My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
She’s been described as the classic country soprano, but Emmylou Harris is much more than just country—she is old country, real country—which is precisely the reason why she so easily breaks the mold. Ballad to Gospel to Bluegrass, she possesses that rare interpretive power which allows her to reinvent everything she sings. Call it dramatic. Every tremor of her chilling voice—her own songs or those of endless others—breaks your heart. Especially when she sings the old Gram Parsons’. She has a vulnerability that’s almost spooky. She also has incredible range. Not only has she won seven Grammys (most recently for last year’s Wrecking Ball) and recorded 22 albums in a career spanning three decades, but she has performed on records by artists as diverse as Jason and The Scorchers, Steve Earle, and Luscious Jackson. Her influence is uncontested. When it comes down to it, everyone wants to be Emmylou. Unless, of course, you’re Lucinda Williams, an alternative country singer and Grammy-winning songwriter with her own set of kudos, and on whose upcoming release, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Emmylou sings on two tracks. They spoke, along with friends Rob Bleetstein and Richard Price, at Emmylou’s home in Nashville.
Lucinda Williams We haven’t seen each other since I was recording in L.A. and you came and sang on the record.
Emmylou Harris Two great songs, which I can’t wait to hear. I’ve been drooling about this record. When does it come out?
LW July the first.
EH You know what I was doing last night? I sang the National Anthem at the Vanderbilt women’s basketball game with Marshall Chapman and Ashley Cleveland. We do this every year because Marshall is an ex-center for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team.
EH Yeah, you know how tall she is.
LW Yeah, I think she’s playing tonight. I’m doing a short little thing down at The Sutler to help out my friend Billy Block who’s spearheaded this roots revival they’ve been having there every Tuesday night.
EH I’ve heard about that. Nashville is called Music City USA, but for the most part, I used to think that it was just a nowhere town. But just to know that you’re playing or that Marshall will play, and that we have people like Bruce Springsteen who come into town, it’s getting to be a pretty neat little music town. It’s actually getting to where I go out at night, which is not something that I usually do.
LW I feel that way, too. I’ve seen it really grow since I first moved here in ‘93. It’s a pretty hip little place now.
EH We’ve always had the songwriters around. Outside of Nashville it seems very exotic. I know the Country Music Hall of Fame did a Songwriter in the Round once with Joe Ely and Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett and John Hyatt. In Chicago and New York everyone made such a big deal of it, because it is a great thing, but we take it for granted in Nashville. You can stop into our humble little Bluebird any night and not even know who’s playing and see somebody great. The first time I saw Steve Earle, I just happened to be out and said, “Steve Earle and the Dukes, who is that? Well, he’s got a great name…” So, we went in and he was there with just a drummer and a bass player, and it was obviously one of the greatest things I ever saw.
LW Where was this?
EH At The Bluebird. Back before he even did his Columbia record, over ten years ago. Okay now, listen, you have to ask me some questions.
LW Aren’t you starting a new record?
LW I’m sorry. Oops, wrong question. Somebody told me that, but I thought it might have been pretty soon after the last one. Because you’ve been touring a lot.
EH I have been touring a lot, but it probably is time that I should be thinking about a new one.
LW Yeah, but look at how long it’s taken me…
EH When people ask me why I haven’t started another record I say, “I do as Lucinda does…” Lucinda you see, you write your own material, and I actually am trying to put some energy into writing some of my own stuff on this record.
LW That’s great. Oh, there’s Richard and Rob…
EH Let’s not put it on pause because we want this tape to reflect the whole experience.
LW Richard’s bought a copy of my rough mixes for Emmy, so she can take them on the road.
Rob Bleetstein Which songs are not making it?
LW They’re all making it.
RB Really? Lucky thirteen.
LW Yeah, you know me, I don’t have any wasted material. So anyway, Emmylou you were saying…
EH Well, I’ve got it in my mind to try my hand at doing a little more writing for this next record. I’m working on some things on my own and I’ve actually collaborated with Jill Cunniff from Luscious Jackson. She’s great to work with. She brings a whole different energy to song writing, she’s not as obsessive about it as I am. She just moves along and carries you with her and comes up with melodies and rhythms that I would never in a million years think of. And yet, because of the collaboration, I’m able to bring something of myself into it.
LW I got turned on to Luscious Jackson by a friend and I just played them over and over and over and over. They’re one of my favorite bands. How did you get to meet them?
