Emmylou Harris is a true lady of Country Music. She is not one of the lesser angels of its history. Her comment that country music “no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element” moved me. It was sitting on a Pentecostal church pew where I learned to love the kind of music Emmylou sings. It was there on that pew with the combination of fear, joy, terror, worship, guilt, peace and many many other emotions coursing through my spirit that I first felt the power of music and Jesus to move someone.
It is the same hard bitten sensibility that comes with age, hardship, hope, trial, success, failure and ultimately survival that calls to me every time I hear her voice or any of the others she mentions here. It is a rare thing and one I treasure.
Has she completely given up on country radio? “Yes,” Harris says without hesitation. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element that you heard whenever you listened to George Jones or Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn or Waylon Jennings.” Harris pauses, runs her fingers through her hair, then whispers, “Oh God, Waylon Jennings!”
Now she’s placing her bets on younger singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Patty Griffin.
As I look back over Harris’s own body of work, what strikes me most is its arc. She never let Nashville dictate the kind of music she would make, and so hers was not a career of ups and downs. You can’t, for instance, pick out the “sellout” record or the “comeback” record; she never sold out and she never went away.
“I had enough success to give me credibility,” she says, “but it wasn’t like I was selling millions of records, which can be a real trap for artists. There are people like Springsteen and Neil Young who sell millions but always still know what they are supposed to do. I think on a smaller scale, I always knew what I was supposed to do. I hope that I’ve always served the song—that was always the most important thing.
Garden & Gun Magazine