This month’s Uncut (dated February 2013) features the story behind Gram Parsons’ landmark solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel. His closest collaborator during this period, Emmylou Harris, has her own amazing tales to tell, so it seemed time to bring out this archive feature, originally in Uncut’s August 2007 issue, where Harris takes us through the making of her greatest records. Interview: Bud Scoppa
PIECES OF THE SKY
Five years on from obscure debut Gliding Bird (1969), Emmylou began work on her debut proper with producer and future husband Brian Ahern, who would helm 11 of her LPs. She continued her association with the crew from the Gram Parsons albums, who’d become the core of her Hot Band.
Harris: “Brian wanted to use those guys because they were world-class musicians, but for me they were like a talisman. I thought the closest I could get to Gram would be through the people he’d worked with. Then Brian signed Rodney Crowell, so all the other pieces started to come together. It was a beautiful mixing of a cosmic stew. Keeping Gram’s music alive was what I thought my purpose was. I didn’t understand why the whole world wasn’t crying out like I was at the loss of Gram. Also, he had affected me so much on an artistic level, I felt like I had to give it to others the way it had been given to me. It’s strange how emotions work, but there was something valid there. It’s the way we deal with what comes through us: we have to plough it under and make something out of it.”
BOB DYLAN – DESIRE
Soon after the release of Pieces Of The Sky she was initiated into The Way Of Bob…
“When I got the call to sing on Dylan’s record, I thought he had heard my record and liked what I was doing. But as it turns out [Desire producer] Don DeVito was given the task of getting a girl singer to sing on the record, and as he was a fan, he called me. Dylan was a god to me, and though my heart and mind had turned to country, I started out as a folk singer, and I will always have that chip in me. When we went into the studio, we didn’t have time to think about it much, because we didn’t learn the songs beforehand. I would sit next to Dylan and the lyrics would be there. Then the band would start playing, and he would look at me to let me know that I was supposed to jump in and sing. So I had no time to work up a part, but if you get into the rhythm of what he’s doing, it sort of lets you know what’s coming. He was throwing paint up on that canvas, and I was just another colour he was working with.”
Emmylou’s next LP, made just months after the first with Ahern and the Hot Band, is its mirror image: Parsons-associated tracks, trad tunes and a Beatles cover.
“Elite Hotel had country hits with ‘One Of These Days’, ‘Together Again’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’, remakes of hits by serious country artists [George Jones, Buck Owens and Patsy Cline, respectively]. ‘Satan’s Jewel Crown’ was there to celebrate the Louvins. The hits themselves were classic country, but the LP had a Beatles song [‘Here, There And Everywhere’], so there were murmurings from country purists, and I started to wonder: ‘Am I being true to Gram? Is this what I set out to do?’ I wanted to be a country artist. But I was being true to who I was, greatly influenced by The Beatles and Dylan. I was a child of my generation who’d discovered country, which became the Big Bang for me, but all these other elements were still swirling around in there. So the eclecticism of those early records was very real for me as I was finding my voice. I needed to do that to get to the point where I could narrow my parameters.”
GRAM PARSONS – GP/GRIEVOUS ANGEL
Parsons’ two solo LPs featured keyboardist/bandleader Glen D Hardin, guitarist James Burton and drummer Ronnie Tutt from Elvis Presley’s band. Gram plucked newcomer Emmylou out of the Washington, DC club scene, where she’d been singing Dylan and Paul Simon songs in an effort to support herself and her baby daughter.
“The timing was amazing. You can be a cynical as you want in life, but certain things happen that make you believe in synchronicity. The only reason Gram got my phone number was that the gal who babysat for me happened to be at the show in Baltimore where he had come to see his old pals, the Burrito Brothers. She overheard them saying that they’d seen this girl who sang pretty good, but they didn’t know how to get in touch with me. And Tina just spoke up and said, ‘Oh, I have her number.’ Like they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
“When we started singing those duets, I was trying to follow him, and I cringe when I hear [the outtakes] now. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did understand that he was the lead singer, and I thought that looking at him was going to tell me what he was going to do with his mouth, and because it seemed to work right away, I went with it. Gram was such a great singer; he was so at ease with his art that it was just a matter of being pulled into his world, and I was willing to be led. At that point I didn’t care much about country music one way or the other. I was just approaching it as a harmony thing – I was learning to be a duet partner. So I wasn’t bringing any particular ideas. I was a tabula rasa, a complete empty vessel waiting to be filled up with whatever I was gonna learn. Singing with Gram and getting infused with the country music set me on a particular path and concentrated my energy and enthusiasm. Gram turned me on to the Louvin Brothers, and those harmonies exhilarated me. When I heard Ira, I wanted to be Ira. Their vocal blend was just stunning. Eastern religions talk about Chakra, the special point where there’s a spiritual concentration in the body that’s connected to the soul. They say certain stimuli make your chakras vibrate, and my chakras were vibrating when I heard ‘Born Again’, with Ira’s voice going up into the stratosphere. And I’d always loved The Everly Brothers.
