Emmylou, in her own words

Emmylou Harris is back with a striking album (her 26th), full of power, passion and poetry. And this time, she's written the songs herself. Gavin Martin meets an older, wiser and profoundly philosophical artist
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At 53 Emmylou Harris, the country queen with a rebel streak, is a fascinating blend of opposites. Hunched in her chair in a hotel conference room with half lens spectacles on her nose, the delicate hand she offers in greeting seems to belong to a much older woman. But as she engages in conversation the back straightens, the face brightens; there's no mistaking the Southern Belle smile and "classic" cheekbones that twice saw her crowned a teenage beauty queen in Greensboro, North Carolina in the Sixties.

At 53 Emmylou Harris, the country queen with a rebel streak, is a fascinating blend of opposites. Hunched in her chair in a hotel conference room with half lens spectacles on her nose, the delicate hand she offers in greeting seems to belong to a much older woman. But as she engages in conversation the back straightens, the face brightens; there's no mistaking the Southern Belle smile and "classic" cheekbones that twice saw her crowned a teenage beauty queen in Greensboro, North Carolina in the Sixties.

"It was a big thing," she admits, "and when you're young, it's very seductive. But you quickly find out it's very hollow. Hopefully, after that you can raise your consciousness."

She played music ("proficiently but without passion") in her high school marching band. But encountering the folk revival, early Dylan and Joan Baez was "like discovering religion - even the secular songs were very spiritual."

The realisation was compounded by meeting, working and living with the man she calls her mentor, the late legendary Gram Parsons. He introduced her to country as "a cosmic America music." Nearly three decades later, the journey she began back then has taken her from single parenthood (she was already divorced when she met Parsons), through three more marriages, several acclaimed genre-crossing albums and collaborations with Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Neil Young and Bob Dylan to name a few. The journey continues on the new Red Dirt Girl, her first predominantly self-penned collection since The Ballad of Sally Rose, the 1985 concept album based on her relationship with Parsons.

Gram died from a drug overdose in 1973 but Phil Kaufman, the larger-than-life character who cremated Gram's body in the Californian desert, is hovering, the self-styled "road mangler" attending to her needs. Those needs are modest - Emmylou's artistic resilience and healthy glow are at least partly due to her abstemious lifestyle. Yet the interview has barely begun before she lights a small, matchstick-sized Indian "beenie" cigarette, a habit she's only taken up since hitting the half-century mark.

"I was interested in smoking. I wondered what people found in it so I started experimenting," she explains. "I haven't become a heavy smoker. I find it meditative. I don't like smoking dope, and I'm not a drinker. This is my foray into altered consciousness; it helps get the pistons firing."

While searching for inspiration to follow up her last studio album, The Wrecking Ball (1995, an exalted collection of non-originals), she admits her creative engine often needed help getting started. She worked with Linda Ronstadt on The Tucson Sessions, harmonised with Willie Nelson on Teatro, and oversaw the making of the superlative Parsons tribute album, The Return of The Grievous Angel, but The Wrecking Ball was a hard act to follow.

"I felt I needed to bring a pound of flesh to the next album. I had to find something new. I wasn't going to become a different type of singer, an amazing instrumentalist or produce a record with new technology. Having spent so long being an interpreter and collecting such mighty songs, I can get intimidated by the writing process. When you're competing with songs like 'Poncho And Lefty,' anything I write has to be of a certain quality."

Red Dirt Girl is both a stark confessional and meditative prayer haunted by the ghosts of a dying America. The songs are steeped in Biblical lore ("Hour Of Gold"), traditional folk ballad-form ("My Baby needs A Shepherd") and poetic resonance ("The Pearl"). Harris first came to prominence as a harmony singer, and collaboration remains central to her work. On "Tragedy" she sings with Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Sciafla, while the sexually explicit "I Don't Want To Talk About It Now" is co-written with New York indie rocker Jill Cunniff. The Texan songsmith Guy Clarke co-wrote "Bang The Drum Slowly", a song for her late Korean War veteran father.

"When I was starting to write these songs, I didn't have a whole lot of confidence in myself. Guy had socialised with my father, shared jokes and stories. I needed to show him what I had so far because I knew he would tell me if it was hogwash."

Since 1993, her mother Eunice has lived with her and her daughters. When asked what mum thought of lines like "I'd be drawn and quartered if I could keep you in my bed" on "I Don't Want To Talk About It Now", she laughs, "the subject hasn't come up." She talks passionately about their friendship, but, she says, there's only a "puny" parallel between her decision to hit the endless highway with Parsons in the early Seventies and her mother deserting her childhood sweetheart to elope with her future husband during the Second World War.

The music on Red Dirt Girl is alive with a swirl of old and new influences: Moby's nouveau blues, the gothic clamour of Nick Cave, the high lonesome sound of late great bluegrass king Bill Monroe and the all-pervasive influence of the man who first introduced her to "the language of song", Bob Dylan.

"There's certainly a tyranny of youth in the visible part of American culture," she reflects. "It's given the most attention, attracts the frenzy. But I don't think there's any limit to what people can do at any age. I think you should learn and mature and have something to say about where you have gotten to spiritually in life.

"One of the things that has moved me profoundly recently is Dylan's song 'It's Not Dark Yet'. Dylan has always been a great writer but he couldn't have written that song in his twenties, thirties or forties. You don't start to grapple with mortality until you get to a certain age. It's inspiring to see ageing artists like Dylan not just playing on the fact on that they were very popular back in the their twenties or thirties and saying, wasn't it great, back then? We haven't really changed - let's remember life exactly as it was, let's pretend there's nothing actually very terrifying just around the corner."

The album 'Red Dirt Girl' is out now on Grapevine

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