EH Last February I was doing the Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall, and I was doing it with my producer Dan Lanois and my bass player Daryl Johnson. Daniel was already up there working with Luscious Jackson at the time, so it just happened. I just said to Jill, “Well, why don’t we…?” I decided to bite the bullet and see what we came up with, because I’m a bit terrified with the writing process. So at least I’ve conquered my fear of trying. Because if you don’t try to write a song, you can’t fail. As Kieran Kane said to me, “Write a bad song. Nobody has to ever hear it.”
LW What are some of the ones you’ve done in the past? Didn’t you co-write some with Susanna Clark?
EH No, isn’t it funny, Susanna and I have never written together. We’ve made a couple of attempts. I think we definitely could, it probably will happen. But Rodney Crowell and I have written a couple of songs together, and of course most of the co-writing I’ve done was with Paul Kennerley, whom I was married to. He’s such a fantastic song writer. He was responsible for me being able to finish the Ballad of Sally Rose project. I don’t think I could have ever done it without him. Those song ideas had been around for six years before I actually got around to finishing that project.
LW “Boulder to Birmingham” is one of my favorites. Did you co-write that?
EH I wrote all the lyrics for that song and I had the melody for the chorus. But I got together with Bill Danoff. He was part of a group called Fat City, they were dear friends of mine in Washington D.C. when I was a struggling folk singer. Then, they had this huge hit with John Denver, “Take Me Home Country Road,” which catapulted them into a whole other tax bracket. But they remained the people that they were, wonderful people and very supportive of all of us who were still struggling. So Bill came up with the melody to the verses. And that really took the song to another level.
LW Well, “Jackson” is pretty much like that, just one of those…
EH “Jackson” is a song off of Lucinda’s new record. I think it’s a masterpiece. I think that about just about everything Lucinda’s written. But the thing about that particular song, when I saw the words on the page, I didn’t quite get the song. And I realize now it’s like a haiku poem. The words are so incredibly stripped down and simple. And then you hear the melody, which is also simple. That’s what song writing is for me. When the words shimmer with the melody in the right way, then it’s just Nirvana. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
LW And there aren’t any rules, really, to get to that point.
EH There are no rules, that’s what’s scary about it. But when it happens, you know it. And the phrasing is also incredibly important. It seems so simple but that is the hardest kind of song to write. A song that has that poetic overtone that can suggest a million stories within the simplicity of those lines, and the simplicity of the melody. And that’s what “Jackson,” and what most of your songs do for me.
LW The older songs that we were listening to when we all started out are based on that idea. The old mountain ballads, they’re old folk songs…
EH There’s a real Carter Family feel for me in “Jackson.”
LW Right, that’s it. They were an early influence on me.
EH I know that there are songs that just fall out, I’ve heard this. There’s a rumor going around, has that ever happened to you?
LW That happened with that song.
EH Oh God, I’m so jealous.
LW I have to be fair, I had some of the lyrics laying around and I was trying to do something with them. I was just messing around and I came up with that, but it was one of those things where I didn’t know if it was finished yet, because it was so simple. And I thought “Okay, this is a good idea, but I’ve got to go on with it.” And then something clicked in me and I found that place that you’re talking about and I suddenly said, “It’s finished. It doesn’t need a bridge, the chorus doesn’t have to be different from the verse necessarily.”
EH Excuse me… Now, entering—this is like a radio program. Entering Maple Byrne…
LW Right, we have to describe everything as it’s happening. Hey, Maple. I’m a journalist for a day.
EH That’s Maple Byrne, my stage manager, who is one of the great guitar gurus bringing me a guitar for my travels tomorrow.
LW Now what is this trip about?
EH I’m on my way to Dublin to do a T.V. show with Philip King and Donal Lunney. I know them through a T.V. special I did a few years ago called Bringing it All Home, which was about the connection between American and Irish music. They’ll have one artist in to record three songs, no dog and pony show. It seemed like an interesting thing to do. On my way there I’m going to New York to see Sheryl Crow and sing a few songs with her at her show.
LW That will be cool. You’re hanging out with some cool people lately.
EH It’s nice for name dropping in magazines. There’s a lot of great women making records now. Every year, I do this tape for my friends where I pull together the cool stuff I’ve heard over the past year, and this year it was almost entirely by women. The only men on it were Bruce Springsteen’s “Dry Lighting” and Jesse Winchester and Tom Rush—it doesn’t have to be current, it just has to be stuff that I came across recently. And there was Neil Young, and Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One.” That song has a special place for me, because the first time I heard him sing it I was at another Songwriter in the Round group at the Bluebird. It was Steve, and Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. Those three—they were like brothers. The songs were so amazing, and the stories they were telling about each other—with a great deal of affection while still giving each other a hard time. Especially Townes, I never realized what an amazing sense of humor Townes had and what a consummate storyteller he was until that night. It was one of the best nights of music and storytelling that I ever encountered.
