall months in support of the disc. Both albums made the Top 10 of Billboard’s Country Albums chart and did well on the pop side as well.
Also in 1999, Harris paid tribute to her former singing partner Gram Parsons by co-executive producing Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, an album that gathered together more than a dozen artists. Harris performed duets with Beck, Sheryl Crow and The Pretenders on this album’s tracks.
In 2000, Harris released her solo follow-up to Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl, produced by Lanois protege Malcolm Burn. For the first time since The Ballad of Sally Rose, the album contained a number of Harris’s own compositions. Like Wrecking Ball, the album’s sound leaned more toward alternative rock than country. Nevertheless it reached #5 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart as well as a healthy #54 on the pop side. It also won Harris another of her 12 Grammy awards, in the category of Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Harris also accompanied on alternative country singer Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker and on Tracy Chapman’s fifth album Telling Stories.
Also in 2000, Harris joined an all-star group of traditional country, folk and blues artists for the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The soundtrack won multiple CMA, ACM and Grammy awards. A documentary/concert film, Down from the Mountain, featured the artists performing music from the film and other songs at the Ryman Auditorium. Harris and many of the same artists took their show on the road for the Down from the Mountain Tour in 2002. In 2003, Harris supplied the finishing touches in harmonizing with the Dixie Chicks on a song they were recording in the studio, “Godspeed”.
Harris released Stumble into Grace, her follow-up to Red Dirt Girl, in 2003. Like its predecessor, it contained mostly self-penned material. In 2004, Harris led the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue tour with Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin. They performed singly and together and swapped instruments.
On September 9, 2005, Harris participated in “Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast”, a series of concerts simulcast by most American television stations to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. She performed with Beth Neilsen Chapman and the Dixie Chicks, harmonizing on Patty Griffin’s song, “Mary”.
In 2005, Harris worked with Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes’ release, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, performing backup vocals on three tracks. In July, she joined Elvis Costello on several dates of his U.S. tour, performing alongside Costello and his band on several numbers each night. Harris and Costello recorded a version of Costello’s song, “The Scarlet Tide”, from the soundtrack of the movie Cold Mountain. July also saw the release of The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways, a single-disc retrospective of Harris’s career, on the Rhino Entertainment label. This same year, Harris appeared as a guest vocalist on Neil Young’s widely acclaimed Prairie Wind. She also appeared in the Jonathan Demme documentary-concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold, released in 2006.
All the Roadrunning, an album of collaborations with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, was released in April 2006 and supported by a tour of Europe and the USA. The album was a commercial success, reaching #8 in the UK and #17 in the USA. Selections recorded during the All the Roadrunning tour performance at the Gibson Amphitheatre were released as a CD/DVD package titled Real Live Roadrunning in November 2006. In addition to several of the compositions that Harris and Knopfler recorded together in the studio, Real Live Roadrunning features solo hits from both members of the duo, as well as a few classic tracks from Knopfler’s days with Dire Straits.
Harris is featured on A Tribute To Joni Mitchell, released on April 24, 2007. Harris covered the song “The Magdalene Laundries” (originally on Mitchell’s 1994 album, Turbulent Indigo). She sang “Another Pot O’ Tea” with Anne Murray on Murray’s album Anne Murray Duets: Friends and Legends, released November 13, 2007, in Canada and January 15, 2008, in the U.S.
Harris wrote a song called “In Rodanthe” for the 2008 film Nights In Rodanthe.
A solo album, All I Intended to Be, was released on June 10, 2008, to critical acclaim. Contributors include Buddy Miller, the McGarrigle sisters, Vince Gill, Phil Madeira, and Dolly Parton. She toured with an ensemble she dubbed the Red Dirt Boys, featuring Phil Madeira on accordion, guitar, and keyboards, Colin Linden on guitar and banjo, Rickie Simpkins on mandolin and fiddle, Chris Donohue on bass, and Bryan Owings on drums. It did not include Miller, who was touring with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett at the time. In 2009, Harris toured with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Miller as “Three Girls and Their Buddy”. Madeira, Simpkins, and Donohue performed with her in late 2008, and in 2009, appearing on “A Prairie Home Companion” and at MerleFest and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. In September 2009, Owings rejoined the Red Dirt Boys with Miller for the remainder of 2009.
In April 2009 Harris became a grandmother. Her daughter gave birth to a daughter, Prudence.
In 2010, Harris regrouped with the latest version of the Red Dirt Boys—Madeira, Owings, Donohue, and Simpkins—for Lilith Fair summer dates and a scheduled US autumn tour.
According to an interview with Bonnie Tyler by Digital Spy, Emmylou Harris will be teaming up with her on Tyler’s upcoming album. Harris will do backing vocals on a song, written and produced by Wayne Warner. A new solo album, Hard Bargain, was released on the Nonesuch label on April 26, 2011.
PBS host Tavis Smiley interviewed Harris in a program that aired on April 20, 2011. In the interview Harris spoke of being a straight-A student in high school, which led her to being selected as valedictorian, and recounted learning to play guitar by memorizing three chords on a Taylor 310CE.
In 1997 and 1998, Harris performed in Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair, promoting feminism in music. Since 1999, Harris has been organizing an annual benefit tour called Concerts for a Landmine Free World. All proceeds from the tours support the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s (VVAF) efforts to assist innocent victims of conflicts around the world. The tour also benefits the VVAF’s work to raise America’s awareness of the global landmine problem. Artists that have joined Harris on the road for these dates include Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams. Harris is a supporter of animal rights and an active member of PETA. She founded, and in her spare time assists at, an animal shelter in Nashville.
She became a member of the newly formed Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011.