On her first major album last year, Emmylou Harris sang Bluebird Wine, an upbeat country rocker, that goes, It’s alright/I just hit my stride/Party just started, Lord/I’m drunk on Bluebird Wine. After this winter Emmylou won’t have to get high on the cheap stuff anymore. Contemplating her career should do the trick. An itinerant decade of performing in friends’ living rooms and on the small-club circuit behind her, Harris has landed onto the L.A. country-pop music scene with a splash unequaled since her closest pal Linda Ronstadt. It was Linda who first proved that platinum is not just the sheen on a Nashville starlet’s coif but also the kind of industry memento to hang in a spacious Angelino den.
That 1975 LP by Emmylou, Pieces of the Sky, made No. 1 on the country charts, as did the single, If I Could Only Win Your Love, which this month won a Grammy nomination as well—against heavies like Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, another buddy. Simultaneously, Emmylou’s new album, Elite Hotel, is already on discerning deejay pick-hit lists. Yet her really dramatic coup is collaboration with Bob Dylan on five cuts from his new LP, Desire. It contains some of his most inspired material in years. Emmylou may not have stolen any of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder. But she has run off with some of the reviews for her pure and emotive soprano expression.
After a troubled few years (a divorce, bringing up a daughter alone, the death of her singing partner Gram Parsons), Emmylou, suddenly, at 28, finds herself “being treated like the queen of the hop.” Coronation to her was the session with Dylan. “He wanted a girl singer,” she says modestly, and mutual music friends brought them together. (They hadn’t met before and haven’t seen each other since.) “All of us children of the ’60s,” says Emmy, “feel something very special for Bob Dylan. It’s not only musical nor is it really political. He just somehow opened doors and made us aware of other possibilities.”
Among the doors are those to concert halls, and in February, Harris begins a six-month U.S. and European tour with the Hot Band, ultra-efficient musicians most of whom last backed up Elvis Presley. As the daughter of a Marine who kept crating and uncrating the family, Emmylou is typically casual about the rootlessness that celebrity is imposing. “I’m still not making any money,” she says, “and I won’t have a home base for a while.” When she made the move from a Washington, D.C. apartment to L.A., Emmylou rented—but never furnished except for beds—a house in Hermosa Beach. But more often than not, she and daughter Hallie, nearly 6, have been crashing with friends. Once on the road, Emmy will break off the tour one week in four to be with Hallie, who will remain behind with Emmy’s parents on their Maryland farm. “Hallie’s taken to my up and down nomadic life very well,” says Emmylou. “I couldn’t have done it without her cooperation.”
Her own roaming childhood took her through country-music constituencies like Alabama (she was born in Birmingham), North Carolina and Virginia. So her first self-taught guitar tune was Louisiana Man, and she debuted in a bar singing Kitty Wells’ It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels. The Dylan-powered folk movement of the early ’60s caught her ear, and after her third semester at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she strayed to New York’s Greenwich Village. She performed in places like Gerde’s Folk City for $100 a week, but soon realized “the folkie audiences had disappeared while I was waiting on tables at college.”
She suppresses the fact that she was once a beauty-pageant contestant plus the name of the song script writer she married in 1970, “because it angers him. The marriage was a mistake,” she explains. “We had the sense to call it quits after less than a year, and it’s not fair to drag him into my life now.”
A far more significant attachment was to the late Gram Parsons, the driving force behind the pioneer country-rock fusion music of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. After hearing her in Washington in 1971, Parsons asked Emmy to become a Burrito sister, but soon the group nose-dived and dissolved. She then backed up Parsons on his two cult-favorite LPs, Grievous Angel and GP, and joined him on his last tour just before his death from a heart attack in 1973 at age 26. Shaken and aimless, she returned to Washington to be near her parents and resumed the small-club route until Parsons’ label, Warner Bros., finally signed her.
Harris’ personal life remains acceptably bohemian. “I’m very disorganized, always losing my glasses and leaving full garment bags in airport coffee shops.” (“She makes Lucille Ball,” cracks her piano player, “look like a precision instrument.”) There is no man in her life now, and even less taste for domesticity. “I hate housework. I can get by in the woods with an iron skillet and cornmeal but I’m lost in a modern kitchen.” She doesn’t permanently rule out remarriage. “It’s a real sacred thing,” she feels. “I need more time to learn what and who is right for me. Who wants to be 45 and still be on the road?”
Emmylou well knows the tenuous-ness of pop glory. “I’ve lived for a long time on $75 a week,” she sighs, “and if this doesn’t last, I’ve had a great time.”