“Gram wasn’t disciplined when we were recording GP, but he was letting himself be disciplined by the professionalism of the musicians he was working with. He seemed much healthier and more focused on Grievous Angel – he was right there. It seemed like he was on a path where he was actually going to pull himself out of his self-destructive habits. That’s why I was so unprepared for his death – I thought he was in the clear.”
ROSES IN THE SNOW
After two more eclectic albums in 1977 and 1978, she made the strictly country Blue Kentucky Girl (1978), followed by this dedicated bluegrass set.
“Back then, everybody was drinking from the bluegrass cup, including Linda Ronstadt, but nobody was recording it. So a certain ego in me said, I’ve got Ricky [Skaggs] in the band now, and it’s going on anyway, so it’s crazy not to do a bluegrass record. Instead of going backwards into ‘son of Elite Hotel’, which we thought the record company wanted, we decided to make a bluegrass record with some serious pickers. I thought the record would be a commercial disaster, but I was arrogant enough at that point in my career and in my youth that I felt I could sustain such a disaster; it was more important to follow my artistic path. When it became a Top 10 hit, I was patting myself on the back for following my convictions, and figuring that was the way it would always be – and then I made The Ballad Of Sally Rose [self-written country concept LP from ’85] and almost went bankrupt. [Laughs] So you live and you learn.”
In 1995, Emmylou, now far removed from mainstream country but universally venerated as an interpretive singer, made the most daring, inventive album of her career with producer/player Daniel Lanois.
“I wasn’t gonna be invited to the country party; I’d been a good girl and done what they wanted with Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993), but country radio said it was too traditional. At that point, I said, ‘You know what? Nobody’s listening.’ I had become a really big fan of Daniel’s from Dylan’s Oh Mercy and his own Acadie record, and when the label suggested I work with somebody different, his was the only name I came up with. We cut for two weeks in Nashville and got a lion’s share of the record – some of those rough mixes ended up on the album, like the Hendrix song ‘May This Be Love’ and ‘Goodbye’, which Steve Earle had dropped in my mailbox a couple of days before the sessions. It was a small group, and we were all live in one big room at Woodland Studios. It pretty much spoiled me. There was a lot of magic going on during those two weeks, and then we resumed a month later down at [Lanois’ studio] Kingsway in New Orleans.”
RED DIRT GIRL
After Wrecking Ball, Emmylou put all her energies into writing songs before returning to the studio with Malcolm Burn, a Lanois protégé who’d engineered and mixed her late-career stunner.
“Writing was like doing a different exercise routine – I was working different muscles. So it took awhile. I wanted to still be in that Wrecking Ball world, so I turned to Malcolm. We made Red Dirt Girl in New Orleans, in the living room of a funny old house Malcolm was living in, right down the street from the Saturn Bar. I thought I was finished with the record, and I was driving back to New Orleans to tie up the loose ends when I saw this sign for Meridian, Mississippi, and I just started rhyming words in my head, and once I got to New Orleans, I couldn’t stop working on this song. When I was writing it, I went to see Boys Don’t Cry, and I got very affected by the lives of the minor characters, the smalltown people, and the tragedy of the trap that they were caught in. There were also a lot of things from my life – images of the South. Lillian was the main character, but as the story was told by another red-dirt girl, I became the red-dirt girl, and that became the album title.”
STUMBLE INTO GRACE
Her most recent picked up where Red Dirt Girl left off, as Emmylou continued to focus on songwriting. This time it came harder.
“Red Dirt Girl took a lot out of me, and we toured it a lot. I didn’t feel I was ready to start another record, and Malcolm just said, ‘Hey, I’m coming down there, and we’re gonna work on some songs.’ Sometimes I need that, and he really pulled that album together, but it was not an easy birth. Malcolm and I started working on ‘Can You Hear Me Now’, and I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to work out with the McGarrigles, so I brought them down and we finished ‘I Will Dream’ and ‘Little Bird’. So that gave me some confidence. ‘Strong Hand’ came right as the very end, like ‘Red Dirt Girl’. I thought we were finished with the record, and I got this phone call that June [Carter Cash] was dying. I was working on another song, and it was like everything else was pushed out of the way, and that song came roaring in. It was saying, ‘I’m here now – pay attention.’ It’s funny how these things happen. The creative process is so mysterious.”