A decade ago, the prevailing trend on Nashville’s Music Row was Urban Cowboy music, a term now uttered with contempt by country purists. The name derived from the 1980 sound track LP to Urban Cowboy, the movie in which John Travolta and Debra Winger got their kicks on a mechanical bull in a Houston bar. It was a sound that fused—hence diluted—country’s native twang with the urbane late ’70s pop sounds of strings and synthesizers.
“Country kind of lost its way for a while,” says Emmylou Harris. “I’d be on the road in some town, and I could listen to radio for an hour and not know if I was on easy listening or country—until a Merle Haggard cut came on.” She sweeps back her graying mane with a disbelieving shrug. “But people don’t want their country watered down. Country needs to be full-strength, hardcore, honky-tonk stuff. That’s what’s rich; that’s what the lifeblood is.”
Harris speaks with authority. Plenty of Nashville insiders trace much of today’s resurgent, profitable “neotraditional” sound—the sound of top artists like Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and the Judds—-to a silky-voiced suburban cowgirl they call “Immylou.” Harris, 43, has remained unwaveringly faithful to her music’s primordial elements (acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, two-and three-part harmonies) while energizing the mix with the driving rhythms and electric textures of rock. Her sound has survived as one of the most distinct in pop music through 20 years and 21 albums, nine of them gold and one (Trio, with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton) platinum. Her impact extends beyond numbers and Grammys (five). She has given her matchless gift for harmonizing to scores of lead vocals (a Harris Duets collection was released this year); the members of her legendary Hot Band (among them guitarists Albert Lee and James Burton) have lent their signature licks to scores of hits; and three of her former singing partners and disciples—Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill—have graduated to stardom on their own.
“Every woman artist now in this business has in some way been influenced by Emmylou and her dignity of spirit,” says Crowell, who left the Hot Band in 1978 (and is married to singer Rosanne Cash). Singer Holly Dunn, 33, is a case in point. “When I saw how hard this business is, I realized how much integrity and conviction Emmy has,” Dunn says. “She has let major superstardom pass her by more than once because she’s never sold out, taken the easier route. People revere her.”
Jim Ed Norman, head of Harris’s Warner Bros. Records label in Nashville, explains her status this way: “She makes an almost spiritual keeper-of-the-flame connection to her music. Emmy’s an icon.” Even Roy Wunsch, Nashville senior vice president of the rival CBS label, says “Emmy is one of the sounds that’s going to live forever.”
Ironically, however, the icon now finds herself coming up for airplay against the younger heartthrobs in hats and the strong-minded ’80s ladies whose market she helped preserve. Her second LP this year, Brand New Dance, is still shy of the Top 40. Because she will only tour during the summer, when her younger daughter Meghann, 11, is out of school, she misses out on a crucial sales-boosting tool.
“My albums aren’t selling very well,” Harris sighs. “That’s disappointing. It’s not like I’m going into oblivion, but I don’t get much radio play. I decided at one point that all my fans died of a mysterious disease all at once.”
The affliction that has likely hurt Harris the most is called market research. As country radio has swelled to 3,000 stations, their target audiences have skewed much younger, 29-35 versus the traditional 45-60. The Old Guard once aged gracefully with its lifelong fans; in today’s hit-driven, video-hyped Nashville economy, stars are made, and fade, much faster.
“What works against Emmy and other wonderful artists,” says Wunsch, “is her perception at stations, which are so caught up in ‘new.’ The name seems dated.”
Longtime friend Crowell isn’t worried. “Here’s what’s great about Emmy,” he says, smiling. “She had this little pink fringed cowgirl jacket. Somebody stole it. It came back. Another time, somebody stole all our equipment. Her Gibson J200 guitar came back. So anyone who’s criticizing her today—she’s charmed. She’ll be back.”
She isn’t leaving it all up to country karma. Last summer, recalling that she had felt vocally “strip-mined” after the previous year’s tour, Harris put the Hot Band on ice and fronted an all-acoustic blue-grass group, the Nash Ramblers. Like their electric brethren, the Ramblers drove Harris through mesmerizing ribbons of vocal harmony and instrumental flash. “You got to shake things up, flex new muscles to where it’s spontaneous and exciting again,” she says. “There were no new worlds for the Hot Band to conquer.”
Harris’s initial country-rock rise was remarkable. Her first Warner LP, Pieces of the Sky, and single, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” both hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts in 1975. By then the Hot Band, many of whom had once backed Elvis Presley, was her road and studio band. Her second LP, Elite Hotel, spawned three more No. 1 hits and earned her a Grammy. With Luxury Liner (1977) and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), the Hot Band was hitting its stride. By then much of Nashville was searching for country-pop crossover gold, but Harris took a riskier route. She recorded Roses in the Snow, an album of traditional bluegrass music with Ricky Skaggs. “Half my label freaked out and said this is the end of my career,” Harris remembers. “But it went gold faster than any other album of mine.” It also won her the Country Music Association award for best album.
Harris admits she “adopted” country, came to it “through the back door.” The daughter of a decorated Marine pilot who spent 16 months in a Korean POW camp, she was born in Birmingham, Ala., but spent much of her early life in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Emmy earned a 4.0 GPA at Garfield High in Alexandria, Va., and was class valedictorian. Socially she was “pretty yuppie, but with leanings toward the bohemians. I wasn’t daring enough to hang out with the greasers, who I admired the most.”
