Emmylou Harris: 'I smoked country music but I didn't inhale'

She may now be winning Grammys for 'contemporary folk', but Emmylou Harris is finally ready to confront the heartache and loss that made her the queen of the red-raw country ballad

If anyone offers a lesson in how to grow old gracefully in the music business, it's Emmylou Harris. It's not just the way she looks – even though dressed down in jeans and a dark-red hoodie, her silver-white hair pulled into a high ponytail, she is the picture of elegance and restraint. It's the way the singer and Nashville resident has conducted herself throughout her career, never playing to the gallery, nor attempting to pre-empt the tastes of her fans, yet all the while bringing a renegade spirit to her art.

It is an art for which she has suffered, too, having endured financial hardship, separation from her children and the deaths of close friends, one of which hit her so hard it threatened to derail her career – and her sanity – entirely. But despite these many trials, over the past 40 years she has stayed true to herself and to the creative vision that first took shape in the early 1970s: to make traditional country music credible, and to help free the genre of the conservative stereotypes that have blighted it since the 1960s.

Happily, her integrity has paid off. Described by Billboard magazine as "a truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder", Harris has sold more than 15 million albums, collected a dozen Grammy awards and worked with some of music's most famous names, among them Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. She has, in the process, acquired the status of a musical legend, with her influence still felt, and frequently celebrated, among subsequent generations.

If all this makes Harris sound like a woman with a serious career plan, she tells me, with a throaty laugh, that the opposite is true. "I like to think of myself as the happy beneficiary of the stars coming together at a certain time, and with certain people. I didn't orchestrate this. Don't think for a second that I knew what I was doing!"

I find Harris sipping tea in a London hotel on a bright spring afternoon during a whistle-stop promotional tour of Europe. She is small, gently spoken and has a faintly academic air about her, her specs halfway down her nose. At 64, with her high cheekbones and intense brown eyes, she is still discernible as the ethereal hippie chick that adorned the front of her albums in the 1970s. Harris may not ever have been seen as a sex symbol – her friend Dolly stole the show in that department – but she wipes the floor with her contemporaries in terms of sheer class.

Harris is primarily a country artist, though she is the first to admit that the label can be a problem, conjuring as it does images of Shania Twain busting out of sequinned bra tops. Thus, she makes a firm distinction between what she does and that of the mainstream artists churned out of Nashville, the home of commercial country.

"I've been bleeding outside the lines for some time," she notes. "I like to think I have my own category by now. I once said that I smoked country music but I didn't inhale. There is no more rural country music as it used to be. Country has to grow and change and evolve through the people who make it. Now I am often put in the category of contemporary folk, and thank God for that, because that's the only way I've been able to win Grammys."

Despite her resistance to the mainstream country sound, Harris has still chosen Nashville as her home. Married and divorced three times, she is now happily single and lives in a ramshackle townhouse with four dogs, four cats, her older brother Walter and her mother Eugenia, who will be 90 this year and who, Harris reveals proudly, is more computer-literate than her children. When she's not travelling the world playing concerts and living out of a tour bus, Harris runs a dog rescue shelter from her back garden called Bonaparte's Retreat. "It's a fenced-in part of the yard and there's a little house at the back which we built for the dogs to sleep in at night," she smiles. "There are rugs and lamps in there, it's air-conditioned and heated. Really, it's one of the greatest things I've ever done. Dogs have such a capacity for joy. No matter how tired you are, or whatever else is going on, they make the day better."

We talk about her new album, Hard Bargain, which, bar two cover versions, is made up of original songs. It's stripped-back in style and is at times devastatingly sad, particularly on the subject of past friendships. "Darlin' Kate" is a tribute to Kate McGarrigle, the folk singer and mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, who died of a rare form of cancer at the beginning of last year. "Kate was such a force of nature, so bright, so funny," Harris recalls wistfully. "I never had a sister and really that's how I thought of her. When she died, everyone was gathered around her at her bedside, and my song is just a farewell letter. I did hold her hand and I did kiss her brow..." Her voice falters. "I'm sorry. It's still very raw."