LW Well, since we’re talking about men and women and music, how have you dealt with trying not to let men control you?
EH I don’t think I’ve done a very good job, but I’ve managed to do okay in spite of it. I’ve had a lot of creative men in my life who have done a lot for me. And whereas maybe the personal relationships didn’t work out, they’ve been really good creative relationships. Certainly Gram was a huge influence on me, but he didn’t stick around long enough to control me. I’ve always had a bone to pick with him about that.
LW That’s what I wrote “Sweet Old World” about, that feeling of…
EH Yeah, I think about a lot of things when I sing that song. People say, well it obviously means that Emmy’s thinking about Gram. Sometimes that enters into it, but that song has so many different levels. It’s a song that talks about our own mortality, as well as others. But Brian Ahern certainly taught me how to make records. I owe him a lot. I didn’t know a thing about making records. He encouraged my instincts and my ideas, I always felt that he was trying to bring me out, and as much control and as much input as I wanted, he was willing to give me. I was really lucky to start my recording career in a situation with a brilliant producer and fantastic musicians who were very supportive and encouraging. I made a record at a time when the record company had signed me but was paying absolutely no attention to me. In other words, nobody expected anything from me, including me. I wanted to make a record that my friends would like. Call them a jury of my peers. So, I was really fortunate. I don’t know if I could function now. There’s so much pressure to make a hit record. It’s really hard. Ultimately, I’m a bit of a passive person, but somehow I’m so committed to the music and what my instincts are musically, that I don’t think I’ve ever let anything get past that. Other areas of my life might have suffered from my passivity, but as far as my music, I think I’ve pretty much been able to stand by that. And I haven’t had to fight too hard. Only at one point was I told that what I was going to do was an absolute mistake, was going to end my career, was going to become a commercial disaster—that was when I wanted to do Roses in the Snow. And I just said, “Well it’s my career.” I knew I had to make that record.
LW Right. And you have good instincts.
EH Well, I admit that a lot of it was ego. I knew. I could smell it. Everybody I knew wanted to do a Bluegrass record and everybody was talking about it, and I wanted to be the first. I’d been doing Bluegrass in my shows since the beginning. Me and Albert Lee and Rodney Crowell had a little Bluegrass trio that we were doing in the middle of the shows, and it had been moving toward that point and that’s where I was creatively. I just felt that it was more important to me to make an artistic statement and have a commercial disaster than it was to take the safe route. I also felt that my career at that point could survive a commercial disaster, and I was fortunate because it turned out to be a commercial success. But once the record company knew that I was committed and really felt strongly about it, they did get behind it.
RB Didn’t they tell you the same thing with Sally Rose?
EH I’m not so sure that they were that concerned about what I was doing at that point. There seemed to be a certain amount of excitement, just because it was an artistic challenge. I think after Roses in the Snow they just decided that I was not going to listen to anything they said anyway. And actually, Sally Rose was a commercial disaster. But I’m glad I did it, I don’t regret it at all.
LW Do what you do, that’s the bottom line. And if it works it works, and if it doesn’t, you just keep going. (pause) Can we talk about the state of Country music these days. Where it’s gone, and hopefully, where it’s headed…
EH Straight to hell. (laughter)
RB Talking about real artists versus the manufactured ones.
EH This journalist put it so perfectly, “Y’all-ternative.”
LW Oh that’s great. “Y’all-ternative,” I like that one a lot. I was just saying how all of my friends are in this article in the British GQ: Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Emmylou Harris, Vic Chestnut, Victoria Williams, and Lyle Lovett. I like how you put it, “We have to give Country music a new name to resurrect it.”
EH Yeah, I think so. Because it’s rotten, like it’s gone bad in the refrigerator.
RB Don’t drink the country. It’s spoiled. It’s spoiled.
LW Now see, there’s a good line. You’d be surprised what you come up with, just in conversation.
EH Yeah, nobody has written a song with the word refrigerator in it in a long time! One of the things that I loved about James Taylor’s song “Mill Worker” that I recorded was that it had the word “sandwich” in it. Another great word is in Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Hearts Accelerating album. There’s this line with “mashed potatoes.” It’s one of the most heart-breaking songs you will ever hear. I couldn’t believe how sad it was and how they captured that whole period of a woman’s life. They managed to be incredibly sad without feeling sorry for themselves. And yet they walk the heartbreak line almost better than anybody.
