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Listening Only to Herself

Emmylou Harris has never cared much about what others think. The driven singer-songwriter is on a very personal, artistic journey.

July 22, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at

Emmylou Harris has already canceled a concert in San Diego and a radio appearance on KCRW-FM because of a cold, and I'm nervous that our interview will be next to fall to this ill-timed wrecking ball.

Not knowing how long her voice will hold up backstage at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, I try to keep the conversation focused on the question of how she has been able to remain one of the few pop figures to consistently improve over the years--rather than coast or recycle her vintage work the way most veterans do.

I make the mistake, however, of mentioning that Johnny Cash has just recorded singer-songwriter David Olney's "Jerusalem Tomorrow," a tale of spiritual search that Harris sang on a 1993 album.

"That's great!" she declares. "Is it out yet? It's such a wonderful song and it's perfect for him. There's another song, Jamie O'Hara's '50,000 Names,' that I've been trying to get to Johnny.

Los Angeles Times Thursday July 26, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Album title--"Gliding Bird" is the title of Emmylou Harris' 1970 debut album. The title was incorrect in a July 22 Sunday Calendar story.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Album title--"Gliding Bird" is the title of Emmylou Harris' 1970 debut album. The title was incorrect in a July 22 Sunday Calendar story.

"It's about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it's totally apolitical and nonjudgmental, a recital of all the things people leave at the wall. I sang harmony with Jamie at a concert marking the anniversary of the memorial, and it was probably the most cathartic experience I've ever had on stage. You could feel the way people were touched by the song."

Harris, 54, spends a good five minutes on the subject, and I'm fidgeting inside, worried that her voice is going to give out before we can get back to what it is that drives her as an artist.

The breakthrough in her latest album, "Red Dirt Girl," is that Harris, long acclaimed for her flawless interpretations of other people's songs, emerges as a first-class writer.

In the 2000 collection, she talks about life and loss as evocatively as the writers she has turned to over the years, including Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard. The album earned Harris her 10th Grammy, this one for best contemporary folk collection.

"Sorry," she says finally. "I didn't mean to digress."

Looking back 24 hours later, after a second interview with Harris, I realize that her spontaneous outburst explained the drive behind her artistry better than anything she could say.

There are no other secrets to pass on. An artist can talk about avoiding distractions, such as sales charts and image, but genuine artistic drive is indefinable. It's as natural as breathing for the few who have it. Asking them to explain the drive is like asking Mark McGwire how to hit a baseball 500 feet. It's simply them.

"It really is all about passion with her," says her road manager, Phil Kaufman, when I mention Harris' enthusiasm for the O'Hara song. "A lot of people lose their edge after awhile because they run out of ideas or get jaded or stick with the same thing because it works. But she is too driven by music to ever do that.

"She's only contracted each night to do 90 minutes, but she always does two hours. When she wasn't feeling well the other day, I pointed out that in 30 shows, that's 15 hours of singing that she doesn't have to do. She said, 'But I just love to sing. What else would I do with those 15 hours that could be more exciting?"'

Harris is widely heralded as the most gifted female vocal interpreter to come out of country music since Patsy Cline a half century ago. That promise was obvious when she arrived on the pop scene in 1975 with a pure, soulful, angelic voice that turned even the dingiest honky-tonk into a pop cathedral.

On her early albums, she brought a liberating freshness to country music, exhibiting the honky-tonk heartbreak of Tammy Wynette, the innocence of Dolly Parton and the wistful longing of the late Gram Parsons, her mentor.

She also showed exquisite taste in material, pushing the boundaries of country by recording music by such varied artists as Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt and Lennon-McCartney. Almost every great country or rock artist at the time--from Dylan and Young to Willie Nelson and the Band--fell under the spell of the Birmingham, Ala., native, and invited her to sing on albums or join them on tour.

If there's anything Harris has shown more of than talent and taste over the years, it's modesty. There's a quiet dignity about her both on stage and out of the spotlight. Despite her daring in her musical choices and her reputation for championing other artists, the gracious, soft-spoken Harris doesn't see herself as a heroine.

"I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, artistic drive," Harris says at a Studio City hotel the day after the John Anson Ford concert. "I feel I've been lucky in some ways. I've had success, but not enough that I think I was ever tempted to stick to a particular sound. I never had that massive, No. 1 pop album or single.

"In fact, I got the feeling that people who listened to my records wanted me to experiment as much as I did. They seem to appreciate that I'm on some sort of musical journey and they want to come along."

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