Gracious Angel

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.

It wasn't even until 1979's Blue Kentucky Girl that Harris cut a full-on country album, ditching the Beatles and Chuck Berry covers that dotted her first three records. But critics insisted she was still sticking to her nonformula formula, and most point to the bluegrass Roses in the Snow in 1980 as her first country record (even though it contains a cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer").

"When I did Blue Kentucky Girl, I did make a conscious decision to do a country album, because it was a reaction on my part to people who had said, 'Oh, sure your country albums sell, but that's because they're not really country albums,' " she explains. "And it might be the only time I really listened to the press. I took it as a personal challenge because I did want to champion the real poetry of country music, and so we decided we would do a country album and sort of break away from the eclectic formula." But Blue Kentucky Girl "was a disaster," Harris recalls. "It wasn't selling, the critics just said I was doing the same old thing, and so we just said, 'Okay, we'll go even deeper. If they don't think that's a country record, we'll do a bluegrass record,' and Roses in the Snow is what they call my country record when it's really my bluegrass record. See, these people should be issued the Bill Monroe box set before they ever write about music. That is required listening."

Some, though, had recognized her country authenticity earlier on. In 1976, when the Band decided to film The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson asked Harris to join the affair as the country representative. At first, she balked at the invite -- not only because she was touring in Europe, but because she felt she didn't merit such a distinction. She asked Robertson why he didn't get Parton instead. "Her voice represented to me the real purity of that mountain side of country music," Harris says. But Robertson persevered, and Harris agreed to record Robertson's "Evangeline." Though she didn't realize it at the time, Harris was to "country" what the Band was to "rock and roll": They were both bastardized creations of the entirety of American musical culture and history, musicians who existed at a brief moment in time when definitions didn't matter and genres seemed to blur into one another.

"When you get to the roots, the more you see the common pool music comes from, especially in this country," Harris says. "It's so rich. That's probably going to be our contribution to civilization. America is going to be remembered for maybe cars, guitars and music, and that's okay. We don't need grand opera. The other countries did that, right? When they send that disc out into outer space for the other civilizations in far galaxies to hear, we'll have the Everly Brothers and Muddy Waters and George Jones."

Harris did indeed belong on The Last Waltz as the country-music representative because she was, in 1976, as country as it got: Here was a singer who brought the Louvin Brothers, Don Gibson, Butch Hancock, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, even Bruce Springsteen to the same table and served them as equals. She not only recorded their songs with the passion of the true acolyte, as someone who came to country late and then absorbed it as both wise student and ardent lover, but she somehow managed to reconcile their individual visions into something singularly her own.

Those who dismissed her as "just another pretty voice ... a country singer by accident," as critic Robert Christgau did during one of his crankier moments, didn't understand that she transcended the genre; she was more than country, more than pop, more than folk -- she was a category all by herself. She was Linda Ronstadt with a soul you could touch, Dolly Parton raised on rock and roll, Gram Parsons's onetime pupil who ended up eclipsing the master.

Amazingly enough, after all these years, all the songs, all the changes, this year's model of Harris is perhaps the finest yet. Portraits is hardly the cardboard tombstone that most box sets represent -- maybe a semicolon, but hardly a period. It's perhaps telling that Harris can't even come to listen to the box in its entirety, and that when she does listen to her older material, she does so from a distance, as though looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

"The idea of actually sitting down and listening to it is the last thing on my list of priorities," she says, slightly laughing. "If I had a list of things to do in my life, that would be on the very, very bottom, to go back and listen to what I've done. But you have to move forward. I'm always moving forward. I've never been a person that dwells on the past. You just have to reinvent yourself poetically.


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