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When Emmylou Harris began her musical journey, back in the early ‘70s, country music couldn’t have been further from her mind. Moving from North Carolina to New York’s Greenwich Village, Harris frequented the myriad coffee houses armed with only her acoustic guitar and a swag of songs, looking for nothing more than a foot in the door of the then burgeoning folk scene.
Not long after this move however, she met one Gram Parsons, and her life, not to mention the lives of fine country music fans the world over, changed forever. “The whole point of the song ‘The Road’ (from Harris’ latest record, 2011’s Hard Bargain) was inspired by that [meeting],” she explains. “The whole point of the song was to say, ‘On that road, I’m glad I came to know you’; that sense of wonder at how life turns out, and how people impact your life and change the trajectory.”
“I certainly don’t want to underestimate the influence of people like Baez and Dylan and all the people that were going on when that folk music revival happened, because they really brought me into music,” she goes on, regarding her ‘switch’ to country music. “But I had to find a place to put my voice, for where it could be all it was supposed to be, and that was through Gram and singing country.”
From there, from that invaluable relationship, the rest is well documented, and so today sees Harris clock in at the four decade mark of an extraordinary career, one which shows no signs of slowing. Following on from Hard Bargain then, is not a solo record, but a duet record with longtime friend Rodney Crowell, another leading light in country music.
“Yeah, I have just finished a record with my old friend Rodney… my cohort, my comrade,” she smiles. “We’ve known each other since 1974, and we’ve finally made our duet record – I can now say, ‘Boy, I’m so glad we got that done’. It’s been 30 years in the making, at least in the dreaming about.”
Old Yellow Moon is the record title, it comprises a number of covers reinterpreted by Harris and Crowell, and will be Crowell’s second duet record this year, following on from Kin, the album he released with author Mary Karr in July.
“It was me saying, ‘We’re gonna do this record, by golly’,” Harris laughs on the catalyst that finally got the pair into the studio, “before we get too old or one of us gets hit by a bus. I mean, at a certain point, you’ve gotta say, we don’t have all the time in the world, so lets do it. So we agreed, set aside some time, and did it.”
Preceding the release of Old Yellow Moon, which is slated for release in February next year, Harris will once more grace our fair shores this month, again with crack band The Red Dirt Boys. “It’s the same folks that were with me last time (Phil Madeira, accordion, guitar, keys; Rickie Simpkins, mandolin, fiddle; Chris Donohoe, bass; Bryan Owings, drums), and also a guitar player called Will Kimbrough, a great electric guitar player.”
“And [I can’t tell you what to expect],” Harris laughs. “I don’t know, I write up the set the day of the show, and then I might change it in the middle, which drives everybody nuts.” Forty years in, Emmylou Harris has earned the right to change things whenever she wants.
Samuel J. Fell