Gracious Angel

A box set doesn't mean Emmylou Harris's career is done; it may mean it's just beginning

She does not stick out in the dilapidated lobby of the Farmer's Daughter Motel on Fairfax, just across the street from Los Angeles's Farmer's Market. Her famous long hair -- black with road-map streaks of gray running through it -- is tucked underneath a plain black baseball cap; she wears a Billy Bragg concert T-shirt that she partially covers with a jacket. With her 17-year-old daughter Meghann in tow, Emmylou Harris -- one of music's most elegant performers, a woman who often resembles a fragile ghost come to life -- looks like just another tourist blown into town to see the sights and the stars. So anonymous does this striking woman appear that no one even gives her a second glance as she strolls through the Farmer's Market. "I lived [in Los Angeles] for seven years," she says as she peruses the produce bins, buying some fruit to take back to the room, "and I've never been here."

Harris lives in Nashville now, but she comes to Los Angeles as often as she can to visit her daughter. She'll agree to perform the occasional benefit concert or record a backing vocal for a friend so she can see Meghann, a freshman at the University of Southern California. Harris is in town this time to lend her vocals to Nanci Griffith's forthcoming album and maybe to sing on Lucinda Williams's long-delayed and troubled American Recordings debut. For Griffith's record, Harris performed with Meghann and Carolyn Hester and Hester's daughter -- a real family affair, Harris explains, smiling over a cup of coffee and a plate of beignets.

"It really was just a lovely day in the studio," she says. "My mother had baked a homemade apple cake made with pecans from Nanci's father's pecan trees in Texas, and I brought it out from Nashville to here, and we had it in the studio, and we were all singing together, so it was kinda like a cottage industry -- a very Mother Earth kind of nurturing day in the studio."

Harris doesn't plan to go into the studio to record a new album of her own for quite some time; she's still on the road promoting 1995's Wrecking Ball, a CD that proved how remarkably she's been able to evolve over the course of a career that began in Virginia in the late 1960s. Featuring songs by Jimi Hendrix, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Neil Young, even Gillian Welch, Wrecking Ball is breathtaking proof that even 49-year-old career veterans can evolve. Every note was a surprise -- especially coming as it did shortly after Harris's acoustic bluegrass band called it quits -- and every line a revelation.

Ethereal, delicate, almost like a whisper, Wrecking Ball is a far cry from the country and bluegrass albums of the '70s and '80s that made Harris a Nashville star. But then, Harris was never a country artist in the first place -- though the recently released three-CD box set Portraits, a wide-ranging collection that spans the course of her recording career on Warner Reprise (from 1975 to 1992), might lead one to think otherwise. Such albums as Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Blue Kentucky Girl, Roses in the Snow, The Legend of Jesse James, Cimarron, Bluebird and Brand New Dance placed her among country's elite as a performer fluent in the languages of Bill Monroe and Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. But Harris prefers instead to think of herself as a "hybrid" artist, which is only fair.

Few singers of any genre can take a song and imbue it as she does with so much heartfelt compassion and genuine emotion that you would never believe she didn't write the words herself. Just listen on Portraits to her previously unreleased take of Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" or the earlier released takes of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" or the Louvin Brothers's "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night" or her duet with Gram Parsons on Boudleaux Bryant's immortal "Love Hurts." Others might have written the songs, but Harris elevated their poetry into the realm of truth. She gives body to the ephemeral, and she wouldn't even consider walking into a recording studio until she could carry with her a dozen songs she wishes she had written.

"For me, I suppose, singing is what other people experience when they meditate," she says. "Singing is a total immersion. When you've got the song and you love the song and say, 'I want to sing this song,' and then you go in to record it, and the band is playing and the rhythm section's playing and it all connects, that's about as good as it gets on this planet for me. I think the most important thing is to keep yourself open to surprise."

The Alabama-born, Virginia-raised Harris is a onetime wannabe folksinger who early on recognized the limitations of her own writing (her 1971 debut, Gliding Bird, contained five of her own songs -- the same number as appear on the entirety of Portraits) and of her voice, which never fitted her definition of a pure country voice. To her, the perfect country singer is someone such as Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn, honky-tonk angels who grew up in the mountains and sang as though from the heavens. They were her inspirations but not her ending points, her muses but not her masters.

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