“I see strain on my horizon,” says Emmylou Harris. It is the strain of a 28-year-old divorcée with a daughter in kindergarten who has just emerged as one of the best and busiest country-rock singers around. Harris’s first major LP, Pieces of the Sky, blissed out reviewers with the promise of her quivering, crystalline voice. And better than any notice, Dolly Parton, Neil Young and her tightest friend, Linda Ronstadt, joined Harris on backup harmonies for her new Christmas single, The Light of the Stable. An Alabama-born Marine brat, Emmylou has been everywhere once, but ultimately has eyes on the East Coast. Her musical roots, though, are rustic, her spirit nomadic. “Sad songs,” she says, “are still my favorite.”
Her adopted first name translates “fire,” says Chaka Khan, 22, and, as lead vocalist of the rock-soul band Rufus, when she’s hot, she’s hot. Which is now. The group has three gold records and a Grammy in two years, and Curtis Mayfield’s rival label obviously thinks enough of her potential to sue Chaka for $800,000 for breaking a contract she allegedly signed in a notebook three-and-a-half years ago. She made her rep with Tell Me Something Good, composed for her by Stevie Wonder, and by wearing two-piece animal skins that made her navel probably the second most famous in showbiz. Along the way, Chaka had a daughter, a divorce and a setback in her plans to retire by 25. “I think,” she muses, “it will take a little longer—maybe 27.”
Patti Smith has the voice of a pizzeria soprano, the vision of a poet, the face of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richard, a devoted fan in Bob Dylan and a nutty crush on 19th century French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Now, after four years of cultish kibbitzing among New York’s avant garde—and three books of poetry—Patti has finally cut her first LP, Horses. Critics’ reflex has already spun her New Jersey working-class upbringing and later bohemian ramblings into instant legend. Her raunchy turnpike verse, set to simple rock, will go on tour through landlocked U.S. cities early next year, and Patti, 29, knows already how to take advantage of possibly fearsome fame: “I’d like to make so much money,” she says, “I could persuade the French government museum to sell me one of Rimbaud’s scarves.”
It hardly seems possible to have four singles and two LPs go No. 1 on country charts within five months, play in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Burt Reynolds’ drive-in movie version of Nashville, and still be unsung in Music City. But, at 36, Don Williams, a Texan now relocated to Nashville, remains aloof from both the music-biz commercial elite, and the Austin, Tex. C&W banditos led by Willie Nelson. Williams’ impeccably simple songs, and his soothing, resonant voice, should earn him a 1976 nomination as top country singer. But, he drawls, “I’m not much of a mixer. I can’t do anything different from what I’m doin’ unless I feel perfectly honest about it.” So much then for duets on Hee Haw with Barbi Benton.
The latest disco music is the Hustle, or is it vice versa? Either way, the trend is subsidizing a few serious jazz artists able to bend with it a bit. Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., 32, for example, has finally cut his first gold album, Mister Magic, and may have a second with his fast-rising Feels So Good. But he remains the same family man raising his two kids in Philly. “If it goes on fast,” he worries, “it will come down faster.”
Follow the Lieder was the working title for her first attempted album of art songs—until Barbra Streisand decided it was too coy to work. She also went through a year and a half of nervous tremolo before deciding to release the selection of Handel, Fauré, Schumann et al. at all. Classical Barbra is now the title, February the scheduled date, and, as manager Marty Erlichman explains the delay, “Barbra did this with 100 percent purity, and I don’t want it bastardized.” Not that Jon Peters will allow Streisand to go long-hair: a week before the LP is out, Barbra and her man will begin their three-years’ delayed shooting of the rock remake of the film A Starts Born.
IF ROCK IS GOING DOWN THE TUBES, BLAME FEE WAYBILL
How does a rock band sell out 3,000-seat halls night after night across the U.S. when its only LP plummeted on the charts to No. 195, with an anchor, after only eight weeks? With the Tubes, the answer is: they must be seen, not just heard. Led by John Waldo (“Fee”) Waybill, 25, the Tubes’ rock theater of the absurd caught on crazily this fall after four years of amusing mostly themselves (the troupe numbers 23). They came along at a time when the rock biz needed, if not a knock in the chops, then at least a long, self-effacing laugh.
Aside from the reconstituted charisma of Jagger, Clapton and Dylan plus Bruce Springsteen’s coming of media middle age during his artistic adolescence, everything that happened in 1975 had all been done before. Thus, though the outrageous stage show of fast-change artist Waybill also includes satires of Tom Jones, Dr. Strangelove, Patty Hearst and a country percussionist called Hugh Heifer, the best shot is aimed at rock itself. In the group’s inspired finale, White Punks on Dope, Waybill plays out the death (under an avalanche of cardboard amplifiers) and then resurrection of Quay Lewd, a jaded English rock icon in lamé jumpsuit, 18-inch platforms, and light-up Eltonesque specs. (The name comes from Quaalude, a hypnotic-sedative favored by rock-concert regulars.)
“We’re all total cynics,” admits Waybill, of the group’s five charter members. “We came from Phoenix, where everything was test-marketed on us as kids. Media overdose—that’s our whole thing. There was nothing to do but be immersed in the tube or fried in the sun. You grew up wanting to be someone else, somewhere else.”
Success City? The Tubes’ driving, well-crafted music and their continuing “World Tour” will probably bring them a big LP soon. But there is no threat of a guest shot on ABC’s new Donny and Marie (Osmond) series, and Waybill insists there’s no Quay Lewd letch to be a superstar lurking beneath his ingenuousness. He is unsettlingly dubious, even, about his fans. “Some of these kids,” he frets, “don’t have the faintest idea the whole thing’s a parody.”