RB And they throw “mashed potatoes” in the middle of it…
EH We’re talking food songs. Kung-Pao and lo-mein. There’s a great song on Robert Earl Keene’s record where he’s talking about having a nervous breakdown in a Chinese restaurant here in Nashville. It’s called “Then Came Lo-Mein.”
LW Oh, that’s great. “Tomatoes for a casserole,” in my song “Hot Blood.”
EH The important question now Lucinda, is are you going to be here in the spring when the Sounds start up their season?
LW Yes. I will be here.
EH Because we have to do another game. I love baseball. I live for the spring. It gets me through half of the year, and then I have to figure out how to make it through the other half. There’s a real poetry to baseball. It’s like life, because for a long period of time absolutely nothing happens. And then all of a sudden, “A triple play, unassisted!” But usually I’m out buying a hot dog and I missed the whole thing. The story of my life.
LW Remember when we all went to the Sounds game. It was Richard and me, and you, and your daughter Meghann…
EH And Steve Earle was there.
LW And your mother…
EH And my mother… We had about 25 people, a whole section going. That’s my favorite thing to do in Nashville, just go to a Sounds game. It’s a beautiful little ball park, and it’s not like major league. Minor league is definitely where it’s at.
Richard Price What year did you two both meet?
LW That’s a good question…
RP Emmy was playing your work, and you didn’t know her, but on the other hand you both studied the same style.
EH We met in a hotel somewhere on the road, remember?
LW Yes, I do remember. It was in ’92.
EH And Maple introduced us. I was a big fan of Lucinda’s and I wanted to meet her.
LW This was before you recorded Crescent City, and you were thinking about maybe recording “Am I Too Blue.”
EH Well, we tried. That was a song that I actually did cut. It’s very elusive. When you record a cover, you have to bring something new and different to it. If you don’t give a sparkle to it, then you have to accept the fact that you failed. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try again. I didn’t discover Lucinda’s music until her “Passionate Kisses” record. I was in Tower and someone was playing it and I walked up and said, “Who is that?” Then later I discovered your “Happy Woman Blues.”
LW That came out on Folkways, back in 1980.
EH But I’m surprised I didn’t pick up on it then.
LW Yeah, I wasn’t really coming to fruition as a writer until that “Passionate Kisses” album.
EH But Lucinda, that was a period of time for me when I was in a creative slump. I was really cut off from the world. It happens, it’s the biggest danger. Success does it to you in a way. If you aren’t really careful, you can lose what it was that got you to where you were in the first place. That’s why some artists have longevity. I mean, I never had the success of some other artists, but I’ve experienced enough of it to where it affected me in a negative way. But somebody like Neil Young or Bob Dylan—who’ve been making great records and writing great songs for over 30 years—that’s just extraordinary to me, that they haven’t lost their focus. They’re still fresh and they’re still doing great stuff. And now Bruce Springsteen, who’s a little bit later, he’s one that’s going to have a great, long shelf life, because he never became a rock and roll star in the sense that his job became being a star. He never stopped being a musician. He never stopped being an artist.
RB When he got to that point, where that was thrust upon him, he eventually pulled back.
EH I think you have to, because you have to have something to write about. That doesn’t mean you’re the same person, you’re not, because you have different experiences, but you have to learn how to interpret those experiences and stay close to the bone. And you can do that and have money.
LW I know what you’re talking about, because I see lots of people who get to that level of success and they get very sequestered and alienated from what’s going on on the street.
EH For me, music, is what keeps me connected. Hearing the old stuff, or something new that I get turned on to, that’s why radio is so important. Because you can’t possibly get every record that comes out. You need somebody whose job it is to listen to music and love music, and then play it for other people. That’s how you get turned on. And keep the juices flowing, and get excited about music. There’s nothing to compare with just hearing something out of the blue and going, “Oh my God.” And it makes you feel so strongly. It’s always a battle to keep that fresh and to keep that happening. I still love music, I still believe in it.
LW Those people you mentioned are the ones I look up to, as an example of what it can be like, being able to maintain that creative spark and connection with yourself, and still be successful.
EH Sometimes, for some reason, you get stalled and that’s when you know that there’s something wrong. You’ve got to do something to get yourself jump-started again. Take a long drive—I can always listen in the car. I like to plan a four or five hour trip and just get a bunch of tapes, a bunch of CDs, and listen. That’s always helpful.
LW I used to have more time to just sit around and play my guitar, play songs. Now I feel like I’m never sitting still.
EH That’s because you don’t live anywhere. I keep telling you, Lucinda, you should get an Airstream trailer, and you could just park it in my yard.
