Singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris

Twelve-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter explains her passion for rescuing dogs, finding her own voice in music and the track about Emmett Till on her latest CD.

She's been called the "elder statesperson for country music," and 12-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris is admired as much for her straightforward songwriting as for her expressive singing. Forty years into her career, she's still doing both with her 21st studio release, "Hard Bargain." Harris spent much of her childhood in North Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina before moving to New York to pursue her music. A Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, the Nashville-based superstar supports several causes in her free time.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Emmylou Harris to this program. The legendary singer-songwriter is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a 12-time Grammy winner. She’s out next week with a new CD. It’s called “Hard Bargain,” and from the project, here is some of the video for “Good Night, Old World.”
Tavis: I leaned over to you during that clip and said to you how good you still sound, and you said to me?
Emmylou Harris: Well, I’m just very blessed that I still love my work and I can still work, I still have an audience and I love what I do. I’m even able to have kind of a little bit of a second career in dog rescue. Doesn’t pay anything, but it’s become a real passion for me. So I have a couple of passions in my life that I’m able to put my energy and time into, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the dog rescue, Emmylou, let me start there. We’ll come back to the music.
Harris: Okay.
Tavis: When you said it is a passion of yours, tell me specifically what you’re doing, and to your point, since it doesn’t pay, why you’re so passionate about it.
Harris: (Laughs) Well, basically I have a very small rescue in my backyard in Nashville, Tennessee, and we rescue a small number of dogs, mainly from metro animal control. Those animal control, they have a very limited time before an animal is put down, just because no one comes to claim it or to adopt it.
So we try to rescue a few of those dogs and keep them until they find what they call forever homes. We’re hoping to expand to engage with the community and a larger no-kill shelter for dogs and cats in the community, but my little shelter in my backyard will stay very, very small.
Tavis: Have you always been an animal love?
Harris: Yeah, pretty much. My father was actually studying veterinary medicine when World War II broke out, and he joined the Marine Corps and then met my mother and they eloped, and so he never went back to pursue that. He remained a pilot in the Marine Corps.
But my father and the relatives on my mother’s side and aunts and uncles, everyone had pets and I think instilled in me a sense of compassion and respect for all living creatures, for animals. So we all – but I didn’t live on a farm or anything, so we just had household pets, dogs and cats.
Tavis: Since you mentioned your father and changing of careers, I’ve been dying to ask you this. So you graduate as the valedictorian of your high school class.
Harris: Yes, I did. (Laughter)
Tavis: Are you still proud of that, number one?
Harris: Well –
Tavis: That’s cool.
Harris: It was something. I was just such a – obsessed with studying and getting straight As. I don’t think I really learned anything, but I got good grades.
Tavis: I hear that, I hear that.
Harris: You know what I mean?
Tavis: That’s a (unintelligible) point. I’ll come back to that in just a second, I promise.
Harris: Okay.
Tavis: I’m going to put a pin in that for just a second.
Harris: All right.
Tavis: Because I want to finish this other thought first. You graduate valedictorian out of your high school class, you go off to college, and then you at some point have to tell your parents that you’re dropping out of school, after being the valedictorian, to pursue your music career.
Harris: Right.
Tavis: What did your mom and dad say about that?
Harris: My parents were not very happy. They were very worried about me pursuing a career that even if I had talent might not give me the happiness and the success that they – any parent hopes for their child. But I have to say that my parents, for all their reservations, they were incredibly supportive.
Then, of course, when things didn’t work out and I ended up being a single mother with a young daughter, I had no place to go at one point but then to come home, and there was never any of this I told you so. It was opening with welcome arms as long as I needed to be there. They were an extraordinary help for me with my daughter, who’s now 41.
So really, a lot of the things that happened for me in my career I couldn’t have done without the support and the love of my parents.
Tavis: Back to that valedictorian story now.
Harris: Okay.
Tavis: Two things I want to ask you about. One, when you talk about how obsessed you were with studying, is that part of your personality? Have you been that obsessed, that dedicated, that committed to your music career and everything else that you work on?
Harris: I think I can be pretty focused, but as I say, it was more wanting to be the good student, seeing myself as a good student, and also, my parents had expectations. They wouldn’t have cared if I got a B or a C or even a D. They wouldn’t have cared, but somehow I set it up for myself that I could get the good grade, so I had the ability to really memorize stuff and give it back.
