Although Emmylou Harris still lives in Nashville and has shared a stage or a microphone with just about all the country singers worth their cowboy boots, she’s never been country through and through. Her voice has a mournful quality that reaches back before the West was won, a sound that’s come to the fore over the last couple of decades as she’s definitively departed from the land of fiddles and pedal steel. Her new album, Hard Bargain, proceeds roughly in the vein established by 1995’s Wrecking Ball, although Bargain’s echoing atmospherics are daubed on with a lighter touch. As with most of her recent albums, Harris wrote the bulk of the songs herself, and they’re a sober bunch, dealing with the deaths of friends and the destruction of New Orleans—even the plight of a lonely stray dog. (It’s an important topic for Harris, who runs a rescue shelter out of her backyard.) While gearing up for a tour that will take her across the U.S. through the end of July, Harris called The A.V. Club to talk about her mentor, Gram Parsons, revisiting the death of Emmett Till, and why ignorance makes her a good harmonizer.
The A.V. Club: Are you working on something right now?
Emmylou Harris: Yeah, I just saw Rodney Crowell. He’s got this great project that I sang on.
AVC: Is that the album you’ve been working on together?
EH: No, he wrote these songs with Mary Karr, the novelist—just great songs. I sang on one by myself, and then we all came in on other songs, like one that Norah Jones had sung, and one that Rodney sang. It’s always delightful to jump into Rodney-world.
AVC: Before 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, you mainly interpreted other people’s songs, even though you’d written some fine ones yourself. But in the last decade, you’ve recorded a couple dozen original songs, and you wrote or co-wrote all but two on Hard Bargain. Did the dam just burst? What changed?
EH: Something in the water. I put my energy toward it. I made up my mind to. As you mentioned, it’s not like I’d never written before. So I cleared a space for myself with Red Dirt Girl and decided that I would at least attempt to write most of the next record. When that worked out, I sort of continued, although I still go into that interpretive world. It’s kind of hard to resist when there’s already made-up songs by other people.
AVC: You’ve been a great songcatcher as well. Gillian Welch didn’t even have an album out when you put one of her songs on Wrecking Ball, and Patty Griffin wasn’t well-known either.
EH: It’s wonderful when you discover those incredible people that you know are inevitable before other people discover them. I’ve been lucky with that: Townes Van Zandt, and of course Rodney was a big find early on.
AVC: Is that just a matter of doing the work, finding people like that?
EH: I think you’re just kind of in that world. Other people turn you on to other people. With Rodney, it was my producer Brian Ahern who found him, so I was lucky enough. I came across Townes when I was knocking around little clubs in New York City years ago. It’s the people you hang out with. I think musicians are always very generous in promoting anything good they hear. It’s just kind of in our nature. And obviously I’ve benefited greatly from having that early contact, because it did give me material that was quite stunning early on.
AVC: You’ve turned up frequently on other people’s records.
EH: It’s all part of the work. It’s kind of set in a certain way, you make a record and you tour. But there are peripheral things that are in some ways just as important, like whatever Rodney’s doing. That’s his nature, too, very generous and involved in something that’s good. Somehow you end up benefiting from it, in an inspirational way, I think. You don’t do it for those reasons, but it’s kind of the perks.
AVC: You have a long history, going back to your beginnings as part of Gram Parsons’ band, of singing duets or harmony vocals. Do you have a sense, apart from being able to stay on key, of what might make you better at that than other people?
EH: I think ignorance is a lot to do with it, especially when you’re singing a duet. You’re not limited to one part or another. I would just jump in when I started working with Gram. He was so encouraging and gave me a place to be, on the road and on his records. And singing harmony with him, I was very comfortable with that. You don’t have to be the lead person, so I think it takes some of the pressure away, somehow. Since it sounded so good from that very first situation, it perhaps gives you a false confidence. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I just figured, “Well, I’ll just jump in.” I think of it as an alternate melody, but you’ve got something to follow. It’s a good place to learn about singing. I’m not a trained musician. When folks talk about “Well, you go to this or that”—the tenor, or the third part—I don’t really know what they’re talking about. Of course, when you get into bluegrass and things where there’s three parts, it gets a little more difficult, and you’re limited to certain notes. That’s good too, because you’re part of something. You’re creating sound with other people. And that’s a really wonderful thing to be a part of. I feel like when you’re doing a duet, you’re creating a certain voice.
AVC: There’s a lot of lonesomeness on Hard Bargain, and reflections on mortality. Is that just what’s on your mind?
EH: I guess those things are stewing around in you. You get to a certain point in your life where you get closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and it colors your life, in a way. I don’t think it’s morbid at all. I think in a way, it probably makes your life a little richer, because you’re more appreciative of every day and the blessings of your life. But also, I think everybody has suffering in their life, and hardship. I don’t think you’re going to find anybody who’s been immune to that. If you do, I don’t think you’d really want to know them.
AVC: “The Road” and “Darlin’ Kate” are both about specific people you knew. Kate McGarrigle died a year ago, but what brought you back to thinking and writing about Gram Parsons?
