Emmylou Harris Biography

Emmylou Harris photo by Rocky Schenck, courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

Already celebrated as a discoverer and interpreter of other artists’ songs, 12-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris has, in the last decade, gained admiration as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. On Hard Bargain, her third Nonesuch disc, she offers 11 original songs—three of them co-written with Grammy– and Oscar–winning composer Will Jennings—that touch on the autobiographical while reaching for the universal. She recalls the storied time she spent with her mentor Gram Parsons ("The Road") and composes a sweet remembrance of the late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle ("Darlin’ Kate") and the time they spent together, right up to the end. Harris locates poignancy and fresh meaning in events both historical and personal. On "My Name Is Emmett Till" she recounts a violent, headline-making story from the civil rights era in a heartbreakingly plain-spoken narrative, told from the murdered victim’s perspective; on "Goodnight Old World," she fashions a bittersweet lullaby to her newly born grandchild, contrasting a grown-up’s world-weariness with a baby’s wide-eyed wonder. "Big Black Dog," with its loping canine-like rhythms, is also a true tale, about a black lab mix named Bella. Harris, who runs a dog shelter called Bonaparte’s Retreat on her property, rescued Bella from the Nashville Metro pound and provided an especially happy ending to her story: "She goes on the tour bus with me now, along with another one of my rescues. I think of all the years on the road I wasted without a dog. They make it so much more pleasant. I’m making up for lost time now, that’s for sure."

Few in pop or country music have achieved such honesty or revealed such maturity in their writing. Forty years into her career, Harris shares the hard-earned wisdom that—hopefully if not inevitably—comes with getting older, though she’s never stopped looking ahead. The candor of Harris’s words is matched by a simple, elegantly rendered production from Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Jack Ingram, Cage the Elephant), with whom she’d previously recorded a theme for the romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe. While Harris’s acclaimed 2008 All I Intended to Be was recorded intermittently over a span of three years and featured an all-star cast of musician friends, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and the McGarrigles, Hard Bargain was cut in a mere four weeks last summer at a Nashville studio, with only Harris, Joyce, and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves. Joyce gets big results from this strikingly small combo: Harris played acoustic guitars and overdubbed all the harmonies; Joyce layered shimmering electric guitar parts; Reaves—employing piano, pump organ, and synths as well as playing percussion—conjured gorgeous atmospherics, often giving these tracks, as Harris puts it, "a floaty, dreamy quality."

"It’s such a beautifully realized sound," says Harris. "We didn’t have the need for anyone else given how versatile Giles and Jay are. We became our own little family in the studio. We cut very simply, with just maybe a click and whatever they wanted to play and me on an acoustic guitar, going for that vocal and that feel, right to the heart of the matter. After we got a track, there were all those lovely brush strokes they were able to add to it later on. I particularly love the guitar part Jay put on ‘My Name Is Emmett Till.’ It’s a simple part but it just breaks my heart whenever I hear it. It’s like a cry from heaven or something. Jay works really fast but he puts so much thought into what he does. I’ve been very lucky to work with so many great producers over the years and now I guess it was time to increase the stable."

On "The Road," with its layers of reverb-doused electric guitars and harmony-packed chorus, Harris addresses, more forthrightly than she’s ever done in song, the short, life-altering period when she worked with country-rock pioneer Parsons. She and Joyce agreed this rousing number should open the disc, and its theme of coming to terms with the past sets the tone for much of what follows. Explains Harris, "I think you get to a certain point in your life where you do gaze back over the years and it’s sort of a celebration or a thank-you for the fact that you cross paths with people who change you forever. Certainly Gram did that; I did come down walking in his shoes and trying to carry on for him. So I really just told that story the way I see it in my mind, the brief time we had and how I couldn’t imagine that Gram wouldn’t be around forever. Life goes on and unfolds before you, but those people and those events that change you forever are always with you. It was an important event that determined the trajectory of my life and, more than anything, of my work."

Emmylou Harris' 2008 CD, All I Intended To Be. Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records.

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