The annual AmericanaFest, now underway in Nashville, celebrates the best in roots music through dozens of showcases, special events and the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium. While the origins of the Americana movement can be traced back several decades, it would be impossible to overstate the influence that singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris has had on the genre.
On Sunday, September 16th, Harris will close out AmericanaFest with her annual Woofstock benefit concert at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater. Featuring performances by Jamey Johnson, John Hiatt and Ashley Monroe, the benefit for Harris’ animal shelter and dog adoption organization Bonaparte’s Retreat and Nashville’s non-profit Crossroads Campus will also include special appearances by Margo Price and Lee Ann Womack, along with additional performers. (Unlike previous Woofstock events held at other venues, no pets, other than service animals, are allowed at the amphitheater.) Fabled tour manager Phil Kaufman will emcee the event.
Late summer’s Woofstock leads into a high-profile fall season for the 14-time Grammy winner, who will be the focal point of Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight, a museum exhibit under the same roof as the bronze Country Music Hall of Fame plaque bearing her name and likeness. The spotlight, opening October 5th and running through August 2019, features life- and career-encompassing artifacts like a set of handwritten lyrics for “White Line” and “Diamond in My Crown,” co-written by Harris with her former husband and producer, Paul Kennerley, for the semi-autobiographical 1985 album The Ballad of Sally Rose. Released by Rhino Records in June in a remastered two-disc set supplemented with original demos and bonus tracks, the LP underperformed on the charts but remains a sparkling gem in Harris’ diadem.
Later in October, the artist will join Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Graham Nash and more for the Lantern Tour, a five-city trek to raise awareness and funds for the mission of the Women’s Refugee Commission, which works to support displaced women and children throughout the world and has been dramatically mobilized since the Trump administration’s April 2018 announcement of its “Zero Tolerance Policy” toward people crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without documentation.
Harris, who is also working on a memoir that will no doubt shed more light on her musical partnership with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, spoke to Rolling Stone Country recently about her earliest songwriting, the fellow tunesmiths — including Bruce Springsteen — who fueled her creativity, and the positive message she hopes will emerge from the current family separation crisis.
You’ve become so well-known for interpreting the songs of other writers. When you first started performing live, were you just not that interested in writing songs yourself, or did you feel intimidated by it?
Well, oddly enough, when I made my completely forgettable record in New York, for Jubilee Records [Gliding Bird, released in 1969], I actually wrote a big share of the songs. They were a bit youngish and sophomoric, but they were not terrible. But I was always recording or playing in my little shows other people’s songs. Anytime I heard something, I never felt I had to be a songwriter. I just wanted to be a singer, finding good songs. That was never a priority early on, and it still isn’t a priority, although I think there are certain points when you do need to. If there’s something you feel compelled to say, it’s a good thing to follow through on.
Once you started working with Gram, did he encourage you to write songs?
We had such a brief time together. We were working on those two records [GP and Grievous Angel], of which the songs were pretty much set, or I just wasn’t around. We did that one tour, so for me it was all about becoming immersed in country music, discovering a new side to my voice and my musical sensibilities. I wasn’t concerned with writing songs at all.
How much of your move from Los Angeles to Nashville in 1983 was influenced by the other songwriters you knew who had already relocated here?
When I moved to Nashville, I had actually gone through a pretty serious break-up. Brian [Ahern, Harris’s second husband who also produced her records from 1975 to 1983] and I had broken up, and so I started this whole new life because of all these changes. Now, it could be just breathing the Nashville air, which is so infused with the songwriters. One of the reasons I moved here was Rodney [Crowell] moved to Nashville, and Hank DeVito, my old pals. Sometimes just making a change and going to a new place can kind of clear the cobwebs out a little bit.
You’ve continued to work with Rodney a lot, having done a couple of duet albums with him as well. What is there about his songwriting that inspires you?
Well, it inspired me, maybe not as a writer, it probably intimidated me more than inspired me. I was the first one to hear every song he wrote. Of course, we were both huge fans of Townes Van Zandt, and there was Guy Clark. I was in a community of writers, and I loved just being there. Because I had some success and a platform by making my own records, I was able to showcase these songs that were being written by my friends. I saw that as my purpose; that’s what I was supposed to be doing. But I couldn’t deny that I had these ideas, a line here, a line there, that I felt were good. I wanted to explore and see where they led.
The Ballad of Sally Rose was significant for several reasons, because you hadn’t written or co-written an entire album up to that point, and you were also working with a new collaborator and producer, Paul Kennerley. How did you first get introduced to his songwriting?
