Under the Covers

Emmylou Harris unearths the language between the lines

At 47 years of age, master interpreter Emmylou Harris remains a barefoot kind of singer. And with her shoes off, Harris' second toes reveal themselves to be exceptionally long: They're slender and flexible, considerably longer than her big toes, and as agile as a pair of pinkies. According to folklore, such an attribute indicates one of three character traits: intelligence, longevity, or descent from royalty.

“I don't think that we live to extreme old age in my family,” Harris says, laughing. “And I don't think there's any royalty.” As for her intelligence, she protests, “I've got a 16-year-old daughter who's way smarter than me! And her toes are not on the long side. So I'd probably dash that theory right now.”

She may not find much truth in old wives' tales, but Harris surely understands the strange inevitability of the cycles of life. Though she began her career as a Greenwich Village folkie, singing Judy Collins songs and the like, she spent the next quarter-century releasing records (24 of them) into the country music bins. Earlier this year, Harris took home her seventh Grammy Award, one for Contemporary Folk Album of the Year for Wrecking Ball.

The neatness of that little circle distracts from the fact that Wrecking Ball isn't really a folk album at all. Neither is it a country record — or a roots-pop one, or a scrapbook of atmospheric prairie lullabies. It's all of the above and more, comprised of several lifetimes' worth of sensibility, and a sense of place that spans the continent.

When Elektra Records told Harris they would hire any producer she wanted, she didn't hesitate: She chose Ontario-bred, New Orleans-based Daniel Lanois, veteran of such benchmark albums as Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, U2's The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon, and Peter Gabriel's So, as well as a talented composer and guitarist in his own right.

“I tell you,” Harris says, “I'm sure I'd probably heard his name. But it wasn't until I got his first solo record and the Dylan record — I got them at the same time, the Oh Mercy and Acadie albums. I'd never heard anything so good in such a long time. They were the records that I told my friends about.”

“And then I started looking into his other work, and I found that everything he had a hand in struck a chord with me, a responsive chord.” Still, she says she hadn't given thought to their working together: “It was only when that question was put to me — 'What if you could work with anybody, who would it be?' And I thought, 'Well, this guy makes great records. I love what he does.' I wasn't even thinking about what kind of a record we'd do.”

The result was shaped equally by Harris' stirring, elegiac singing style and Lanois' infatuation with shimmering guitar textures, Cajun waltzes, and Native American-styled tom-tom drumming. Most of the record features U2's Larry Mullen on drums and longtime Lanois collaborators Daryl Johnson and Tony Hall sharing bass and percussion. On tour, another New Orleanian, Brady Blade, joins Johnson in the rhythm section.

When Harris plays the Fillmore on Tuesday, she won't have Lanois in tow as she did last autumn. As he resumes his day job as a producer, roadhouse guitarist Buddy Miller (of Oakland's HighTone Records) steps in to lead the touring band. Harris explains that her band held auditions for Lanois' spot, entertaining “some great guitar players. And Buddy showed up with a $50 guitar and a Vox amp,” she laughs.

Though “you should never expect a musician to copy another musician,” as she says, Harris admits that one of the reasons she chose Miller was his and Lanois' shared emphasis on tone quality. “[Lanois] has as many cheap guitars in his arsenal as he does expensive guitars, because he's able to elicit a unique sound from the instrument,” she explains.

Though Wrecking Ball is obviously the product of Harris and Lanois' musical consummation (“It's wonderful when you find somebody that's your musical soul mate,” says the singer), it features several high-profile guest appearances. Neil Young, for instance, sings harmony on the title track, which originally appeared on his 1989 Freedom LP. Reformed country renegade Steve Earle contributes guitar to Dylan's “Every Grain of Sand” and his own “Goodbye,” while he and Young join Lucinda Williams in backing the exquisite “Sweet Old World.”

Throughout her career, Harris has tuned her ear to the earthy qualities of the songs of her contemporaries. And by no means has she limited herself to Nashville: Among other oddities, she has appropriated the Beatles' “For No One,” Simon & Garfunkel's “The Boxer,” and songs by Donna Summer and Chuck Berry — remaining a ranking “New Traditionalist” all the while by covering Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers.

She also continues — slowly but surely — to write her own material. “But historically,” she says, “I've been an interpreter, and very happy to be. … I don't even think about the fact that they're other people's songs — they're just words that I want to sing.”

“I am what I am,” she continues. “I mean, if I could write more, or if I was supposed to write more, I probably would. … Hopefully I have the best of both worlds, where I occasionally write some songs of my own that stand with the other songs. Because they have to be as good as the other material that's available to me.”

Harris learned to recognize good material during her apprenticeship with the late Gram Parsons, one of the acknowledged pioneers of “country rock.” Parsons was briefly a member of the Byrds, when they cut their sea-change Sweetheart of the Rodeo record; he went on to found the Flying Burrito Brothers and record two solo albums (G.P. and Grievous Angel, both featuring Harris), before overdosing in a Mojave Desert motel in 1973. Parsons is credited with discovering the young Harris, and she hasn't forgotten him. “He gave me my focus, and my direction, and my style,” she says. “Before, I had a voice, but I didn't really know what to do with it. He really kind of forged it.” What Parsons taught her was “the country approach to singing,” she says, in which “the emotion is very restrained, and almost implied. … I think that's what the strength of country music is.”

The Lucinda Williams song “Sweet Old World” has a devastating lyric, rendered more so by Harris' shivering delivery: “See what you lost when you left this world?/ This sweet old world.” Was the singer thinking of anyone in particular when she cut the song?

“It's more ambiguous than that,” she says, tentatively. “Obviously there are specific elements of Gram in there, but [it's not just about] people that might've had some part in their own destruction of themselves. [It's] just the idea of thinking about the loss of someone, and also our own potential loss of ourselves. It's a love song to life.”

“It's hard to talk about that song,” she confesses. “A song that is really good — if you could explain it, it wouldn't be written. Because we need poetry in order to talk about the things that we can't express in any other way. It's the language that is between the lines of our lives.”

That language can be heard in abundance on Harris' latest album. She may have eight gold records to her credit, but Harris has also endured the valleys of any long career. “There's lots of music that I like that the majority of people don't like,” she says. “So I wasn't sure if [Wrecking Ball] was going to be accessible to enough people to give it staying power. It's been wonderful to realize that people are responding to it on that emotional level.”

Emmylou Harris plays Tues, April 9, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.

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