Parting Shots: Emmylou Harris
With her new record, Hard Bargain, legendary songstress Emmylou Harris tackles troubled love, a broken heart and the death of Gram Parsons.
I don’t think you’ve ever recorded an album with literally just three people in the studio. How did Hard Bargain impact a process that, I would imagine, you were pretty comfortable with prior?
There are all different ways to make a record and this was the brainchild of Jay Joyce, my producer. We had worked on a couple of things—we had done a song for a movie soundtrack [ Nights in Rodanthe ], that was the first time I had worked with him since I sang on the Flaming Red album he did with Patty Griffin. We did the song for the soundtrack with just three people in two days, the whole thing.
So I had it in the back of mind that I liked working like that and I approached him about doing the next record with me. He said let’s try that and said, “You think about doing all the harmonies since that’s also part of what you do. If we get stuck or we feel like there’s something missing, we’ll invite other voices and instruments in.” But Jay and Giles [Reeves] are so versatile on the things they play and what they play.
*Of Pieces of the Sky, you’ve said, “We were trying to reinvent the music that we loved, because what’s the point of doing something exactly the way it was done earlier?” Do you still approach recording this way?
I think it’s different. In those early days, there was so much music that had already been recorded in that traditional country form. It was up to us—and me as a singer—to try and make it my own and obey the rules of country music but maybe break a few of them. “Hello Stranger” from Luxury Liner was one—with pedal steel and mandolin on it; interweave those instruments that might not have cohabitated that often together. It was a discovery.
I had these great musicians but we gave them a license to be a little more creative and I think it was interesting bunch of songs. Of course with Brian [Ahern] at the helm who was so brilliant at, as he says, “being invisible,” and yet being in control of everything and guiding everybody. You weren’t afraid to try things because you know he would ultimately be able to tell what was working and what wasn’t. He could nudge people in one or another.
All I’ve ever had to do was sit in the studio and sing and play. And, occasionally, you have an idea that was going to work or wasn’t going to work. But I always knew that there were going to be people taking care of that process of saying, “This will work, this might not work.” I always trusted the people that I was working with. I think that’s really important because if you’re suspicious or you think “I don’t know what they’re going to do with this,” how can you make music?
You make it sound so easy to record a record.
Well, if you have good people, you’re in good voice and you have good songs, you almost can’t go wrong. I should knock on wood. The universe is gonna come down on me!
You once said, “Every album’s search for material results in the discovery of a new writer.” Who did you discover this time around while creating Hard Bargain ? Any besides the two covers that you’ve put in your back pocket for later?
I don’t but you always have to be searching. I’m almost out of what I used to call my “material cassettes.” I just had so much material. I plumbed those on the record before this, All I Intended to Be —so many of those songs I had wanted to sing for years and hadn’t found the right project. I actually thought doing “Hard Bargain” on All I Intended to Be. It just didn’t work out. But Jay loved the song—I played it for him. He brought me some of his songs, I wanted to hear his stuff. I loved “Cross Yourself.” I thought it was one of those perfect end-of-the-record, to-be-continued, songs.
The song “Boulder to Birmingham” on 1975’s Pieces of the Sky is something of an elegy to your dear friend and mentor Gram Parsons. And now, on Hard Bargain, there’s “The Road,” which hears you reflecting on his passing 35 years later. Is it fair to call these companion pieces?
Yeah, I guess they’re bookends in a way because one of them was written in the throws of grief and bewilderment because his death was such a shock to me even though people say, “You must have known.” When I was with Gram, he seemed like he was on the upswing. He was not drinking, he was so passionate about making music; he was really gathering strength and moving into a good, positive place in his life.
And, also, I was naïve about that whole rock and roll scene—the drugs and the damage they could do to people. I think it was dealing with that sense of loss and bewilderment that comes when you’re dealing with the first big loss in your life. You expect your grandparents to die but you don’t expect someone your own age who’s vital and important in your life [to die]. “Boulder” was a way of dealing with that whereas “The Road” I’m at an amazing place in my life 35 years later. It’s amazing this place that I’m at now, this extraordinary life I’ve had, all the wonderful people that have come my way, the blessings…
Really, if I have to go back and pick a moment and a person, it all came from that meeting and that short time I spent with [Gram]. Everything emanated from there. Obviously, it has changed and transformed. There have been many other people, events and things that have come in—it’s almost like a river that has all these different streams; that your life is a river with all these different streams coming into it—but Gram would have been the source.
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