I was the perfect student for that kind of education that didn’t really require you to think too much, so that I could really almost ace it. Because I had a 4.0 average from eighth grad through twelfth. (Laughter) It’s ridiculous.
Tavis: It’s embarrassing.
Harris: It is embarrassing. (Laughter) I can’t believe I just told everybody.
Tavis: And then on top of that, on top of that she becomes a country star. This is too much. Before I ask you one last question about the valedictorian thing, I’ve got to turn to the camera and say something to my mom right quick.
Harris: Okay.
Tavis: Mom, Emmylou’s parents didn’t care if she got a C or a D. (Laughter) I digress on that.
Anyway, when you said earlier that you were so obsessed with trying to get those grades and keep that 4.0 average from eighth grade on that you’re unsure whether you learned anything, I want you to tell me more about that. Because I think that’s part of what – we’re wrestling with that right now in our education system.
Harris: Right.
Tavis: My own point of view on this is that this whole notion of teaching to the test and making these kids learn so they can pass the test, I’m not sure what we’re learning. Is that teaching kids to think critically for themselves? As you know, this debate is raging across the country.
Harris: Right, it is raging.
Tavis: What’d you mean by that, though?
Harris: Well, I will say that in my senior year we had a very controversial English teacher, and he was very tough. He was asking kids to think, and he would ask, if you said something or gave it back to the teacher, he would say, “What do you mean by that?”
Half the kids in the class left – they were given the option to leave, but I stayed because I felt I was being challenged. He was probably the best teacher I had that really taught me to think a little bit, and he was an English teacher, and I was always interested in language and English and that sort of thing.
So that was a different – but it was my senior year. Then at the same time around my sophomore and junior year I became involved with folk music. There was a big folk music revival in the United States back then, and I could hear a lot of that on the radio from American University in Washington, D.C., because my father was stationed at Quantico.
That became a real passion for me, and as far as a student, I bought books and taught myself to play the guitar – three chords, but it was all I needed – and got a repertoire of songs. So that became a driving passion for me. But it was different from the obsession I had with getting a grade, so that was just kind of for my self-esteem, that I thought I was supposed to do that.
Somehow, I had told myself I had to get these good grades, even though, as I say, my parents – I knew it pleased them, and I really loved my parents and wanted to please them. So maybe that’s all it was, and I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do.
But with the music, that became a different animal for me. That was something that transcended just doing something because you thought that’s what people expected of you. That was purely for myself.
Tavis: So now that I understand what your process was with regard to academics, with regard to your studies, what’s been the process for your music?
Harris: For my music?
Tavis: In terms of producing and writing and performing. So grades, you felt like you had to do that for your parents. Tell me about the process for your music.
Harris: Well, with the music, you’re passionate about it. It’s like you’re hungry for something. In the beginning I was just kind of a Joan Baez copier, and I didn’t really have a style of my own. It wasn’t until I met and started working with a fellow named Gram Parsons, who kind of brought country and rock music together. He was in a group called The Byrds and then he started the kind of quintessential country rock group called the Flying Burrito Brothers.
I did a couple of solo records with him, where I sang duets with him. After his death, after I’d only really known him a year and I had become so converted to country music and found my voice in that sort of harmony singing and that kind of music, I really felt like I was supposed to carry forward his music, in a way, or at least try to convert people of my generation to country music, because we tended to kind of dismiss it.
I still had my love of folk music and I was still inspired by folk music, because in a sense they’re all coming from the same pool, but when you’re working in something that you love and you have an opportunity, first of all, to learn with Gram, who was kind of my teacher, and then to find myself with really good people, really good musicians, the opportunity to make a record.
And then lo and behold I had an audience, so there was kind of nothing to stop me but to keep learning those songs and trying to write. A lot of it had to do with the people that came into my sphere – wonderful, talented young writers like Rodney Crowell, who were of kind of my generation but who understood and loved country music.
So it was just a matter of keeping at something that you – why would you stop? I loved the road, I loved going out and playing for people.
Tavis: Still?
Harris: Yes, still. I take a couple of dogs with me. (Laughter)
Tavis: When you mentioned earlier, at the top of the show, as a matter of fact, that you feel blessed to still have an audience, how would you describe that audience, your audience?
