Throughout her career, she has been a coveted collaborator, performing duets with artists too numerous to list, but including many country favorites—Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and the hero of her youth, Dolly Parton—as well as those in other genres: Midnight Oil, Ryan Adams, and now her longtime fan Elvis Costello.
“We’ve sung together on about four or five occasions I think now,” Costello tells me as we discuss the upcoming SummerStage show. He describes the scene last September when she joined him onstage in Memphis. “She lit up the club. When you’re in a hot, crowded club, the last thing you expect is that what the people are going to want to do is listen to a bunch of ballads, two or three of which weren’t even written by either of the artists on the stage. But you know, it’s absolutely magical how she completely changed the atmosphere.” Her singing, he says, has “some sort of persuasive power.”
“After I had my baby, New York seemed dangerous to me. I just felt very vulnerable.”
To understand the exalted position Harris now holds in American music, country and otherwise, is to understand not just that her voice inspires the awe of her stagemates (“She just opened her mouth,” said Dave Matthews on CMT, describing his own duet with Harris, “and that sound happened from her”) but also that the method of her ascent seems superior to the skin-and-dance route currently in favor. Her fame was pure country, no crossover. She displayed her appealing face on album covers as confidently as she might have laid down a trump card, but it was about the eyes, not the abs; the art rather than the fame.
Mathematically compiled “Greatest Hits” packages sometimes bear the whiff of forced retirement. But Harris is quick to characterize Heartaches & Highways as something else, a “retrospective” filled with “pivotal”—not necessarily best-selling—songs: twenty carefully chosen tracks arranged in loose chronological order of release, beginning with “Love Hurts,” a haunting duet with Parsons. Next year, Rhino will release a more comprehensive boxed set, tracks for which she is still considering.
All this archiving puts Harris in a peculiar position: Her career may still be vibrant (she’s recorded an album with Mark Knopfler; she’s writing new songs), but all the while, her legacy is looming up behind her. What Dolly Parton once was to Harris, she has become to a new generation of performers—and unlike so many musicians who crashed long before they got a chance to look back, she enjoys the freedom, and the leisure, to shape the image she will leave behind. Throughout her career, she has worked as if with an acute sense that time is short, perhaps something else she learned from Gram Parsons. Toward the end of our interview, I mention that I once saw June Carter Cash and family perform at the Carter Family Fold, a barnlike concert venue in Hiltons, Virginia. “You know, I envy you that,” Harris says. “That’s something I really need to do, and I wish so much that I’d done it while John and June were alive. You keep thinking you’ve got all the time in the world, and you don’t.”