Emmylou Harris influences new crop of country stars

July 02, 1992|By Michael Corcoran | Michael Corcoran,Dallas Morning News

Ask any of the newer female country stars, from Suzy Bogguss to Trisha Yearwood to Pam Tillis, who their main influences are and two names appear again and again: Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris.

While Patsy Cline was a bearer of taste and sophistication, introducing elements of jazz and rock to hillbilly music, Emmylou Harris almost single-handedly brought back traditional, hard-core country music with an amazing string of mid-'70s albums.

Such works as "Pieces of the Sky" (1975), "Elite Hotel" (1975) and "Luxury Liner" (1976) brought country music to the most unlikely places, including college dorm rooms and over the airwaves of free-form FM stations.

At a time when the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt were considered country rock, Ms. Harris was the real thing: Wanda Jackson dipped in honey.

Her voice was smooth and attractive yet full of emotion, and her song selection -- with cuts by Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, the Beatles, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt and Chuck Berry -- was not the usual fare for female country singers.

Ms. Harris began her career emulating Joan Baez in the coffeehouses of Washington, D.C., but soon fell under the spell of cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons, who brought country to hippies as a member of the Byrds circa "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

After her mentor and lover died of a heroin overdose in 1973, Ms. Harris carried on his love for bluegrass and honky-tonk music, which he heartily stamped with a rock 'n' roll attitude. She inherited Parsons' aptly named Hot Band (featuring James Burton on guitar), added Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar, and took the torch to clubs across both coasts and in-between.

Asked about her role as inspiration to a generation of country singers, Ms. Harris passes the credit on to Parsons.

"Gram opened up this whole world of music to me, so if I can help someone else see the beauty of the Louvin Brothers or Bill Monroe or some other great artist, I know what it means," she says.

Although the singer, 44, has a 21-year-old daughter and has been married three times, the continued vitality of her music makes it seem as if it were yesterday that she was riding on the back of Parson's Harley. Through the years, she has lost strength in her voice, however, which facilitated her latest stylistic change.

Recently, she went full-circle with her web of influences by recording the bluegrass-tinged "Live at the Ryman Auditorium" at the ancient home of the Grand Ole Opry. After 15 years with the electric Hot Band, Ms. Harris opted for a more acoustic sound with a new band called the Nash Ramblers, featuring Randy Stewart on acoustic guitar, along with the better-known Sam Bush and Al Perkins.

"I can't tell you what an amazing experience it has been playing with those guys," Ms. Harris says.

In addition to performing newer songs from the live album, Ms. Harris and the Ramblers have worked up new arrangements of her older hits.

"To me, the test was to see if the songs played so wonderfully by the Hot Band all those years could be played with the dobro and mandolin replacing the electric guitar and pedal steel," she says.

"And it works! The perception may be that acoustic means less, but I've discovered limitless possibilities with this band."

But first comes yet another award to put up on the mantle with her five Grammys. Partly because of her heartfelt homage to the Ryman and partly because she's enemyless after so many years in the music business, Ms. Harris was recently given the Minnie Pearl Award at the TNN-Music City News Country awards. All previous winners have been in their late 60s or 70s.

"I don't feel like an elder stateswoman of country music. Maybe it's all this gray hair," she says, laughing.

"I do feel very fortunate that I've been able to meet my heroes and work with many of them, like Bill Monroe [who makes an appearance on the live album]. It's also nice when someone comes up to me and says they started listening to country music because of me."

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