It's safe to say that nobody has brought more diversity to country music than Emmylou Harris.
Since 1973, when she began to tour and record with the country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, Harris has performed everything from bluegrass to Beatles to Berry. Her no-borders repertoire encompasses old-time gospel music, Springsteen, honky-tonk classics and even a version of "On the Radio," a ballad originally done by disco queen Donna Summer.
Harris has applied her pure voice mainly to wistful material that she delivers with a deep but dignified ache. But she rocks often enough not to let herself be typecast as a maid of constant sorrow. Her bands have always been staffed by superlative players, with Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs among the marquee names who served as Harris sidemen before going on to bigger things on their own.
Many a lesser artist has reaped far greater rewards from country music's explosion of popularity over the past few years: Harris' streak of gold albums and hot singles came between 1975 and 1985. But in terms of quality delivered, rather than units shipped, Harris is unquestionably the definitive country singer, male or female, of the Baby Boom generation.
At 46, she is still capable of making a new musical stretch--as in seventh-inning stretch. Last week, when her current tour took her to San Francisco, she went out to Candlestick Park and, during the traditional seventh-inning break, sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" from atop the dugout of the home-team Giants.
Harris figures it was her most unusual gig to date.
"There are some pretty strange clubs out there, but probably that's the strangest place (I've sung)," Harris said over the phone from Ogden, Utah, a stop on a long summer trek that brings her to the Coach House on Saturday, Aug. 21.
Harris said some Giants fans seemed miffed that she wore a red baseball cap with an R on it--wondering whether she might not be showing sympathy for the day's opponent, the Cincinnati Reds. But the R was for Rockford, as in Illinois.
"We went to Cooperstown (N.Y., site of the baseball Hall of Fame) this summer when we had a day off, and I got this great baseball cap, a Rockford Peaches cap," Harris said. The Peaches are the 1940s all-female baseball team whose history was recounted in the film "A League of Their Own."
When Harris recruited her current all-acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers, she not only got an assemblage of hot players--including the remarkable mandolinist Sam Bush and Dobro pro Al Perkins--but a bunch of men willing to foster her interest in diamonds.
"It was the Ramblers who got me more into baseball," said Harris, who also was scheduled to sing the national anthem Wednesday before the California Angels game at Anaheim Stadium. "Only in the last couple years have I gotten really into being a baseball fan. The guys in the band are very much into it, and you start to learn a lot about it; you see the poetry of the game. And if you're out (on tour) for extended times in the summer, the only thing on television that isn't going to give you a headache is baseball. It's there for you."
Harris plays a bit, too.
"We have a whiffle ball game at my parents' house every summer. The tree is second base, and we have to have special rules (for) when the ball gets caught in the branches."
Under the ground rules she has adopted for her musical career, touring is Harris' real summer game.
"My priorities are that I tour in the summer so I can be home with my daughter" during the school year. That daughter, Meghann, 14, spends most of the summer with her father, the second of Harris' three ex-husbands. An older daughter, Hallie, in her 20s, lives in Nashville, Tenn., and works at a record store where, Harris reports, she is heavily into '60s rockers such as Pink Floyd, the Who and the Rolling Stones.
"I miss both my daughters, but I do have to work," said Harris, who lives in Nashville and tries to keep most of the year clear for family life. "It's the same with any working parent."
As a consequence of her summers-are-for-touring policy, Harris finds herself in the somewhat awkward position of having a new album finished but not released, minimizing the plug-the-record impact of her recent travels.
"I like to do things a little backward," she said, chuckling through hoarseness that she said was the result of two months on the road.
"I don't really feel bad, but the miles wear on you after a while," explained Harris, whose next appointment after the interview was with a hypodermic needle--a shot of something ("vitamins, who knows? It's probably just a placebo") aimed at getting her voice in shape for that night's concert.
As with your grittier ballplayers, Harris said she has no problem performing when she isn't 100% physically.
"I'm pretty tough. Tougher than the rest," she said, borrowing a line from Springsteen.