From The London Times
June 1, 2008
At 61, Emmylou Harris is still the drop-dead-gorgeous queen of country rock. But behind closed doors the singer has sad secrets to reveal
By Robert Sandall
Your first thought on meeting Emmylou Harris is that if this is what 30-odd years on the road fronting country-rock bands does for you, maybe we should all try it. For all the grief it brought her early on, it seems, as she enters her seventh decade, to have left her in terrific shape.
Never mind the fact that she is commonly referred to as a “legend,” a routine tribute to her role in making country music cool again in the 1970s, which was trumpeted by an effusive Jools Holland when she performed on his TV show Later in May. Forget the 15m albums she’s sold, her dozen Grammys, the halls of fame to which she’s been elected and the respect she’s earned from fellow legends who have queued up to sing with her over the years – a cast that has included Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Mark Knopfler. According to another of her many musical accomplices, the country star Rodney Crowell, Harris has been “one of the few women who have that cultural mystique that poetic artists like Dylan and Lennon carry. She was one of the first women to stand up with that sort of integrity”.
This is all laudable stuff; but what’s most striking about Harris in person is just, well, her. Like the tremulous voice on her records, nothing appears to have been retouched. How effortlessly she seems to have adapted to growing old in a field where youth (or the appearance of it) rules supreme. Or to put it more simply, as one fan, “Steve”, did online around the time of her birthday last year, “Emmylou is 60? God, if a woman can be truly sexy at that age, she’s it… Jeez.” A year on, Steve would undoubtedly approve of the demure, quietly spoken lady in tinted glasses and loose floral daywear sipping herbal tea in a London hotel. She’s here to talk about her new album, All I Intended to Be, which is out next week. Her first solo album in five years, it’s a typically well-crafted collection that shows off her prowess as an interpreter of other people’s songs, her ability to elide the distinction between folk, country and rock, and her own underrated skill as a songwriter.
Fine as it is, All I Intended to Be is unlikely to change Harris’s life, or indeed anybody else’s. The most interesting thing about it is the way it discreetly nods to her troubled past. It is peopled with ghosts and coloured by a mood of persistent, aching sadness that seems, paradoxically, to have got more pronounced the older and more successful Harris has become. It is summed up on her bleak and heartfelt cover of the Tracy Chapman tune All That You Have Is Your Soul.
The album was produced by the second of Harris’s three ex-husbands, Brian Ahern, the Canadian she met in 1975 who helped to steer her stuttering, if not chaotic, career in the direction of mainstream success. They split up, personally and professionally, in 1983, but have remained friends.
The renewal of their working relationship, Harris says diplomatically, is no big deal. “Brian and I have done things together over the years. Neither of us are the sort of people who like to stay angry, and we’ve been very much committed to raising our daughter.” Meghann is now 28 and working as a film scriptwriter in Los Angeles.
It all sounds calm and manageable today, but before she got her act together with Ahern, Harris’s life in music was a turbulent hard-luck story. A well-educated middle-class girl, she was sucked into the youth-culture vortex of the 1960s with unhappy consequences, ending up in the early 1970s an impoverished single mother, living off food stamps, trying to make it as a folk singer. In a male-dominated industry (where, as she once put it, “ladies were regarded as a liability: the view was, they get pregnant and they freak out on the road, they’re unreliable and they don’t sell”) this was a tough call.
Just as tough was her struggle later on to emerge from the shadow of her musical partner and mentor, Gram Parsons. A legendary party animal, former member of the Byrds and leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was a close associate and drug buddy of the Rolling Stones. Praised by Keith Richards for teaching him more about country music than anybody else, and also for his narcotic know-how – “Gram could get better coke than the mafia,” Richards once cooed – Parsons died in 1973, aged 26, following a drink-and-drugs binge in a motel in the Joshua Tree National Park. Feted by rock bands like U2, who named their album The Joshua Tree after the site of his demise, Parsons’s cultish reputation has grown posthumously in step with that of his protégée, the woman he discovered, hired and sang with for the last two years of his life. As Harris’s friend and Nashville neighbour the country singer Nanci Griffith has noted, “More people know Gram Parsons now through Emmy than did during his lifetime.”
It’s hard to connect this well-mannered, bespectacled senior with her 24-year-old self. As she says gracious things such as “I have never stopped admiring Brian [Ahern]’s work or him as a person,” and insists that drugs aren’t for her and that she doesn’t “have the stomach” for alcohol, you wonder how Harris came to tour America with a drunken connoisseur of class-A drugs, quietly knitting clothes for her daughter at the front of the bus while he and the rest of the band got stoned at the back. Maybe they did, as the critics agree, help reinvent country rock; but Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris were one of the most unlikely couples in music. It’s strange to reflect that a bad boy like Parsons should have provided the launch pad for a woman widely regarded as one of rock’s first feminist icons.