Harris: It’s funny – there are people who have been with me from the very first record, and people who go back to being – who are Gram Parsons fans. Even though he had a short career, brief career, it was mighty. He was very influential and affected a lot of people who are still very passionate about his music.
So there were people who came to me through Gram, people who have been fans since the first album, and for a while there I would have younger people come up and say, “My father just loves your music.” Now it’s becoming grandfathers, but that’s okay, I’m a grandmother.
But I find that I’ve got younger fans, too, especially when I made “Wrecking Ball” in 1995 with Daniel Lanois of sort of YouTube fame. That was kind of a different record, and a lot of people came out out of a curiosity of what was this combination going to be. But I think people stayed because the music had an effect on them.
Tavis: I’m trying to understand, given that you admittedly were a Joan Baez copy initially, how it is that Gram helped you, Emmylou, to find your own voice, your own song stylings. When you start out as a copy, how do you turn yourself into an original?
Harris: Well, you start out – I think everybody starts out copying somebody.
Tavis: Mm-hmm, somebody, yeah.
Harris: You try to copy the best people. What happens along the way is okay, I’ll try to sing a Dolly Parton song because I love her, but I can’t do certain things with my voice that she can. But I want to sing that song because I love that song, so – someone said once, I read this somewhere, that style is a product of your limitations.
Which is good, because otherwise we’d have one singer that sings everything and it wouldn’t be very interesting.
Tavis: That’s a great quote, by the way.
Harris: Yeah. I think it really resonates probably in the arts in a lot of different ways, but definitely in singing because I know I’m very well aware of what I can’t do, but I don’t worry about it because I just focus on what I can.
With Gram, it was a very narrow pathway of starting out by singing harmony with him. So first of all you’re focusing on a second melody that is following someone else’s melody, almost like dancing with somebody, although I’m not a very good dancer. Never could do that.
But I think it made you focus more on the words and following someone else. It almost took your attention away from yourself, and you’re just into the music and serving the song. Now, this may be something that I’m making up because it seems to me now after all this time, but certainly once I kind of got this passion for country music, when I discovered the “Washed in the Blood” stuff, the Bill Munroe and the Louvin Brothers and those incredible harmonies, and the voice of George Jones, which I should have discovered because my brother was a – is a country music fan and would play those records.
But all I wanted to hear was Bob Dylan. My ears were closed to that. But once I really heard it and got deep into it, singing those songs and listening to those songs, listening to those great artists, I just – somehow it was like coming in through the back door.
Tavis: Since you went there a couple of times, I feel obligated to come back and ask if you’ll open up about this to me, and that is this notion of knowing what you can do and what you cannot do. That gets so important for all of us. If you’re going to be a success in life, whatever that means, you’ve got to know what – that’s why I love that style quote, that style is a product of your limitations.
You’ve got to know what you can do and what you can’t do. After all the acclaim and all the success that you’ve had and all the records you’ve sold, just tell me one thing that you can’t do with your voice.
Harris: Well, for one thing, I can’t sing as high as people think I can, definitely now, and even back when I had all those higher notes. I was more of an alto, I just sounded like a soprano.
But certain intervals are really hard for me, I just can’t hear them. When somebody says to me, “It’s just a half-step,” I say, “Please don’t say that to me.” (Laughter) You know? Certain intervals, I know I was in this – I was trying to sing a harmony part on a record, “The Prairie Wind,” I was in the studio with Neil and his wife Peggy, and they were doing that album in Nashville.
I had sung one part and they decided that I would sound better on this other part which required an interval that happened in a minor. And Neil would say, “Well, it just goes to the -” I said, “Don’t say the M-word.” (Laughter) I know if I start thinking about that I won’t be able to do it, and I don’t think I ever did get that particular part.
So but you say well, okay, I can’t do that but there are other things I can do, and so you just try. Hopefully you won’t run into too many things that you just can’t do or you don’t do very well, so why – you can improve yourself as a human being and push yourself on certain levels to become more educated or more thoughtful or whatever, but I think your talent is your talent.
For me, I’m very content with what I have, with that piece of territory I have that is my voice. It seems to me that it’s limitless, the opportunities for songs and things that I love singing and that I can hopefully put across emotionally that I don’t have to become a different kind of singer in a different form of music.
Tavis: You’ve mentioned in this conversation the names of a few friends of yours that we know you’ve collaborated with over the years. You mentioned Dylan in this conversation, you’ve mentioned Neil Young in this conversation and there are obviously countless others.