I had these song ideas, knocking around, rattling around, that were obviously inspired by my time with Gram, which was a very important time in my life on several different levels, artistically and emotionally. Then, I was invited to be a part of a record called The Legend of Jesse James, which pretty much told the story of this mythic, historical character through song, written by Paul Kennerley. I discovered his previous work on White Mansions, which brilliantly told the story of the Civil War through songs, without taking sides. Both were beautiful records. So through being involved with Jesse James, I thought, you know, maybe I’m not crazy. It may be these songs could be put into what I ended up calling a country opera, but is really just a concept record; kind of a soundtrack without the movie.
Even though Sally Rose told a fictional story, did your own autobiographical events hold the whole concept together?
They did. I think the emotional side of the story was there, but I had to make it into a more cinematic story. Obviously, it wasn’t detail-oriented, but the big picture was in there. But with the story, we sort of created a story for it, for Sally, who had become kind of my alter ego, through which I was able to tell a part of my personal story, but not the entire personal story.
What do you think was Paul Kennerley’s greatest influence on your own songwriting?
Well, first of all, the fact that you could tell a story in a song, and you could tell it in a group of songs together. I always thought that with every album that I made — that was not a concept record — each song had to end up having a certain personality or a certain life of its own would come into being. It was important which song followed which song even though it was telling a different story. He really helped move the story along. Like “Bad News” is not really a song in its entirety, but it was important to tell the story. He’s just a very disciplined writer and very, very sympathetic to helping me tell the story. The reason I got excited about the release on this new extended version of Sally Rose was hearing the demos after all these years. We just went into a studio in the United Artists tower here on Music Row, me and my guitar, and put the songs down that we had finished. I just put all the harmonies on it in preparation for what eventually happened, for Dolly [Parton] and Linda [Ronstadt] to add their voices to some of those songs.
The demo of “Diamond in My Crown” especially has a Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen feel to it. What was it about that album that influenced you the most?
I’m a huge fan of Bruce, I love everything about him and I was sort of a fan with his early rock records, but when I heard Nebraska, his ability to tell a story and the purity of the sound of the record… I think I’m correct that after trying to do the songs in a studio, he went back and just put out the demos that he had done, which had this incredible haunting quality which adds to the emotion of the story that he’s telling, the characters that he’s creating. I was at a point in my career when I had made a record, gone on the road, come back, made a record, gone on the road. It was great, and I loved it, but I realized that I had these ideas. After hearing Nebraska, this masterpiece of songwriting and storytelling, I realized that the songs were not going to write themselves, and the one thing I needed to be successful in completing the vision that I had was time. The only way I was going to have time was to get off the road. So I made that decision to just put all the eggs in that basket. And I had Paul, who I had a great deal of confidence in, to shepherd me through it.
What kind of perspective about your experiences with Gram do you think you gained from being able to write the album?
For lack of another word, it was very cathartic. Losing someone has a very profound effect, especially when they had profound effect on your life. Obviously, the story, once again, many parts of it are fictional. But the center, the core, is very much about the loss, the experience.
Do you write more often these days or do you find that you don’t necessarily pick up your guitar to write until you have an idea about something, or several ideas about different things?
Usually, I have to have some pressure. Like after Wrecking Ball [the Grammy-winning 1995 LP produced by Daniel Lanois], I felt that record was such a key change for me in certain ways, that to follow through I needed to somehow be something more than just an interpreter. I’d raised the bar for myself a little bit. That’s when both Daniel Lanois and Guy Clark sort of encouraged me. In fact, Guy Clark just told me I had to write my next record. He gave me my homework assignment! [Laughs]
This fall you’ll be on the Lantern Tour to raise awareness about immigration issues. What do you think the whole family separation crisis says about who we are as a country at this point?
There is an outcry, and I truly believe that most people in this country are outraged by it. I know there’s always been resistance to all the immigration periods in our time. The Irish came over, the Italians, the Chinese… we don’t easily make a change. But, ultimately, as a country our souls veer on the side of light, of the moral choice. Perhaps this will, hopefully, turn out to be a good thing, where we will realize what we truly believe in and what’s important to us. My friend Gail Griffith, who put this together, she was the one who put together the tour that we did back in the last century, for the abandoned landmines. We wanted it to be a positive message. Instead of saying this is in opposition to the policy, our philosophy, or our starting point, this is in support of keeping families together. It’s very complicated, but you must choose a side. And then the two sides can come together and find a solution.
You’ve been working on writing your memoir. How close are you to having that completed?
I’m tryin’ [Laughs]. I’m not close at all. But if I just get one paragraph that I’m happy with, I feel that’s progress. It’s a work in progress. The biggest enemy for me is the fact that I’m involved in a lot of other things, not the least of which is not only making a living by going on the road, but also supporting my dog rescue, which is in my backyard. I’ve got a few irons in the fire, but that’s no excuse. When I’m home, pretty much every day, the first thing I do in the morning after I’ve scooped the cat boxes and fed the dogs, is to go into my writing room and get as much work done as I can. But I have no deadline. We’ll just see what happens.