As she apologises at the start of the interview for having taken so long to finish her new record (“My focus was, dare I say, a little lacking” – what with touring, preparing a career-retrospective box set, and looking after her charity, Bonaparte’s Retreat, a refuge for dogs that she runs from her Nashville home), it’s easy to forget that Harris is a survivor of one of the most self-destructive, but also most creative, periods in rock history. My hope interviewing her now is that, with all her southern politesse and with a new album to shift, she hasn’t chosen to forget it too.
Harris has been reluctant in the past to go into detail about the relationship with Parsons, and completely blanked his biographer, Ben Fong-Torres. “I have my own biography of Gram – I don’t want to be part of somebody else’s,” she said later. Others have noted a sharp contrast between the enthusiasm with which Harris has always praised Parsons’s influence on her music – she even recorded a concept album, The Ballad of Sally Rose, themed around it – and her silence on the subject of the man. “Harris likes to mention Parsons, but she doesn’t like to be asked about him,” the writer Nicholas Dawidoff has observed, describing the effect as “a feeling you’ve been led into sensitive terrain by the same person who then wheels and warns you away”.
Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons
The inevitable suspicion is that Harris and Parsons were clandestine lovers as well as singing partners. But Phil Kaufman, Parsons’s close friend and road manager, who went on to work for Harris, has categorically denied it. “It was a relationship consummated by music. It wasn’t a physical consummation.” More’s the pity, according to Kaufman. He thinks that if Parsons hadn’t already been married, “something would have happened between them. If Gram had been with Emmylou, it would have saved his life. She didn’t have any of those bad habits. She might have levelled him off. They might be still married today, and have lived happily ever after”.
Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947. Her mother was a local belle; her father a Yankee pilot from New Jersey who, bored by civilian life, re-enlisted after the second world war. He went to serve in Korea and nearly didn’t come back after his fighter was shot down. Harris recalls, aged five, her first experience of unhinging grief as her mother read the telegram reporting “Bucky” Harris as missing in action. “It was terrifying. We didn’t know for months if he was dead or alive.” In fact, her father had parachuted to safety and, after nine months in a North Korean PoW camp, was still determined to pursue a career in the US Air Force. So the family moved to North Carolina, where they led a comfortable but stateless existence in off-base military housing, before settling in Virginia. “We weren’t part of a real community. There were people from all over, which meant there was no culture.” Harris explains that this is why, despite her southern upbringing, she doesn’t have much of a southern accent and why she wasn’t fed a musical diet of country-and-western music.
“I loved Johnny Cash, but the folk revival happened when I was 15. There was an electricity about it, something romantic about those ballads, whereas country music sounded boring. You have to grow up, start paying the rent and have your heart broken before you understand country. As a teenager I became obsessed with Bob Dylan. And Joan Baez! I mean, what girl back then didn’t want to be her?”
She flirted with the idea of acting – “You know, all those big emotions” – and won a university scholarship to study drama. But the more she played her music, the less she enjoyed the acting. “When I was singing, it felt so real. Whereas when I was acting, I was just acting.” Dropping out of college, in 1968 she headed for the epicentre of the East Coast folk scene, New York.
At first things went well: she was signed by a tiny folk label, and by 1970 had released her first album, Gliding Bird, and married her musician boyfriend, Tom Slocum. But things soon took a turn for the worse. The album flopped, selling 1,300 copies, and her marriage collapsed, by which time she was pregnant with her first child, Hallie. “Everything blew up in my face. I was living in a tiny Manhattan apartment with a child, no skills, waiting table for tips. I thought my life was over.” Harris went back to live with her parents – “They said, ‘You can stay as long as you want’” – and began to eke out a living playing at the folk clubs in Washington, DC. It was during a residency at a place called Clyde’s that she met the musician who was to turn her life upside down, as he did his own.
Born Ingram Cecil Connor III, Gram Parsons was a baby-faced hippie prince from a privileged but troubled background. His mother’s family were rich Floridean citrus growers; his father was from old-moneyed Tennessean stock. Both had a fatal weakness for alcohol and a tendency to depression. His father shot himself when Parsons was 12, and by the time Parsons succumbed to his overdose, his mother had already drunk herself to death. Thanks partly to his parenting, Parsons found the excessive hippie lifestyle of the 1960s greatly to his liking. With his dandyish crushed-velvet gear, his impeccable drugs contacts and a passion for what he called “Cosmic American Music”, he soon moved in the highest circles in rock. Here he discovered, as the decade neared its end, that the old country music he loved was becoming fashionable with the long-hairs and R&B nuts like the Stones, who once dismissed it as fodder for rednecks.
