An Exclusive Interview With Emmylou Harris: 'Time Is Light When I'm Making Music'

Emmylou Harris is an unspeakably nice person. Her twitches are minor: baseball, her dogs, and if there's a third one, I've forgotten it. And her career reads equally saintly.
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Emmylou Harris has many admirers, but my wife and I may be the only ones who chose our wedding date based on her tour schedule. It wasn't that we were following her around like a couple of Deadheads --- we wanted Buddy Miller, then her lead guitarist, and his wife Julie to give a mini-concert for the guests at our wedding.

We spent just enough time with the Millers that weekend to grill them about Emmylou. They had no dish -- really, they had almost nothing to say about her. And they explained why: Emmylou Harris is an unspeakably nice person.

Her twitches are minor: baseball, her dogs, and if there's a third one, I've forgotten it. After three marriages, she lives in Nashville with her mother and brother. She has a shelter for rescued dogs in her yard.

Her career reads equally saintly. Over 40 years and 25 records and a dozen Grammys, she's followed her instincts, and, in the process, avoided sudden spikes and tumbles. She has graced hundreds of records as a celestial back-up singer and duet partner. The verdict is generous: There are, a critic has said, no bad Emmylou Harris records -- only good ones and better ones.

"Hard Bargain" is one of the better ones. Recorded in just a month with only three musicians, its first distinction is that Emmylou wrote 11 of the 13 songs. This is unusual -- it's only the third release on which she's been the dominant writer. The second distinction is that she's 64 now, and, like a lot of people who have hit their sixties, she can't quite grasp where the time went. And why people who have been important to her -- Gram Parsons and Kate McGarrigle, most prominently -- can be located only in memory.

This is a CD of deep feeling: sad memory, deep loss, specific regret. But it's not self-indulgent or maudlin -- if anything, the music is unusually jaunty. Very much like the new Paul Simon CD. And like Simon, she's reached a place where she can see far and she can see wide -- without trading sharp observation or wry insight for boomer platitude. (To buy "Hard Bargain" from Amazon, click here. To buy the MP3 download from Amazon, click here.)

It's tricky to interview an icon. Fame at that level is a shield; you can't get in, she can't get out. It's tough enough with actors. It's much tougher with an Emmylou Harris, because everything about her -- starting with that crystalline voice and that forever gray hair -- suggests that she's some kind of living saint. When we chatted on the phone, that seemed like a good place to start.

Jesse Kornbluth:
I've been listening to you -- and reading about you -- for decades, and it occurred to me: I know nothing about you that you don't want me to know. How have you achieved that? A flawless life? Or total discretion?

Emmylou Harris:
A flawless life, absolutely. The only time I ever appeared in the Enquirer was for a piece about people who let their hair grow gray. I guess I'm not much of a wild child.

JK: Buddy Miller says that he feels what he plays is "country" and that stuff they play on the radio is "alternative." Given that he was your guitarist, on and off, for a decade, it's no stretch to say that applies equally to you. Where are you with country music and/or Nashville?

EH: I'm nowhere with country music. I don't hear much of it, so I shouldn't venture an opinion, but when it finds me, it seems formulaic. I don't hear anyone who moves me like George Jones or Bill Monroe. The country that you hear on the radio, it feels poppy but without the originality of pop.

JK: Do you miss your country years?

EH: I had my run. It served me well. Country taught me how to sing, it put me on a path. But I was never going to be locked into a formula. I don't want to be considered a current country artist.

JK: Still, you live in Nashville. Go out much?

EH: I'm going out tonight to present an award to Kris Kristofferson and see a free movie.

JK: What about tomorrow night?

EH: Normally I don't go out. I run a dog rescue shelter.

JK: Topic change: your new CD. On which you do your own backup vocals. Is this a first?

EH: No, but I've never sung backup on all the songs before.

JK: Musically, is it more of a challenge?

EH: As an experience, it's easier to harmonize with yourself than with others. But I still judge it by the same standards -- if I didn't sound good or we needed a different color, we'd bring someone in.

JK: You've spoken of going from gig to gig on your bus: "I'm like a trench soldier, I've been out there on the bus." After all these years, do you ever look at rock stars and think, "I'd kill for their plane?"

EH: I love the bus! You can spread out. You have your books. You can sleep when you want, have company when you feel like it. And you can take your dogs. I wish I'd realized that earlier -- it's only in the last 15 years that I've taken them with me on the bus. They're such a joy -- they keep you in the present.

JK: When I think of you, I think of Virgil's line: "Admire a large vineyard, cultivate a small one." By which I mean: You've always been hungry for the music -- not the fame.

EH: You must have somebody listening. I have just enough people paying attention that I have the freedom to be in charge. And I have a great record company -- Nonesuch understands what I'm about.

JK: Paul Simon, who's 69, says, "When I'm in the music, I'm no age." And as a performer, you too have achieved around 40 years of visible past. No surprise that your new CD is drenched in time -- time as a force, almost a character. How heavy does that feel?

EH: Paul's right -- time is light when I'm making music. Other times it ranges from heavy to inconsequential. But the press of time? It's always there. And it's sometimes a wonder -- I can't believe that I'm at this age and still working and have all these things I want to do. In that, I'm lucky. I'm healthy and in better shape than I was 30 years ago.

JK: Energy, creative spark, opportunity -- so why name the CD "Hard Bargain?"

EH: Just being in the world is a hard bargain. Everything has a price, a blessing and a curse. It's relentless. We can't really resist life -- we're pulled back into it.

JK: What's the reward?

EH: The reward is that we're here.

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