NASHVILLE — "If you live by the charts, you die by the charts," Emmylou Harris, the silvery-voiced roots singer who dissolves genres and owns a dozen Grammys, says conspiratorially. "Let me tell you."
There are a lot of things that Harris can tell you about American music. Whether it's being the acolyte Gram Parsons left at the station when he overdosed, the muse for Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst and Willie Nelson, or the nurturer of writers and musicians including Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Ricky Skaggs and Lucinda Williams, Harris has been siren for much of what is good about the music that exists beyond the mainstream.
It's mid-afternoon, and the sun pours into a living room filled with chintz upholstery and floral wallpaper. It's a cozy, welcoming place where Harris, 60, lives with her mother, Eugenia, and daughter, Hallie, from her first marriage. Three generations under one roof and the house is bustling with cats and dogs, guitars and the last of a photo shoot that's spilled over from earlier in the day.
Harris, who's been a major part of records with Neil Young, Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello over the last year, is taking a year off. Laughing, she says, "Sometimes just changing your routine is the same as taking a sabbatical, Johnny Cash told me once."
Though she toured this year -- and has another Southland stop planned for Oct. 10 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts -- the time between her own albums has given her the opportunity to consider the breadth of her musical odyssey, one that's exhaustively documented on the four CDs and single DVD of "Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems," a collection of rarities, demos and collaborations coming out Tuesday. She embarked on a folkie path out of college, was swept up in Parsons' iconoclastic hippie-hard-country axis, had a run as the woman making country safe for the rock 'n' roll masses and participated in the trio projects with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton and in the ethereal Daniel Lanois-produced or -influenced post-Nashville projects.
"Look what she's accomplished: She freed country music from stereotypes and showed rockers that country was OK," says Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young.
"And she showed country people rockers weren't infiltrators. . . . She sang country without irony when country, rock and folk were worlds apart because she does it without fear, without an agenda. It's just the things she likes, the cast of musicians, songwriters and artists she brings with her. . . whether it's the Louvin Brothers or Buck Owens, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch or Patty Griffin.
"Because Emmylou likes it, you know it's good."
And the rest was history
The Alabama-born Harris, a single mother with a baby in the early '70s, was playing four sets a night in Washington, D.C., clubs when Chris Hillman told Parsons, his former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers bandmate, that she might be the girl singer he was seeking for his hard-country solo project.
Their brief collaboration in L.A. is now legend. "It was very quick. . . that time. . . . We did [his 1972 album] 'GP.'. . . We did the tour. . . . We recorded 'Grievous Angel'. . . and he was gone."
Harris was initially skeptical, as Parsons' erratic behavior sabotaged sessions, though she loved the Louvin Brothers songs he turned her on to. Finally, it clicked.
"One day, I really heard the genius of his voice, the beauty -- and all that music opened up to me. 'Angels Rejoiced' just did it. . . . I was gone, so converted."
Their last conversation was about the song, which appears for the first time on "Songbird."
"He knew 'Angels Rejoiced' was my favorite song; he called to tell me it didn't fit the album, so they were putting it on the next album. We hung up, he went to Joshua Tree. . . and that was it."
Harris pauses for a moment. "It was very unresolved. There was no proper way to grieve -- just throw yourself into music."
So she did, returning to the vibrant folk/bluegrass scene in Washington, then returning to Los Angeles to begin her solo career and form her noted Hot Band, which included Texan Rodney Crowell.
"Emmy inspires such loyalty because she has so much integrity," Crowell says. "She's a poet -- even before she started writing songs -- and that's what we all respond to. Even more than that voice and the passion is the poetry, the timelessness, choosing the heart over commerce."
Harris' choices have at times defied conventional wisdom. When country was slick, she made the unbending "Blue Kentucky Girl," then followed it up with the Ricky Skaggs/Whites-laden bluegrass triumph "Roses in the Snow." Inspired by Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and the Glyn Johns-produced "The Ballad of Jesse James," she made her own concept record, "Ballad of Sally Rose."
"It was a huge commercial disaster," Harris says. "I literally did not have enough money to buy a house."