Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Life Digging for Veins of Gold

The New York Times
April 24, 2011


EMMYLOU HARRIS summed up her attitude toward songwriting in one word. “It’s terrifying,” she said over coffee after a morning radio appearance during last month’s South by Southwest music festival. “It’s just this enormous blank page.”

Her new album, “Hard Bargain” (Nonesuch), due for release this week, is suffused with kindly intimacy, acknowledging sorrows and reaching past them. It is one of only three of her albums for which Ms. Harris wrote the majority of the songs by herself: “Red Dirt Girl” in 2000, “Stumble Into Grace” in 2003 and now “Hard Bargain.” (She also wrote the bulk of her 1985 album “The Ballad of Sally Rose” together with her husband at the time, the songwriter Paul Kennerley.) For the rest of more than two dozen albums since 1969 — and singing harmony with Gram Parsons, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and Bright Eyes, among others — Ms. Harris has been an interpreter, lending her slender but tangy and determined voice to venerable songs and brand-new ones.

During SXSW, Ms. Harris played a full slate of private and public showcases, previewing “Hard Bargain.” The radio performance was in a hotel ballroom for a large live audience, and Ms. Harris was dressed as a sweetheart of the rodeo, from cowboy boots and bluejeans to a lace-patterned top and a black cowgirl hat atop her proud mane of silvery hair. Coffee and performing adrenaline made her voluble; she usually sticks to tea. “Someone who’s been on the road for 40 years — that’s me,” said Ms. Harris, who turned 64 this month. “I have spent a good deal of my life out there, and I have no regrets.”

Born in Alabama, raised in Virginia, a longtime resident of California and then of Nashville, Ms. Harris has transformed her music repeatedly. During the 1970s and ’80s, through a string of gold albums, she sang honky-tonk, rockabilly, bluegrass and country-folk as a sly traditionalist; she could illuminate country standards, yet also make a pop song from the Beatles or Donna Summer seem to sprout Southern roots. When she shared harmonies with two other country-rooted, pop-savvy women — Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton — on the 1987 album “Trio,” it sold a million copies.

But in the early ’90s, country radio stonewalled her album “Cowgirl’s Prayer,” Ms. Harris said, relegating her to the limbo of older performers. Ms. Harris decided to shake up her routine. She told her label that she had been listening to music from Daniel Lanois, the resonance-loving producer of U2 and Peter Gabriel. “Somebody made a phone call,” and he was producing her.

The album they made, “Wrecking Ball” in 1995, introduced a new Ms. Harris, sounding more haunted and weathered, temporarily free of country trappings. But it, too, was a collection of other people’s songs, and afterward Mr. Lanois urged her to write her next album herself. By 1999 she had gotten up the nerve to fill an album with her own songs.

“I’d been treading water and didn’t even realize it,” she said. “Sometimes you have to just go and look completely in a different direction and completely change your environment to break up your logjam.”

“Hard Bargain” is the work of a songwriter thinking not only about herself but also about generations: mentors and ancestors, friends living and dead, children and grandchildren, mortality and faith.

“You get to a certain age when the life that has preceded you is going be longer than what is ahead of you,” she said. “You just accept it — this is where you are at this point in your life. It wasn’t like there was a theme in my head when I sat down to write. The ideas came out of what was happening in my world.”

She recorded “Hard Bargain” in the West Nashville home studio of her producer, Jay Joyce. Although Ms. Harris’s albums are generally full of guests — many of them returning favors for her backing vocals — the only performers on “Hard Bargain” are Ms. Harris, Mr. Joyce on guitars and keyboards and Giles Reaves on drums and keyboards.

Still, the songs aren’t spartan; multiple guitars and keyboards gleam, from the twinkling folk-pop of “Hard Bargain” (a Ron Sexsmith song) to the rockabilly twang of “Six White Cadillacs,” which treats death as a break from the road: “We won’t have to wander anymore.”

A mournful lullaby, “Goodnight Old World,” looks to a newborn child to “soften the sorrow” of “this sad world”; Ms. Harris now has a young granddaughter. The song was written with Will Jennings, known for collaborating on Steve Winwood songs like “Higher Love.” By telephone from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., Mr. Jennings said: “I get inspired by voices, and when one comes forth so honestly and beautifully as hers, it really puts you on your mark as far as the words and the music. They have got to be true.”

Like many of Ms. Harris’s songs, “Goodnight Old World” hints at biblical phrases. “She and I both come out of the Southern culture,” said Mr. Jennings, who was born in Texas. “There’s always a hymn not too far away.”

The album includes “Darlin’ Kate,” an elegy to Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle sisters, who shared vocal harmonies and songwriting with Ms. Harris on “Stumble Into Grace” and many other occasions; its modest banjo and piano backup recall the McGarrigles’ parlor songs. Another elegy is “My Name Is Emmett Till,” telling the story of the 14-year-old boy brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Ms. Harris’s account mourns the life that Till never got to live, imagining his next generation: “Perhaps to be a father/With a black boy of my own.” There’s a third elegy as well: “The Road,” one of Ms. Harris’s many songs about the turning point of her life, singing with the country songwriter and Byrds member Gram Parsons, who died in 1973. Its chorus, she said, dates back to the ’60s, before she met Parsons; it had lingered in her memory. “I don’t write that many songs,” she said.

The album also includes “The Ship on His Arm,” a waltzing wartime romance. Its story was suggested by the lives of Ms. Harris’s parents, Walter and Eugenia, who married during World War II. He was a Marine.

