I met Emmylou in a big London hotel. The window of our room overlooked Marylebone railway station and she seemed quite struck when I told her what lay below, namely the site of key scenes in The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night.
The interview appeared in MOJO, June 1994.
Country queen Emmylou Harris has recently made an exquisite, superfine record – Cowgirl’s Prayer, her first for Asylum – and plays the UK in late May. By September she’ll release an album made with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, a follow-up to their 1987 collaboration Trio. Meanwhile she’s living peacefully in Nashville and sharing with her friend Nanci Griffith a new passion for the imported Irish cigarettes Sweet Afton. (“Her band and mine always bring some back, like drug runners. They’re lovely, little old lady cigarettes!”)
Your new album, Cowgirl’s Prayer, sounds like a hymn to fortitude. What do you look for in the songs you select?
It’s always the lyric that I look to first. It’s always about the emotions. I’ve always been drawn to songs that deal with our vulnerability but also our undercurrent of strength – because you do pretty much get through everything. Hank Williams wrote I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, but while you’re here, you just have to get by.
You’ve always seemed partial to the sadder songs…
Apparently. I think they have more meat to them. The hardest thing for me is to find a happy song that isn’t whitewashing life. In truth, happiness and sadness have to co-exist.
The track from which the title comes is by Leonard Cohen; one of the best tracks, Crescent City, is by Lucinda Williams…
Yes, she’s maybe my favourite artist right now. But, like me, she doesn’t get played on country radio…
Nor did Kelly Willis [another great female artist of the 1990s] and MCA Nashville have just dropped her.
No! Really? Kelly Willis is extremely good, and so is Iris DeMent. There are very few country albums coming out that interest me – and they’ve all been dropped!
Over the years you’ve been accepted by both the rock and the country audience, which is not common.
Even when I was having chart success on the country radio, my albums were being bought by an interesting mix. With their computers they would find that people would buy the Talking Heads and they would buy me. They never figured it out and neither did I, but it was nice.
That crossover was pioneered by your friend Gram Parsons. Today his reputation here is greater than ever.
With anybody who is a visionary, which Gram was, there will always be a generation who will discover that, and will look to the people who were ahead of their time and suffered because of it. He never got the mainstream success that he should. But that’s always the way. I was the beneficiary of what he did: my album came out in ’75, he died in ’73, and I had almost immediate acceptance from both rock and country, so I think he possibly would as well.
You were recently inducted into the Grand Ol’ Opry. How did a hippy-generation folk singer wind up so deep in country music?
I always was accepted by the country old guard: there was never this grudging thing of, Well, she’s successful but she’s not one of us. But this was nice, being an outsider myself, coming to country through the back door. The Grand Ol’ Opry represents all the music you revere, and suddenly you’re part of that history, even as a convert. In the beginning, when I was a folk singer, I did country almost tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t hear it the proper way, and it was working with Gram that opened my ears – such a graceful simplicity to it, a poetry in how much passion there could be in a phrase with the simplest approach. Since then I’ve found country audiences from Japan to the old Eastern bloc. If a song speaks about something that you feel, people will always understand it.