Another song on the album, "The Road", is devoted to Gram Parsons, her late, great mentor, who heralded her conversion to country music in the early 1970s and, to all intents and purposes, kick-started her career.

Parsons, a Harvard drop-out, former member of the Byrds and leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers, made little commercial impact in his lifetime, though after his death in 1973 from a drink and drugs binge at the Joshua Tree National Park, he became a hallowed figure in rock. His posthumous solo LP Grievous Angel, on which Harris sang, was acknowledged as a masterpiece for its blending of rock and country, and a guiding force for hugely successful bands including U2, who named an album after the site of his demise, and the Rolling Stones, who admired both his music and his hard-partying ways (Keith Richards once remarked that "Gram could get better coke than the mafia").

"The Road" is an acknowledgement of Harris's debt to Parsons and how, even after his death, he shaped her professional life. "In the song I wrote, 'I come down from the mountain walking in your shoes,'" she says. "Really, that is how I've always felt, like I'm walking in his shoes. It was like he left me this gift, this stage, and said, 'Here you are. Now get out there and do it.'"

In fact, by the time she met Parsons, Harris had already been out there and done it, though not with much success. In her teens, she won a scholarship to study drama at college in North Carolina, but dropped out to pursue a singing career. In 1968, she headed to New York's Greenwich Village, where she worked as a waitress by day and played gigs in the evenings. There she married her musician boyfriend Tom Slocum, and got a record deal. But her first album flopped, her label declared bankruptcy and her marriage foundered. By 1970, she was broke and bringing up her baby daughter Hallie by herself. It was, k she says, "a tough time. I was living on food stamps and working six nights a week in clubs, trying to support my daughter. I had pretty much given up on the idea of 'making it' by that point."

It's no wonder, then, that after she was introduced to Parsons in 1971, she came to view him as a kind of saviour who could lift her out of poverty and perhaps even salvage her career. The pair met through Chris Hillman, a former member of the Byrds. He had seen her perform live and recommended her to Parsons, who was looking for a female singer to contribute vocals to his first solo album.

They immediately hit it off – "He never treated me like the chick singer; he was very gracious, a real Southern gentleman" – though it took a while for her to warm up to his sound. "I didn't get his music; I didn't quite get his singing either. I had always sung folk music and I saw country music as kind of hokey. So at first I just saw what we were doing as an opportunity to make some money singing on a record. But as we began singing these harmonies it seemed like we sounded good together and I began to appreciate what he was doing."

Harris's admiration was reciprocated and, following their studio sessions, Parsons posted her a return ticket to Los Angeles and suggested she join him as a singer on his solo tour. He was deep into drugs and alcohol by this point, though Harris insists she was never tempted. "I can't drink very much. It's just the way I'm made. And anyway, I was just so focused on doing my job and I really wanted to work on the songs."

Harris still blames herself for not seeing Parsons' death coming. Far from being in the grips of some kind of darkness or depression, she remembers him being in good spirits, appearing unusually healthy and having slowed down on the drinking. "He was working, finally, in his own band, and we both enjoyed the company of the whole group. He seemed to me to be ready to make a life change, y'know, to turn a corner. I look back on it now and... it's hard. I was young and naïve. I wish I'd paid more attention. But what I think happened was that he paid the price for being straight for a while and then going back to it one last time."

Over the years there has been much speculation as to the nature of Harris's relationship with Parsons. Parsons' friend and road manager Phil Kaufman once said: "If Gram hadn't been married [to the actress Gretchen Burrell], then something definitely would have happened between the two of them." Is that true?

"We were probably heading in that direction but the timing was just terrible," Harris says softly. "We had elements of being a couple through a musical relationship that became very intense. I think I kept a little bit of a distance, though. I mean, Gram was married and, though I wasn't that much of a prude, I probably didn't want to mess with that. Toward the end, I couldn't really deny it any more. I knew what I felt for him, and I just assumed that that was something that was going to happen, never thinking that we would never have the chance. When I got the call that he had died, I was just so shocked."

