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"I think anytime you make a record, it's got to be a leap of faith," contends Emmylou Harris. "Because you never know how it's going to turn out."
Harris has plummeted into the unknown on numerous occasions during her more-than-quarter-century career, with mostly positive results. But even longtime supporters were staggered by the recently released Wrecking Ball, a stunning sonic curveball that married Harris' delicate, crystalline voice to an adventurous soundscape constructed by producer Daniel Lanois. In retrospect, though, no one should have been caught off-guard. While only a couple of years shy of her 50th birthday, Harris remains an artist willing to take chances. "Change has been my friend," she says.
Attempts to pigeonhole Harris over the years have proved fruitless, but that hasn't stopped observers from trying. Wrecking Ball, a recording that features compositions by Steve Earle ("Goodbye"), Neil Young (the title cut), Bob Dylan ("Every Grain of Sand"), Anna McGarrigle ("Goin' Back to Harlem") and Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love"), got the Grammy this year for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
But Harris, who holds seven Grammy trophies, isn't complaining about this absurd label. "I was just happy to find myself in a category and be nominated," she claims. "The category itself was kind of interesting, because I started out as a folk singer, which cast me in the die of eclecticism. There's really been a pretty strong thread of that running through my albums.
"If there's been any formula at all to my career," she points out, "it's been a nonformula."
Like her music, Harris' upbringing was prone to sudden shifts in direction. The daughter of a Marine, she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but grew up on a series of military bases across the American South. In the late Sixties, she moved to New York City and caught the tail end of the venerated Greenwich Village folk scene. She made a folk platter for the tiny Jubilee label during that period, but it was her early Seventies collaborations with Gram Parsons that first brought her to the public's broader notice. Her harmonies on Parsons' two gorgeous solo recordings, 1973's GP and 1974's Grievous Angel, set a country-rock standard that has never been matched. Harris' love for Parsons, whose work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers is an integral reference point for contemporary acts such as Wilco and Son Volt, echoes with her every note on these efforts, giving them a resonance that seems immune to the ravages of time.
After Parsons' September 1973 death, Harris embarked on a career that initially was burdened by her desire to preserve and extend Parsons' musical legacy. Pieces of the Sky, released in 1975, included a cover of a song by the Louvin Brothers, one of Parsons' favorite country duos, while Harris' 1976 album Elite Hotel featured three Parsons compositions. But Harris soon developed her own style, assisted in part by her backing group, the Hot Band. Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Albert Lee, among others, received their first widespread attention while working for Harris under this banner, and they've never forgotten it (Crowell, for instance, co-wrote Wrecking Ball's winning finale, "Waltz Across Texas Tonight").
Despite the quality of the music she made with the Hot Band, Harris eventually became restless. "I made certain records in the early days of the Hot Band, but then I felt I was drying up a bit," she divulges. "And that's when I got the Ramblers together."
The Nash Ramblers, that is. The group, which featured Sam Bush, a founder of the New Grass Revival, and Roy Huskey Jr., whose father was a regular contributor at the Grand Ole Opry, took a traditional approach to country music around the same time that artists like Dwight Yoakam were exploring similar territory. At the Ryman, a live recording from 1992, captures the Ramblers at their peak. The musicians are as adept at covering works by old-timers Bill Monroe and Boudleaux Bryant as they are rendering new ditties from the pens of John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.
A few of the Ramblers also performed on Cowgirl's Prayer, a pleasant 1993 release. But country radio kept its distance. As Harris puts it, "They really haven't invited me to their party for a long time." The reason, she believes, has a great deal to do with the upswing in country sales and the pressure that goes along with it.
"That's the downside of popularity," she says. "The definition of country is a bit narrow right now. There are a lot of talented people out there, but it seems that they're being forced to narrow their vision and keep to a certain style in order to get played. Which is a death knell to creativity."
Instead of making the follow-up to Cowgirl's Prayer a valentine to the country marketplace, Harris has moved into entirely new territory on Wrecking Ball.
Players such as U2's Larry Mullen Jr. contribute to the texture of Wrecking Ball, as do a number of special guests, Steve Earle and Neil Young among them. What really holds the disc together is the fragile, mysterious mood created by Harris and producer Lanois, a Brian Eno protege.
"I thought of my voice as an instrument in the ensemble during the recording process," Harris allows. "I don't ever like to think of myself as the person out front, with a backing band behind me. I always feel like being the better part of a whole."
When she went to record her vocal parts, Harris says, "I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I never do. And that's actually one of the wonderful parts of making a record. I love the surprises and learning how you can unlock the meaning and emotional impact of a song."
Her tremendous success in this regard on Wrecking Ball has followers eagerly awaiting the next album. But Harris knows better than to try to rush inspiration. "This album has turned out to be a real gift that came to me mainly because I paid attention to the opportunities that presented themselves," she remarks. "And fortunately, I find myself in a really lucky place. There's not this pressure to sell millions of records. I have a smaller, pretty loyal audience that I think likes change and wants to be surprised. And I feel that I always will find an audience for what I do. Whatever that is.