Personalities | Emmylou Harris | New Country & The Neo-Traditionalists

The undisputed queen of country rock, Emmylou Harris has long been both a student of traditional country music and a peerless innovator. Even now, some 30 years after she debuted with the tormented genius Gram Parsons, she is still the one others turn to for acceptance and support.

Gram Parsons’ Influence

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 2 April 1947, Harris grew up near Washington, D.C. She cut her teeth as a folk singer, but after an unsuccessful 1969 debut, Gliding Bird, Byrd/Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman introduced her to Parsons, who was looking for a female vocalist for his GP album, and suddenly, the world of country music opened up for her. Though impressed with Harris, months went by before Parsons sent her plane ticket to Los Angeles, and the collaboration began in earnest. The spark and chemistry of their voices was of almost sibling quality, and for a time it seemed that both artists were destined for superstardom. But it wasn’t to be. Gram didn’t even live to see the result of his second album with Harris, Grievous Angel (1974), on which Harris shone.

After this major setback, and despite her inexperience, Harris continued along the path pioneered by Parsons, taking over the team of stellar musicians he had assembled and forming The Hot Band (ex-Cricket Glen D. Hardin on keyboards, Emory Gordy on bass, Ricky Nelson/Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton, Hank DeVito on pedal steel guitar and John Ware on drums, with the then-unknown Rodney Crowell stepping into Parsons’ shoes) to back her both on record and on the road. In 1975 she released not only her breakthrough album, Pieces Of Sky, which included her heartfelt tribute to Parsons, ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, but also Elite Hotel, which immediately propelled her to the top of the country-rock pecking order. Her blending of classic country songs from The Louvin and Stanley Brothers and A. P. Carter, with the then-new contemporary writers Rodney Crowell, Jesse Winchester, Townes Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and her one-time husband, British songwriter Paul Kennerly, provided a continuation of a vision she once shared with Parsons.

The Queen Of Country Rock

Harris And Her Hot Band, with the occasional personnel change, rolled on for many years until she formed the all-acoustic Nash Ramblers for a 1992 live album, At The Ryman. After this she fell under the influence of producer-musician Daniel Lanois and produced the Wrecking Ball album, forming her band Spyboy (featuring Buddy Miller) and creating a more contemporary sound.

There have been many twists and turns in Harris’s body of work. This is evidenced by the bluegrass/traditional Blue Kentucky Girl (1979), the Ricky Skaggs-influenced Roses In The Snow (1980), the two Trio records with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (1987 and 1999), and a duet album with Ronstadt, Western Walls – The Tucson Sessions (1999). She has also produced such classic albums as Quarter Moon In A 10 Cent...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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