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Music

Emmylou Harris: ‘The only thing I knew how to do was sing, I had no choice’

Emmylou Harris looks back on her career in country music, collaborating with Dolly Parton and the importance of family.

Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris has released dozens of albums in her five-decades-long career. She’s collaborated with Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson and has won 14 Grammys.

Here, in her Letter to My Younger Self, she says she’s grateful to Parsons for giving her her voice – but the most perfect day she’s ever experienced was the day her second daughter was born.

I had just gotten into folk music when I was 16. I got a guitar and I was learning everything I could, which basically ended up being three chords. There was a radio station in Washington DC, about 25 miles away, which played folk music every night. It opened up a whole world for me, all those songs and incredible singers and songwriters. So I had my radio on every night while I was doing my homework, just discovering all these artists like Joan Baez, who was really the one who made me pick up a guitar. Besides her music, I feel she changed the heart of America through her involvement in the civil rights movement, using her voice, literally using her voice, the way she did. I’d love to tell that teenage girl listening to the radio that one day she’ll be on stage singing for Joan Baez at her induction into the Kennedy Center Honors [in June 2021].

Looking back on the 16-year-old me, I feel a certain tenderness towards that young girl. I didn’t know much, I was very naive. I had a very sheltered life. I was very intense. I would say to that girl, try to have more fun. I worried about getting good grades. I didn’t really know how to flirt. I didn’t date. I didn’t really know how to fit into the social fabric of high school. And I didn’t see how I could have a career in music because I didn’t study music – I didn’t know music theory. So I thought music would just be something I would do on the side.

I was 21 when I moved to New York City. That’s pretty young, I guess. I didn’t know anyone except the wonderful singer-songwriter Paul Siebel, who introduced me to David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker and all the people who were making music in the [Greenwich] Village. It was a very creative time. I started making music with friends, trying to get little gigs, learning my craft. I was very inspired by the people I heard play, like Joni Mitchell and Townes Van Zandt – I was quite astounded the first time I saw him. I never imagined I would end up recording [Van Zandt’s] Pancho and Lefty, which became a real central part of my repertoire.

I had the most extraordinarily loving parents. We were a very close family and I had a wonderful upbringing in Virginia. Then one day I just kind of said to them, right, I’m out of here, I’m going to New York. And, looking back now, as a parent, I just really can’t believe I put them through that. But they knew I had to follow my own course. They couldn’t have been more supportive, because when I got up there I ended up getting married [to songwriter Tom Slocum] and having my first daughter [at 22] and then my marriage broke up a year later. I went back home with my daughter and it was always a safe haven. It was like, everything’s okay, you have a home as long as you want it. There was never any judgment or anything like that.

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I think my parents were probably convinced they could stop worrying about me when my first record [1969’s Gliding Bird] came out. All of a sudden your daughter’s got her picture on an album cover! They were proud and I think they were also relieved. I actually dedicated that record to them. Over time they got to know all my band members; when we played in the area we would always go to visit them. And we would have a little football game in the front yard and they would have a barbecue for everyone. My parents became part of the whole deal.

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I really believe no one would have paid me any attention if it wasn’t for Gram [Parsons, with whom she made the seminal albums GP and Grievous Angel]. When I met him I had not found my own voice. I was an imitator; you have to start that way. But I really do believe that it was Gram who gave me… not just my voice, but he taught me about understanding music and feeling music, the way it came through me. Of course, I certainly had something to build on, but he was that last rocket boost and, after that, everything kind of fell into place.

I’d like to tell my younger self that though it will be very difficult when Gram dies [in 1973, aged 26], it will be okay again, eventually. That was a very hard time because I really felt I had found where I was supposed to be. Even though I probably assumed that at some point I would make a record on my own, that was something I wasn’t even thinking about. I just was thinking about what we would do together. Musically, I mean. Then suddenly I’d lost a friend and a teacher, someone I felt I still had so much to learn from. It was devastating. But I had wonderful support from my family and my musical friends, and they helped me take one step at a time. I was nourished and I gathered strength and was able to move forward.

If I could go back to my younger self, especially in the most difficult times, I would just say, don’t worry. Just do what you feel in your heart and everything will be all right. Because it always did turn out okay. There was a time when I went into deep debt over a project, The Ballad of Sally Rose [the 1985 concept album based loosely on her relationship with Parsons, previously described by Harris as “a commercial disaster”]. But I don’t have any regrets about doing it at all because it was real creative reclaiming. After that I had to work my way back up but then, all of a sudden, I did this record called Trio with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton [a multi-million seller in 1987 and her biggest success]. So the creative chances always seemed to come along. Certainly, there were times when it seemed like I was treading water. But I didn’t really have any other talents – the only thing I knew how to do was sing so, in a sense, I had no choice.

If I could spend time with anyone just one more time it would be my father. He died very suddenly and I was not there. My mother ended up coming to live with me, and she lived with me for 21 years. My parents were so close, they were  almost like one entity. So, in the 21 years that my mother lived with me, we became the greatest friends. Of course, we’d always loved each other, but now we travelled together, we did many things together and I got to know her as a person. But, with my father, I never got that chance. Even though he was an extraordinary influence on me. He was my hero. He was a war hero [Marine Corps officer Walter Harris spent 10 months as a prisoner-of-war during the Korean war], but he was also my hero as a father, as a husband, as a brother, as a neighbour. He knew I loved him, but there were conversations that I wish we could have had. I wish I’d spent more time with him, maybe under the hood of a car – he was a great mechanic. He was also a wonderful gardener. They’re the gifts he had, that I wish I could have shared with him more. I wish I could tell him how much he meant to me, even though I think he knew.

If I could live one day again it would be when my second daughter was born. With my first one, I didn’t really know much about babies or being a mother. And I suppose my life was still a little rocky at that point. But with my second daughter, my husband [producer Brian Ahern] and I had a great relationship. We both already had daughters from other marriages and having a child together was a combination of our love and respect and regard for each other, and the life we were going to have, becoming a family with the other daughters. Yes, at that point, the world was in a perfect place and all the planets were aligned.

Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers release their upcoming album, Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert, on September 3

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