Did you think about giving up music?

"Oh no," she replies, shaking her head. "I felt I couldn't possibly stop. Because that was the only way I could deal with it. I had no idea where I was going to get to, or end up, but all these extraordinary things came together in just the right way to put me in a place where I could actually realise whatever it was I was trying to do. Mainly, I wanted to carry on with Gram's music. That was what pushed me forward."

It was an uphill struggle, however, one that was compounded by the grisly antics of Phil Kaufman. Upholding a promise he had made to Parsons in the event of his death, in order to stop him being buried in New Orleans near his family home, Kaufman intercepted his body on the way to LAX airport, drove it to the desert, doused it in kerosene and set fire to it.

After the furore died down (Kaufman was arrested but, since there was no law against stealing bodies, got away with a fine), a memorial service was held in New Orleans, where Parsons' ashes were interred, and from which Burrell had barred Harris on account of her suspicions about their relationship. For a long while Harris says she felt completely lost, unable to assuage her grief or find a new direction.

"I had just assumed I would go forward making music with Gram until whenever. Then, when it was cut so short, I had to move forward on my own. It was hard, and a very bleak time for me. My daughter was with my parents and I hardly saw her. I didn't have experience making records, my education was incomplete and I'd lost my teacher, my mentor. In the end, I was very fortunate in the community of people I found – and who found me – who helped put me on the right path. And also that they understood I was grieving and was in a very vulnerable place."

Those people included Brian Ahern, who would become both her producer and husband, with whom she would have a daughter, Meghann (the couple split up in 1983 but have remained good friends); and the Hot Band, a group of backing musicians who included James Burton and Glen Hardin, both of whom also worked in Elvis Presley's Las Vegas band. She says she also owes a debt to her friend, the singer Linda Ronstadt, whom she met while touring with Parsons, "for helping and advising me and talking me up like I was the greatest thing since sliced bread".

Ronstadt recommended Harris to her record company, Warner, which duly signed her up. In 1975 she released her second album, Pieces of the Sky, which went gold in the US. Since then there have been 23 more albums – on which she has proved herself as a gifted songwriter and a peerless interpreter of other people's songs – and a slew of awards. In 2008 she was inducted into Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame. Not bad for a woman whose mission was take country music away from commercialism and back to its roots.

There was a long period, in the late 1970s and 1980s, during which Harris didn't speak about Parsons. His death was still too raw and her grief too overwhelming. Now she thinks, speaks and sings about him compulsively.

That, 37 years after his death, his ghost still stalks her music suggests a life led in mourning.

But this sadness has also served her well: Harris's tremulous voice was made for ballads, not belters. Even in her twenties she sounded like an old soul. Now her singing has become deeper and tougher with age, though has retained the warmth and emotional power that can make the most wooden-hearted listener weep.

When I ask if she has ever suffered from depression, she replies, "No more than anyone else. You see, I have an outlet that other people don't have. I do often wonder whether I would be so well-adjusted if I didn't have that, and these songs that articulate the darker side to life. Ironically, I get a great joy out of singing sad songs. It's why country music works well for me. That and the fact that I only know three chords."

Her only regret, besides not noticing that Parsons was in trouble, is not having seen enough of her children. "I wasn't the greatest mother in the world because I wasn't there as much as I should have been," she says. "Although my children have grown up to actually really like me, so I'm very grateful for that. I mean, they could really play the guilt card if they wanted."

Harris won't ever forget Parsons, she tells me, nor will she get over his death. "I am the keeper of his flame, and I'll carry on being the keeper until the end of my days," she says with a smile. "Gradually, you grow up and you stand on your own two feet and other things come in and change you, but you're always affected by those powerful influences that set you on a certain trajectory. It's important to acknowledge the door that you came through. For me, that door was Gram."

'Hard Bargain' is released on Nonesuch on 25 April. Emmylou Harris tours the UK in late May. For more information, visit emmylouharris.com

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