Even when Emmylou Harris was a fixture on the country charts for a decade starting in 1975, her music was marked by an uncommon sense of adventure--not to mention a voice as pure and true as any that ever came through the Nashville pipeline.
Since falling from favor with country radio, Harris has lived the life of the self-sustaining cult artist, following her instincts and becoming a role model of independence for virtually everyone of worth in country music after her.
In a career marked by what Harris calls "left turns," none has been as dramatic as her latest album, "Wrecking Ball," a collaboration with Daniel Lanois, a producer known for his atmospheric work with U2 and Peter Gabriel. Typically, it has sold modestly since its release last September while enhancing Harris' reputation as a risk-taker.
Harris, backed by guitarist Buddy Miller and the "Wrecking Ball" rhythm section of bassist Daryl Johnson and drummer Brian Blade, will begin a series of Southland shows tonight at the Ventura Theatre. In a phone interview from a tour stop in Vancouver, Canada, the 49-year-old performer talked about her career and the current condition of country music.
Question: How radical a departure was "Wrecking Ball" for you?
Answer: Material-wise, for the most part, I don't think it was such a radical departure. I've always been an eclectic hound in my material, so the diversity isn't unusual. I think the main distinctive feature of the album is Daniel's production, what he gets as far as grooves, and then the sounds that he puts with those grooves.
Q: What were your commercial expectations for the album?
A: I've sort of made my peace with the commercial expectations side of music. I'm in a very fortunate place, because I sort of have carte blanche to do whatever I want, and I seem to sell a respectable amount of records, enough to enable me to take whatever direction I want and try whatever project I want. I have a fan base that seems to respond to that and gives me that go-ahead. I don't have that pressure of having to sell 3 million records every time out.
Q: There was a time when your records were hits on the country charts. Was it hard to adjust when that stopped?
A: No, because oddly enough it never really changed. My audiences were always about the same, and it wasn't a drastic change in record sales either. It seems like I survive outside the realm of radio. That's another fortunate aspect of my career that I'm grateful for.
Q: A lot of young artists cite you as a role model for your integrity, your willingness to follow your instincts. Do you take pride in that?
A: Certainly it's very flattering. For me it's the only way to go, because it gives you that freedom to do whatever you want. Once again I think I've been very, very fortunate. I think it's very difficult for artists right now. There's a glut of very talented people out there, but there's so much pressure on them to sell a certain number of records, it must be an inhibiting factor.
I can't imagine going into the studio and thinking, "Well, we've got to cut something that's going to appeal to this certain number of people and sell this certain number of records." How do you know what that is unless you just repeat your past successes? And that is the kiss of death for creativity as far as I'm concerned.
Q: What music do you listen to these days?
A: Well, lots of different things. The McGarrigles, I'm a big fan of theirs, I usually always have a CD of theirs out. Something by Neil Young. He's an artist who has remained an influence and an inspiration over the years. Celtic music I like a lot--Dolores Keane is a singer I'm quite keen on. I listen to Otis Redding and I listen to Aretha Franklin. The Innocence Mission are on tour with us. They're a group I became aware of last year when I was making this record. You just always try to keep your ears open for somebody new. There's a wonderful artist that's just got an album coming out, Gillian Welch, who wrote "Orphan Girl" [on "Wrecking Ball"].
Q: Do you keep an eye on the current state of country music?
A: I really don't listen to country radio, so I don't know how current my thoughts are. Certainly you have some people who are extraordinarily talented out there. I think the artists are trying, but there's so much pressure from radio and record companies that it is inhibiting for a lot of these artists.
Q: How would you change things if you had the power?
A: I know there are artists out there who you could call country that are not played on the radio that would give country radio a much more interesting palette of sound and excitement, like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch. I would love to hear Bruce Springsteen on country radio. I've always felt that he's sort of [Hank Williams' alter ego] Luke the Drifter incarnate.
Q: Are you encouraged by the success of people like Alison Krauss?
A: You have people like Mary Chapin [Carpenter] and Alison who are very distinctive and make records that don't sound like anybody else and have managed to go through that filter. So ultimately I think the cream will rise to the top. . . . Alison stuck to her guns and stuck with a small independent label and achieved this success and this visibility by doing it her own way. So really, ultimately, nobody has an excuse. You either do what you feel in your heart or you don't, and you can pay the price for that.
* Emmylou Harris plays tonight at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut Ave., Ventura, 8 p.m. $23.50. (805) 648-1936. Also Friday and Saturday at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $20 (Saturday sold out). (310) 276-6168; Monday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 7 and 9:30 p.m. $29.50. (714) 496-8927.