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Emmylou Harris: stumbling with a purpose

The artist started as a backup singer before turning soloist, songwriter and collaborator, connecting with an ever-widening audience.

By BRIAN ORLOFF
Published May 26, 2005

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[Publicity photo]
Emmylou Harris’ latest CD, Stumble Into Grace, came out in 2003. She has another album due next year.

Anybody familiar with country luminary Emmylou Harris' peerless pipes will see the unintended irony in the title of her most recent album, 2003's Stumble Into Grace.

Harris' connection to American music has been indelible since she emerged singing backup in the early '70s for Gram Parsons. It is as a solo artist, an interpreter of other musicians' material and, most recently, as a songwriter herself, that Harris continues to challenge herself and earn critical praise. Known for her pure voice, the musical equivalent of silk, Harris, 58, is certainly not stumbling into anything. She is soaring into maturity, and her career continues to flourish.

Apart from her solo work, Harris is a much sought-after guest vocalist. In the past year she has crossed the musical spectrum, adding deep emotion and authority to the fragile-sounding songs of young indie rock hero Conor Oberst (who records as Bright Eyes) and joining veteran genre-hopper Elvis Costello on his latest album, The Delivery Man.

Harris, who will perform Friday night at the Tampa Theatre, plans to release an album next year, and recently wrote and recorded with folkies Kate and Anna McGarrigle, with whom she also worked on Stumble Into Grace.

Calling recently from her hotel room in New York, a thoughtful Harris talked about how she maintains creative control, her recording sessions with Oberst and Costello, and maturing in the music industry.

You've been doing more songwriting on the last two records. How have you grown as a songwriter?

Well, just the fact that I've started doing it was a huge leap - more than one song on an album, I didn't even have that. Certainly I made a quantum leap with (2000's) Red Dirt Girl and then followed it up with the next record. I'm not so sure with the next one. I actually have some covers that I'm quite anxious to try - but I do want to try and write some songs. Right now I'm thinking that the next record will be a combination of self-written songs and covers. But I'm not in a hurry because I've actually got a record that Mark Knopfler and I have recorded that's going to come out next year.

What does it mean to you to sing on somebody else's record?

It's great to be asked, and it's always usually really interesting and enjoyable. You get turned on to other people's music. Like Conor Oberst - I was sort of aware of him. But you really get down into it when you're singing those lyrics and you're immersing yourself in those melodies, and find out what their thing is all about. Basically you're like another instrument that is adding to what you're doing. It's a good way to listen and get turned on to music, pretty much first hand.

You mentioned Oberst. What do you think about his music? He's being called his generation's Bob Dylan by some critics.

The music is not as structured as the school I come from. But this is how music changes when it comes through people who are creative and think outside the lines, color outside the lines. It's just really important that people do that. It's obvious that he's incredibly sincere and connected to what he's doing. That's always inspiring to be around that.

Did you think about the fact that you were singing for people who may never have been exposed to you before?

You mean (did I) realize that this fellow is younger than my children? (Laughs.) Yes. It's kind of interesting but to me music is timeless and so it's all part of a continuum. But it is interesting to think that might be the only way that anyone would have ever heard of me. Because I understand that my audience is fiercely loyal but by pop music standards probably small. It's nice when the generations can communicate and come together all because we have a love of music, a love of being affected by that particular art form. It's a language that we all share even though we all have a different dialect.

Talk about working with Elvis Costello. You two have a bit of a history together, I believe.

Of course I've known Elvis, not well, but over the years. We were talking about a country show we did years ago in the Valley in California - the club's not even around anymore and as far as we know the show didn't even air. George Jones was on it and he was on it, and Elvis was talking about how he had the mumps. (Laughs.) And I remember that show. And more recently he was kind enough to do our Concerts for a Landmine Free World overseas about three years ago. Besides his voice, his songwriting, energy and his passion for his work and for everything, it was just delightful to spend time with him on those tours.

And then he asked me to sing on the record. I was very happy to do it. I just loved the songs and was also very happy that he was doing The Scarlet Tide, which is one of those new songs that came along that you sort of went, "How come I didn't know about that song?" (Laughs.) The words are so heartbreaking and the melody is so gorgeous. So that was just a wonderful day in the studio.

He presented me as a present a 40-gigabyte iPod that he had programmed with every kind of music available and a little pair of speakers. I call it the Elvis Shuffle. I just put it on shuffle and I never know what's going to happen. I put it on and I listen to it at night on low volume and I will wake up sometimes at like 4 in the morning to Desolation Row and I'll be brought up just enough, and then I'll wake up to some other wonderful old blues track. Or then there will be some jazz, or just beautiful piano sonatas. It was just the most extraordinary gift.

A lot of people have been talking about the title of your latest album. Are you trying to say something about maturing into your role in the business?

The thing about albums and songwriting, I feel almost like I'm a vessel for things that are coming for me, so you don't always know exactly where you're headed. I think that's why the title was so apropos on so many levels. But Stumble Into Grace, I think we do stumble into it. There's some old Sufi saying, something like, "The thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, but only seekers find it." Just the act of searching is sometimes the end in itself. And so really you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. And there you are.

PREVIEW

Emmylou Harris, 8 p.m. Friday, Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. $38.50. (813) 274-8981.

[Last modified May 25, 2005, 09:51:08]


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