“They had one of the great love stories of all time,” Ms. Harris said. “He goes off to war, she has my brother, he comes back and then they settle down to what they think will be a normal life, and the Korean conflict breaks out. I’m 5 years old, he goes off to war again, and his plane is shot down as soon as he gets over there. And for three months we don’t even know if he’s dead or alive. My mother lives through all of that.”

Her father was a prisoner of war who was tortured, but he returned to raise a family that Ms. Harris called “this wonderful nest of support and love.”

Only when she forced herself to take a kind of sabbatical could Ms. Harris concentrate on writing. “I just shut down,” she said, “and get up in the morning and shut myself off like Rapunzel with a big pile of straw and try to come up with the gold.”

Two of the most telling songs on “Hard Bargain” are about solitary women: “Nobody,” tracing the life of someone who never finds “her one true love,” and “Lonely Girl”: “If love can’t find me again/I’ll put it all behind me then,” she sings, “I’ll just go and learn to sing another sad love song.”

The melancholy in her songs sometimes surprises Ms. Harris. “I don’t believe in this idea that we’re going to be happy, happy people all the time and if we don’t we’re going to take a pill, or the idea that being melancholy or being sad is an unnatural state. But I actually have a pretty good life, and I’m a pretty upbeat person for the most part.”

Her next few years are mapped out: more touring, a long-delayed duo album with the songwriter Rodney Crowell, other collaborations. Then, perhaps, she’ll get around to writing more songs. “I still don’t know if I have a craft,” she said. “I just bumble through it and hope for the inspiration.”

Emmylou Harris takes measure of her musical life with ‘Hard Bargain’

Posted on April 24, 2011 by Peter Cooper
The Tennessean

There’s a point in “The Road,” Emmylou Harris’ rumination on her brief but transformative time with late, great Americana forerunner Gram Parsons, where the mournfulness might threaten to overwhelm.

The leadoff track to a new album titled Hard Bargain (out April 26), “The Road” finds Harris depicting Parsons as the impetus for her life in music. But that life, while well celebrated with honors such as her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, has necessarily been one of unease. As she puts it in the song, “I have spent my whole life out here working on the blues.”

But that line isn’t meant to sound self-pitying — it’s something of a nod, both to her work ethic (“I don’t take vacations,” she says) and to another late and great troubadour friend, Townes Van Zandt. It was Van Zandt who explained with a forthright whimsy that there are but two kinds of music, “The blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” The blues, then, stands as the good kind, and it can’t be made without labor, taste and soul.

“That song is a ‘Thank you,’ ” Harris says. “It’s looking back and being grateful that you ran into that person and your life was changed, and all the good things that have come to you from being on that path. I’ve had wonderful company along the way.”

Hard Bargain focuses in part on what happens when that company exits for other environs. Alongside “The Road,” with its memories of the early 1970s days when Parsons enlisted a then-unknown Harris to sing harmonies on two albums and on tour, there’s “Darling Kate,” about Harris’ friend and frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010 from a rare form of cancer. But the album is also greatly informed by new company, in the form of Nashville’s Jay Joyce, who played numerous instruments and produced the album.

For Joyce, the challenge of adding a new chapter to a Hall of Fame career — which includes 27 previous albums helmed by the heralded likes of Brian Ahern, Daniel Lanois, Richard Bennett, Paul Kennerley and Malcolm Burn — well, the whole thing seemed at the very least significant.

“It was a little daunting,” says Joyce, who first met Harris when he was producing Patty Griffin’s 1998 album Flaming Red. “And I still have to pinch myself once in a while if I’m in her living room, playing Gram Parsons’ guitar or the banjo Chet Atkins gave her. But she felt comfortable in my studio, and after a week or two you’re just friends making music. And Emmylou is very much a musician. She speaks the language.”

‘We kept it in the family’

Joyce and Harris made the album with multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves and no other musicians.

“We said, ‘If we feel we need to bring in other sounds, we will,’ ” Harris says. “There was no need, though. I loved everything Jay and Giles played, and so we just kept it in the family.”

The trio approach didn’t lead to a simple or stripped-down album, as Joyce and Reaves often overdubbed instrumental parts over the basic tracks, adding layers and, at times, an elegant pop sheen. But working without Harris’ favored harmony singers such as Griffin, Buddy and Julie Miller, Pam Rose or Mary Ann Kennedy meant that Harris spent hours singing harmony over her own leads.

“I just think she’s one of the best background vocalists alive,” Joyce says of Harris, who has contributed significant harmony parts to recordings from Parsons, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Johnny Cash and hundreds of others. “She has a way of never singing what would be the regular thing. Somehow she always knows how to twist it up and make it her own distinct thing.”

Harris’ songwriting is also a distinct thing, though it was not until a quarter century after her 1975 major-label debut that she recorded an entire album of originals. Her skills as a finder of songs and as an inventive interpreter long took public precedence over her songwriting, though along the way she penned gems including “Boulder to Birmingham,” “Tulsa Queen” and “Prayer In Open D.”

For 2008’s All I Intended To Be, she blended a handful of originals with compositions from Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, Mark Germino and others, but all but two of Hard Bargain’s songs (the title track from Ron Sexsmith and Joyce’s album-closing “Cross Yourself”) were written or co-written by Harris. The songs are woven together by poetic sensibility and by themes of loss, gratitude and yearning amid change, though she didn’t set out to write any sort of concept album.

“Sometimes the writing is a way to figure out exactly where you’re at,” says Harris, who turned 64 earlier this month. “You accept the fact that this is where you are, and you accept what happened before. And most of your life is behind you, but you still have a ways to go.”

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