Stumbling Into Grace

Photo: Jay Blakesberg/Retna

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.

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.”

Stumbling Into Grace