LW I know. But you know what I mean, when your career is just starting to reach that level you’re talking about. I used to think, “If only I had a record deal, then everything would be great.” And then you get a record deal, and it’s like, “Wait a minute. I haven’t picked up my guitar in two months, what am I doing here?”
EH I know. I make it a point to play everyday now.
LW Yeah, it’s like you’re getting away from the very thing that got you there in the first place. You’re either on the phone or you’re in the car, you’re on a plane, planning, and talking…
EH Right. There are periods of time when that is necessary. But I’ve even got into carrying my guitar with me all the time. It used to be when I was on the road I would be so exhausted after the shows that I would never play. But now I have a guitar with me in the room and I play everyday. It goes everywhere with me. I’ve discovered the joys of the soft guitar case. Another thing is open tunings. I find that I play guitar more if I’ve got it in an open tuning, because I’m not a good guitar player, and for me, the droning chords unlock more melodies and more lyrical ideas.
LW You’re a good guitar player, you just don’t play lead guitar.
EH I’m a good rhythm guitar player. I have a style. You are a great guitar player and I even wish you would play more on your records.
LW I know. Well, that goes back to that taking the passive role thing. I’m starting to grow out of that, but when I first started recording it was all so new to me, and I was intimidated, so I would let everybody do everything. Not because they were telling me what to do, but it was just easier. Gurf [Morlix] would always play all of the guitar parts, even the rhythm stuff. One reason was that I wasn’t used to just sitting there in a studio and playing without singing.
EH Yeah, but I’m talking about when you’re tracking. You’re singing the songs. Because your songs are written on the guitar by you, and the phrasing is going to be influenced by your particular playing. Those words are born by a process of you playing the guitar a certain way. I think that that could sometimes be the key to getting a magic track. It may be that there are other, technically better guitar players, but ultimately you are the best guitar player for your songs, because nobody else is as close to them as you are.
LW I think Steve Earle recognized that.
EH Oh, Steve is very much into your playing.
LW He was a great person to work with on the basic tracks. Steve would encourage me to play. A lot of the time I would say, “No, that’s okay. You do it.” And sometimes, depending on the song, that did work better, because then I could just concentrate on the singing. Steve has such a great acoustic rhythm thing that he would lock into. Like “Joy,” for instance, he set up that whole track. And everybody fell in and it just kind of clicked, and I could just sing.
EH I know it works, but just to say, “Well you know, there are other guitar players who are better,” I think that’s shortchanging yourself and maybe shortchanging the songs.
LW I think we have a tendency to put that on ourselves. Like you were saying, “Well, I’m not really a guitar player…”
EH I will say though, that Brian Ahern encouraged me to play. He liked my guitar playing. I had played with musicians before who used to say that my rhythm wasn’t that good—and so I got to thinking that I couldn’t keep time…
LW Yeah, if you hear that one time it sticks in your mind.
EH But when I found that I was holding my own with Elvis Presley’s band, and they actually liked the way I played… A lot of tracks were built around the way I play guitar. I play in an unusual way—so the tracks would end up having an unusual groove.
LW Well Emmy, are you thinking you’ll do the next record here in Nashville?
EH I have absolutely no idea. I’ve gotten into this no-agenda thing that I discovered when Meghann, my youngest daughter, started college at USC this past summer. We took a week and drove Route 66 and went out to L.A. We started out with a written plan: “Okay, we have to make so many miles this day. We have to stop so we can see this.” And about a day and a half into the trip, we just threw it all out of the window, and that’s when we really started rocking and having a good time. If you just don’t worry so much about things, and keep yourself open… I think the secret of life is just paying attention and being ready. And that might mean that you end up doing nothing for a while, but that’s all part of the plan. I think we all miss out on the important stuff because we’re too concerned that we get to everything. It’s like there’s some power out there tapping us on the shoulder trying to get our attention, and we’re so busy focusing on something we thought we were supposed to do.
LW It seems that you really have that in hand and under control right now in your life.
EH I don’t know if I’m in control, but I think I’m just accepting. The fact is that you can’t ever really be in control, so that gives you a certain amount of control. It’s a Zen thing.
LW I’m trying to get to that point and I’m still not there yet.
EH You probably are there Lucinda, and you probably just worry that you should be doing something some other way when you’re actually doing okay. You just need to enjoy it more, because when you think about it, we have the greatest job in the world. We get to make music.
Lucinda Williams’s recordings include Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, 1989), from which the title track, “Passionate Kisses,” won the Grammy Country Song of the Year, and Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992). Her upcoming Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is set for release sometime this summer on American.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.