By 1971, Parsons was getting serious about his new solo career. He felt he needed a female vocal foil. Chris Hillman, a bandmate from the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, suggested a singer he’d heard in a Washington folk club. By an extraordinary coincidence, this conversation took place at a venue in Baltimore in earshot of Harris’s baby-sitter, who gave Parsons her number. “When I got his call I didn’t know who he was. We met at the train station. Gram was there with his new wife, Gretchen, this charming southern boy with wonderful manners and a wide smile. I was playing Clyde’s that night. We worked up a few numbers between sets and sang them to this tiny crowd. Gram said it sounded good and he’d call me. I thought, ‘Oh, sure…’”
But having raved to his friends about the musical chemistry he felt singing with this beautiful unknown folkie, Parsons did call. Less than a year later he posted Harris a return air ticket to LA, where he was recording his first solo album. From the moment Parsons picked her up at the airport, Harris didn’t know what had hit her. Learning, fast, about the rich traditions of country music was only part of it.
“It was a totally new world. I was a person who never had fun in high school because I was too busy being a grade-A student, and here was with people who really knew how to enjoy themselves. I was very much the country mouse, trying to be professional, always turning up on time, ready to work, while Gram seemed very untogether. This was a man who really had a vision; the problem was, he was drinking heavily. I didn’t think the record would ever get made.”
But it did; and afterwards Harris spent months on the road in a band Parsons named the Fallen Angels, singing at the front of the stage with the man being touted as rock’s next big thing. “Gram was always fine when we were singing together. That was one thing I could do for him. It was when I wasn’t around that he seemed to get into trouble.” By the time they returned to the studio in the summer of 1973 to record another album, it seemed to Harris that “Gram had turned a corner. He’d stopped drinking and drugging. I thought everything was gonna be okay”. The last time they spoke, Parsons phoned to tell her that her favourite track from their recent sessions had been left off the Grievous Angel album but would definitely feature on the next. “We thought things were going to go on into eternity.” Less than a fortnight later, Parsons overdosed in the bath, full of whisky and heroin.
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris
Parsons’s death was bad enough; but for her, its gothic aftermath was worse: “I didn’t have any chance to grieve in the traditional way.” First, Parsons’s roadie Phil Kaufman intercepted the air ambulance transporting the body, drove the coffin out into the desert, doused it in kerosene and burnt it, in accordance, he said, with a verbal instruction from Parsons. Next, Harris was told she “would not be welcome” at the memorial service in New Orleans. Parsons’s wife was deeply suspicious of her husband’s new musical companion. She’d already vetoed his plan to put Harris’s name and image next to his on the cover of Grievous Angel. Now she was barring her from the church where Parsons’s ashes were to be interred. “I was left running away from my grief. I just got in my little car and drove all over America for months, looking for people who knew Gram who could comfort me, looking for any piece of that time I could hold onto.”
Harris still blames herself for not doing more to prevent Parsons’s death. “It’s a great regret of mine. How could I not have seen it coming? He was so young, and such a strong presence, I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t gonna be there always.” Not only does Harris reject the notion that she was romantically involved with Parsons: she doesn’t even think she treated him the way a friend should have. “The most dismaying thing to me is that I was too self-absorbed in what I was getting from Gram musically to notice what was happening to him. I was too focused on me, and discovering this incredible music.”
The next two years were, Harris says, “a very black period”. Her daughter, Hallie, was being looked after most of the time by her parents. “I didn’t have any money. I had a sense of terrible loss. But what I also had was a fire in my belly. I wasn’t going to go back to waiting table. I felt I had to be better at fronting a band.”
Linda Ronstadt, whom she’d met during the Fallen Angels tour, urged her record company, Warner Brothers, to sign Harris up. And so, in 1975, with Ahern producing, Harris released her second solo album, Pieces of the Sky, which turned her into the star she has been ever since.
Harris says that what she loves about singing country is “its restraint, which intensifies the emotion in the music”. Restraint has certainly been evident in her life since Parsons died, and not just in her beautifully modulated vocals and miraculously undamaged appearance. She has been married twice, to Ahern and to an English songwriter, Paul Kennerley, with whom she split in 1993. Since then she’s lived with her mother and what she describes as a “menagerie” of stray pets in a large house in Nashville. She cheerfully calls herself “an excellent ex-wife” who has “a wonderful relationship with my two husbands. Paul and Brian are probably my two best friends”. She never mentions her first husband, Tom Slocum, by name. For the past 16 years there has been no significant other in her life.
Her chief confidants and companions these days are her dogs. Around the time she broke up with Kennerley she adopted a “big gangly poodle mix” called Bonaparte. When he died in 2002 she took up with Keeta – “a yellow dog, very friendly, with no neuroses” – whom she takes with her on tour in America. As well as enjoying one-sided conversations with Keeta and some of her other pets – “If I’m crazy, I’m blissfully so!” – she says she finds communing with animals has helped her deal with big, painful emotions, especially those associated with bereavement. “Animals have a much better attitude to life and death than we do. They know when their time has come. We are the ones that suffer when they pass, but it’s a healing kind of grief that enables us to deal with other griefs that are not so easy to grab hold of.” You wonder if she might still not have done her grieving over the passing of Gram Parsons. Harris looks unsettled, waffles a bit about “the general weight of the world” but, restrained to the last, declines to elaborate