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Living in the moment, singing about the past

Her latest album may be called 'Hard Bargain,' but Emmylou Harris seems at ease with her life thus far.

April 24, 2011|Randy Lewis

NASHVILLE — Emmylou Harris is trailed by a ragtag parade of eager dogs when she answers a knock at the door of the comfortable two-story home on a fenceless parcel a few miles from downtown Nashville, where she lives with her 89-year-old mother, Eugenia.

The singer and songwriter greets a visitor with the same unguarded openness with which she has welcomed in a steady stream of abandoned, abused or otherwise homeless canines as part of the Bonaparte's Retreat animal rescue operation she's run for the last several years.

One of them, Bella, is a large, gentle mutt who is the subject of "Big Black Dog," one of the songs from Harris' forthcoming album "Hard Bargain," her first in nearly three years. It's a lighthearted yet sincere ode to the loyalty and unconditional love that she prizes about her work with her animal companions.

"We probably give them too many human qualities, but they inhabit a world we might never understand. That's one of the reasons they can help us be more human," she says, settling into a small sofa in an upstairs bedroom she's converted into a music room. It's one of a couple of spaces at home where she likes to write.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 26, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Emmylou Harris: An April 24 Arts & Books profile of singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris listed the title of a song on her new album, "Hard Bargain," as "The Ballad of Emmett Till." The correct title is "My Name Is Emmett Till."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 01, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Emmylou Harris: An April 24 profile of singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris listed the title of a song on her new album, "Hard Bargain," as "The Ballad of Emmett Till." The correct title is "My Name Is Emmett Till."

Sheets of paper with lyrics are nearby on a music stand, a raft of guitars rest a few feet away, poised to assist when inspiration strikes. The walls around the stairway that leads to her workspace are adorned with family photos; inside her office are framed pictures and artwork of a smattering of the musicians -- Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Gram Parsons -- she's worked with over a recording career that now spans more than four decades since her largely unheralded debut album, "Gliding Bird," yet another animal allusion in her long, distinguished career.

"From the time you're born until the end of your life, I think they are our dearest companions," says Harris, her white-silver hair pulled up through a black scrunchie into a pony tail. She's wearing a comfortable black sweater, stylish scarf and knockabout thick black pants on a cool spring day during which the area is under the specter of tornado warnings.

An interaction with an animal is far less complicated than a relationship with another human. The latter are at the heart of Harris' new songs examining life from her perspective at 64. Married and divorced three times, she sings with more surprise than lament in "Nobody" and "Lonely Girl" about finding herself without a life partner at this point in life. "No more teenage love," she says with an unforced grin. "Every time I do 'Love Hurts,' which I still do occasionally, I have to give a wry smile when I go 'I'm young / I know ... .' " She sings the phrase, pauses, then adds a lightly defiant "I'm not" to the line from the Everly Brothers hit, which she famously covered in a duet with country-rock innovator Parsons in the early 1970s.

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An early influence

She also addresses her long-ago creative and romantic relationship with Parsons, who helped introduce the world to the angelic beauty of Harris' voice before he died at age 26 in 1973. His effect on her career was monumental, and the boost he gave her, musically and professionally, is something she's returned to dozens of musicians in the succeeding years.

"The Road," which serves as the album's opening track, brings an evenhanded understanding of what others might look at as tragic. "I couldn't save you, and no one was to blame," she sings.

She has alluded to Parsons over the years, notably in her 1985 concept album "The Ballad of Sally Rose," about a young singer making her way in the world. But "The Road" may be the most directly autobiographical song she's written about that time in her life, raising the question: Why now?

"The first lines just came out, and from then on, all I had to do was just tell the story," she says. "It just kind of fell out."

In the absence of motivation to write anything more on the subject of young love, she also turns her attention to issues that still capture her attention, as in "The Ballad of Emmett Till," her Dylan-esque recounting of the story of the African American teenager from Chicago who was killed in 1955 for speaking to a white woman on a trip to visit relatives in rural Mississippi.

The song points to her unwavering compassion throughout her career for the underdog, oppressed, the voiceless, the disenfranchised members of society, human or nonhuman. That's taken the form of the many benefits she's participated in, including those aiding land mine awareness campaigns, animal rescue and efforts to preserve and protect country music history.

She was a linchpin in the preservation of the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. The building came close to being leveled after the Opry moved from downtown Nashville to be part of the Opryland theme park.

Harris hasn't appeared in the upper reaches of the country sales charts in more than a decade.

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