EH: You know, I don’t really know. I started writing, I set aside some time, and I was trying to use certain things, parameters, and I’d been wanting to write in this open tuning. I’d written this song years ago called “Prayer In Open D.” I just had the one song, and it seemed indulgent to take a whole guitar on the road just for that. So I said, “I’m going to try to write some songs.” It was just that particular tuning, and the certain thing that I play in that tuning. The story just kind of fell out, not like anything had happened or I had been particularly thinking about those early days, or anything like that. Songwriting is still a mystery to me, as far as I’m grateful just to get an idea. Basically, I just started telling this story that in a way I’ve told many, many times in interviews. But in a way, it all goes to that last line, of thinking about what would your life would have been if you hadn’t met certain people, who had this extraordinary sea change in your life, and put you on a path that determined almost everything else that followed.
AVC: Bruce Springsteen said about Clarence Clemons, “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
EH: Well, that’s it. It’s all a part of you. It gets in your blood. It does determine you. It’s not like you spend your life obsessing about someone, but you’re grateful that your paths crossed in some way.
AVC: You used the word “generous” before. There’s a real generosity and humility in the way you still pay tribute to Gram Parsons, almost every time you talk about your music.
EH: You just are aware. I didn’t come up with this all by myself, what I’ve been doing. It’s all people that you’ve met and experiences in your life that determine what comes out of your mouth and out of your heart.
AVC: What brought you to writing “My Name Is Emmett Till”?
EH: I wasn’t on a mission, but they were talking about Emmett Till on NPR. It wasn’t a particular anniversary, I don’t believe. It was when I was driving, so I didn’t get the complete story of why they were doing the story. But of course I was aware, being the age I am. I didn’t know about it until I was in my teens, and the civil-rights movement and everything was coming up. So you heard the story, and I’ve seen a documentary, the pictures of him in his casket, the horrific image. So I got that line in my head, “I was born a black boy, my name was Emmett Till.” It just became a matter of telling the story without any kind of implementation. All you had to do was just tell what happened to him. I did get a book. It was funny; I actually went to bookstores trying to find books about Emmett Till, and the only thing I found current was a children’s book, for older children, of some poems. I can’t remember the name of it now. I actually bought it and gave it to a friend as a present. In a used bookstore, I found a book that was written about him, and certain little details that didn’t really come up in the song. Apparently as a child he stuttered, and his mother taught him to whistle before he spoke. So there’s all kind of conjecture and different stories about exactly what happened. Was he whistling in order to respond to the woman, or was he just this cheeky kid who was showing off for friends? Because he was from Chicago, where racism was rampant, but it wasn’t… He could not have been aware.
AVC: You didn’t get murdered for talking to a white woman in Chicago.
EH: It’s such a tragic story, and I do think we shouldn’t hold the negative stuff in our hearts, but we shouldn’t forget. He shouldn’t just be a footnote. Every life is precious.
AVC: You talk in the song about that incredible decision his mother made to have an open-casket funeral, to show the world just what had been done to him.
EH: It was very brave of her. It was a moment that changed the thinking of people who had just not wanted to think about it before, as far as white people. Of course, the black community had been dealing with it for decades. It brought something up that’d been bubbling below the surface. I’m sure there were plenty of other things too, but it just captured the imagination, and perhaps a sense of shame, that something had to change.
AVC: You recorded this album with a small group, just you and producer Jay Joyce and one other musician. Was that the plan going in?
EH: That was the plan. We had done a couple of things before, one-off things, a song for a movie, where we just did it with Jay and Giles Reaves. So when I approached him about doing the record, he said, “Look, let’s start this way, and if we have to bring other people to overdub, or we feel that we need to cut something with more people, we will.” And he also said, “Because you are known for your harmony singing, why don’t we try to have you do all the harmonies, where harmony we feel is needed?” We weren’t going to stick to this no matter what, because obviously you need to serve the song and the record. Records always take on a life of their own. But it worked out so beautifully, we didn’t feel we needed anything else.
AVC: To go back to Wrecking Ball for a minute, that album came as a substantial shock to people who’d been following your career up to that point. What drew you to that sound?
EH: I just had become a huge fan of Daniel Lanois with the Dylan record, Oh Mercy, that he produced, and then his own album, Acadie. At a certain point, that was all I listened to. So when my record company, the people there said, “Look, you want to go outside of Nashville?” They’d tried everything to squeeze me back into country radio, and it just wasn’t going to work, and they were very supportive of me doing something different, working perhaps with a different producer. I said, “Daniel Lanois is what I’m listening to right now.” A phone call was made, so really, that was how that happened.
AVC: Do you think that’s resonated with you ever since?
EH: Oh yeah. I think I was in a bit of a creative logjam. It wasn’t because the people I was working with before weren’t really good, but I think sometimes you really have to jump off a cliff and either land or fly. It’s a leap of faith, in a way. As long as we had songs I liked, I just trusted the people in the room. That’s worked out really well for me. What Daniel put together with those turbulent rhythms and the beautiful sound, that was also a very small group. It was Malcolm [Burn] and Dan, and we had Larry Mullen and Tony Hall. It was a very small group also, and most of it was live vocals. In fact, I think almost all of it. So it just happened that way. And of course later on, I worked with Malcolm, who was a big part of the Wrecking Ball sound. But once again, I feel that you just trust the people you choose to work with, and it’s worked out really well for me.