To my mind, you’re one of those artists who, if I am to look at your discography, appreciates collaborations. Why so?
Harris: Well, in a sense, to me it’s all about collaboration. Once you move out of sitting on your bedroom floor teaching yourself those three chords, if you make a record, usually it’s with a bunch of musicians.
I have worked with extraordinary musicians and they’re all unique, and they all have something to contribute to that process of making a song come alive. The producers, and then more, I suppose, pure collaborations like singing, making the records with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. It’s just a joy to be able to see the uniqueness that everyone who is a musician, whether they just play an instrument or their instrument is the voice, I’m just amazed at the combinations and the beauty of people making music together.
It’s been a joy for me, whether it’s out on the road with my band or backing up to making that record which you take out on the road. It really is a group process and it is a collaboration.
Tavis: Tell me about “Hard Bargain,” the new one.
Harris: Okay. Well, “Hard Bargain” is kind of interesting in the way that we made it. Jay Joyce, the producer, I had worked with him on a couple of one-off things where we did entire tracks with just him – he’s a very versatile musician as well as a producer – and another musician that he works with a lot, Giles Reeves, who also plays a lot of different instruments.
So when I approached Jay about producing the record he said, “Let’s start with just the three of us and see how far we get.” He said, “I think we can do the whole record this way but if you feel that we need a specific instrument that the two of us can’t play or if we need another, whether it’s a musical voice or an actual literal voice on harmonies or whatever, we will bring somebody in.” But we did the whole record with just the three of us.
Tavis: In 30 days.
Harris: I think so.
Tavis: Basically a month.
Harris: I think it took us longer to sequence the record than it did to make the record.
Tavis: That’s funny on the one hand; on the other hand, I think there’s something there. What does that mean at this point in your career that it takes you longer to sequence a record than to get the good stuff out of you?
Harris: Well, you’ve got to understand that every record is different. I don’t think that I have all of a sudden gotten to a point in my career where I could make a record in 30 days. I think that it had to do with Jay, the way he likes to work. He knew the songs. Every time I got a song we knew that we wanted to record, he had just a guitar and vocal so he could study up on it.
I’m assuming this is how he works because I – but he was certainly prepared day one when I came in and he said, “Let’s start with this song.” He certainly had the ideas of what he wanted to play and consulting with Giles to see what Giles wanted to play. I knew what I was going to play because I was just going to play the songs I had written.
Basically it was all laid out and we just kept doing takes until we got a pretty good live vocal that we could then maybe make a little better with a few overdubs, because I liked to do several passes after we finished and decided on the tape. I like to sing the song three, four, five, even six times while the molecules are still moving in the room and your voice is still in that place that is really warmed up and you feel like you’ve really got a hold on the song.
Tavis: I’ve got 45 seconds left. We opened the show with a piece from the CD “Good Night, Old World,” but when I got this CD I couldn’t wait to put this one thing on because I just had to hear it. You’ll appreciate this.
I’m a Black man, obviously, born in Mississippi – so you know where I’m going with this, obviously – when I see a track called “My Name is Emmett Till -“
Harris: Right, right.
Tavis: Tell me quickly about that track.
Harris: Well, I’m from Alabama, Birmingham, and a very tumultuous generation, history that we share, from totally different sides. But really, the story of Emmett Till is part of our history, and that terrible tragedy, a story that we’re so aware of.
I was actually listening to NPR and they were talking about Emmett Till; made me remember the story. I just – sometimes, Tavis, I think that you channel things, because I just got that line that, “I was born a Black boy, my name is Emmett Till.” From there, most of the song is just a retelling of that horrific tragedy that happened, very – without any kind of emotion, in a way, in his own voice.
Then from my point of view, giving him the words that he shouldn’t just be a footnote in history, that we must always remember the tragedy of a life cut short for such a terrible reason. But once again, it’s the mystery of songwriting. We don’t really know where these things come from.
Tavis: I can tell you this – when I heard that track it reminded me of what I love about your work, and it is the truth, the truth that comes through, the humanity that comes through in your music. So thank you for that.
Harris: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: The new project from Emmylou Harris is called “Hard Bargain.” Emmylou, again, good to have you on. Come back anytime.
Harris: I’ll be here.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm