It is fitting that on July 19, the day Heartaches & Highways: The Very Best of Emmylou Harris is released, Emmylou Harris will not be on a highway or a small-town stage, but in New York, where she spent the lean years of her early twenties as one of the city’s perpetual legion of waitress-slash-somethings. That evening, the queen of the pure country lament will sing at Central Park’s SummerStage with that master of urbane wit, Elvis Costello—a pairing that strikes both of them as completely natural.
For so long and with such apparent effortlessness has Harris levitated over the country-music scene that it is difficult to imagine the eleven-time Grammy winner as a young woman paying her dues, her talent uncelebrated as she pours another refill or wipes down a tabletop; so closely is the Alabama native associated with her southeastern roots that it is surprising to learn she was ever a New Yorker. But in the late sixties, after dropping out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she lived at 139 Thompson Street, near West Houston, a five-story walk-up that survives today behind the Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua.
To make her rent, Harris waited tables at a nothing-much joint called the Flick, whose managers made the most of their endless supply of wishful applicants. “They were pretty terrible at the Flick,” she tells me by phone from Alaska, where one day earlier she gave the residents of Ninilchik what must have been an intimate show; the town’s population as of the 2000 Census was 772. “They had kind of a running ad for waitresses. And then they would say, ‘Okay, you’ll be in training for a couple of weeks and we won’t pay you, and then you’ll start getting salary’—and they would find a way to fire you before they had to pay you.”
She has fonder memories of waiting tables near Wall Street, where the high-cheekboned twentysomething found herself better appreciated by her managers, and no doubt the bankers who sat in her section. But she was not in New York to depend on the kindness of regulars. She was here to sing. “You don’t really believe you’re going to be poor and desperate forever,” Harris says now of her youthful confidence, some of which must have been inspired by her role model, Dolly Parton, another pure-voiced “girl singer” with the pluck to elevate herself to fame from small-town origins. The epicenter of the folk-music scene was Gerde’s Folk City, where a few years earlier Bob Dylan had played his first professional gig. There, Harris caught shows by the likes of David Bromberg, Paul Siebel, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Townes Van Zandt. The managers of Gerde’s hired her to be the house opening act, paying a hundred bucks for six or seven performances a week—good money back in the late sixties, and Harris felt lucky.
Then she married songwriter Tom Slocum and had a daughter. “After I had my baby, New York seemed dangerous to me. Before, it had been very exciting, and then, I don’t know, I just felt very vulnerable, so I actually went to Nashville for a short period of time, thinking I could make it as a country singer”—she laughs—“and I just ended up waiting tables there.” The marriage fell apart in Nashville, and financial necessity compelled Harris in 1970 to move back in with her parents, who were living in Maryland. She began integrating herself into the nearby D.C. music circuit, where she met the brilliant, doomed Gram Parsons, who was looking for a female duet partner. One year later, he invited her to Los Angeles to sing with him on his first solo album, GP. (Across the Atlantic, a young man not yet 20 years old, who had not yet changed his name to Elvis Costello, picked up an import copy of GP. Blown away by the album, and by Harris’s backup singing, he began to follow her career, buying each of her solo releases as they appeared.) Harris also sang with Parsons on his second and final album, Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, four months after he died of a drug overdose at Joshua Tree National Monument in California—and where two of his buddies later honored his wish that his body, which they stole from Los Angeles International Airport, be set afire in the desert.
Parsons’s death constitutes an enduring loss for Harris. Thirty years later, in interviews, she still credits him with having “taught me how to sing.” She dedicates a page of her Website to him and frequently performs “Boulder to Birmingham,” the good-bye song she co-wrote for him with Bill Danoff. (“Well, you really got me this time,” begins one verse.) The song appears on Pieces of the Sky (1975), the first of a series of remarkably pure country albums that manage to be both traditional and fresh. With her next album, Elite Hotel (1975), she would win her first Grammy.