Greasepaint, though, had its allure, and Harris, who noodled on folk guitar, pursued drama at the University of North Carolina before surrendering to her more impressive musical gifts. By 1970 she was singing in Greenwich Village folk clubs. It was a rough year. She waitressed, cut a forgotten LP, apartment hopped and married a man with whom she’d been briefly involved, songwriter Tom Slocum. Their daughter, Hallie, was born that year.
With a baby, Harris was “freaked out” by the hectic pace of New York City and “tired of being poor.” The family split for Nashville—and she and Slocum split a few months later. Harris soon found herself hustling home “to regroup.” It was at the Cellar Door in Washington in 1971 that she fell in with Gram Parsons, the ex-Byrd country-rock outcast who was fleeing the Flying Burrito Brothers to go it alone. In Harris, Parsons’s mournful twang found its harmonic soulmate; through Parsons, Harris discovered the aching, warbling world of George Jones and Bill Monroe and the timeless, intertwining duets of the Stanley Brothers, Louvin Brothers and Everly Brothers. The pair toured together and cut GP and Grievous Angel, albums Patrick Carr, the dean of country journalists, has called “arguably the ultimate achievements in modern country music.”
“It’s like I snapped,” Harris says of that time. “I had been deaf and all of a sudden I could hear. Gram’s music got past my intense, intellectual folk stuff and shot right into my heart.”
That heart was devastated in 1973 when Parsons overdosed on heroin at 26. Harris got the phone call at her parents’ home. “I was in awe of Gram,” she says. “Without him I wouldn’t have lasted or found my direction. I saw him as invincible and missed his fragility, his dark side. People assumed we had this big romance going. There wasn’t one. But I think we would have really fallen in love.” Parsons’s body was hastily cremated. “There was no memorial,” Harris says. “No chance to say goodbye.”
Instead she set her course to keep his spirit alive. A year later Harris was in L.A., where Parsons had lived, was signed to his label, Warner Bros., and working with his producer, Brian Ahern, and some of his musician cronies, some of whom would later back her as the Hot Band. Crowell remembers the early fire she lit under them. “The image of the female singer had been an androgynous Southern woman in long, flowing, antebellum gowns,” he says. “And here was Emmylou in tight jeans and cowgirl shirt just letting it loose onstage with her funky, renegade sexuality. Her great contribution was fusing the sexual primitive thing of rock and the language, poetry and human storytelling of country.”
Harris’s personal life continued to offer up its share of emotional grist. She turned over much of her daughter’s upbringing to her parents. Hallie was 5 when Emmylou’s first album was released. “I was off and running, and she needed routine, stability. I was always giving her over to other people so I wouldn’t feel guilty.”
In 1975 Harris married Ahern, who produced 12 of her LPs. Daughter Meghann was born in 1979, but Harris’s juggernaut success took its toll. Her 1983 split from Ahern was “not amicable,” she allows, adding only: “He and I both tried so hard.” Harris left L.A. behind to start over in the cozier creative community of Nashville. She hooked up with British-born songwriter-producer Paul Kennerley and married him in 1985. Kennerley, 42, has been a supportive and creative ally, writing a number of her album tracks. He also helped her complete her most ambitious project, The Ballad of Sally Rose, which came out in 1985. It was the only time Harris, not a natural songwriter, tried to compose all the material on an LP. The work took six years and is haunted by references to Parsons.
“I’ve never been terrified of making an album except that one,” she says. “I felt stripped bare. I had scraps, notebooks, cassettes. Paul felt the pieces of songs were good and said, ‘Finish them and we’ll put it all together in a story later.’ It was incredibly disorganized.”
Her home life now is not. Harris and Kennerley have just moved into an old house on a tree-lined street near Music Row. “I’ve never gone to get a quart of milk or get gas that I haven’t run into someone I know,” Harris says. “I’m five minutes from a world-class studio. It’s a dream town.” When she’s not on the road, she throws herself into a routine of shopping, laundry, cooking. “I say I prepare all the meals, but it sounds more exotic than it is. Meat loaf, pork chops, spaghetti. And Ragu’s fine with me. I just slop it on.”
That’s hardly her hard-learned recipe for parenting. Hallie, 20, works in town and hopes to attend nearby Belmont College. Says Mom: “We have a second chance now to get to know each other.” As for Meghann, Harris gets her off to school and tries to be home every night for dinner. “I missed all that with Hallie,” she says. “You can talk about quality time all you want, but it’s a crock. You also need quantity time, or you’re not going to know who your kids are.”
Harris has concluded it’s better if she and her husband keep their careers separate. “He is going to produce other people,” she says, “and I think it’s important for me to work with other people too.” But music remains a strong bond. “Paul is very good at finding songs and turning me on to material,” she says.
Since co-writing Sally Rose, Harris seems content to do what she does best-weave rich and subtle meanings into works written by others. “Once I sing a song, it’s mine anyway,” she says. “If I was limited by a law that said you could only sing songs you wrote, I’d have the shortest act in show business history.”
It’s already too late for that. And no matter which way the winds of country music blow next, Harris is in it to stay. “I keep thinking at some point my excitement about music will go away and I can retire,” she says. “But there’s always that one song that you’ve got to sing, and then to record, and then, boy, you’ve got to sing it live. It just never stops—the songs just never stop coming.”