- Cullman, Alabama


April 6, 2014

SOUTHERN STYLE: Always a lady, Emmylou Harris

Here’s the story of a Southern lady who hails from just down the road in Birmingham, Alabama.

I first heard her rendition of a song that I’d heard all of my life. It went something like this, “Round my door the leaves are fallin’ a cold, wild wind will come, there’s someone for me somewhere, but I still miss someone”, and it instantly made me want to learn more about this woman who sang that old ballad in a crystal clear voice with perfect pitch, in a tone of voice that I can only describe as “Southern country soprano.”

Her name is Emmylou Harris, and at that time, somewhere in the early ’70s, she looked like an Indian princess with a guitar around her neck. When she stepped on stage, people stopped talking and really listened. She was demure, a little shy, she sang with her eyes closed and she somehow, quietly commanded the rapt attention of everyone in the audience.

She stood out in a crowd of other “girl singers” because of three things: 1) she could really sing; 2) she usually wore long floor-length skirts, dresses or pants that were wide and looked like a skirt; and 3) she was always, without exception, a lady.

A pioneer in bringing women to the forefront of country music in the days when men like Waylon and Willie and the boys, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and others made headlines for fast living, hard drinking and outlaw music, Emmylou could walk out among any of them and make them remember the manners their mommas taught them.  

Emmylou is a star. She’s never resorted to twerking, she hasn’t had any wardrobe malfunctions that a safety pin didn’t fix before she went on stage, there was never a scandal involving drugs with this star of the country stage. She just won over her fans with her voice.

And what a voice it was, and still is.

From her solo debut album, “Pieces of the Sky” (1975) to “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” (1978) and “Blue Kentucky Girl,” Emmylou Harris gained respect and recognition in an industry where people have one-hit wonders.

Born in Birmingham, the child of a decorated Marine Corps pilot who spent a year-and-a-half in a POW camp in Korea in the early ’50s, Harris spent most of her childhood in North Carolina. She attended college at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, but dropped out to pursue a career on the country music stage. She met her husband, Tom Slocum, while performing in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. They married in 1969.

The couple eventually wound up where most aspiring country musicians do — on Nashville’s Music Row. The marriage failed, but Emmylou’s career took a turn for the better when she teamed up with Gram Parsons as his backup female vocalist. She would far outdistance her protégé, who died in 1973.

She formed her own group, the Angel Band, signed with Warner Brothers’ Reprise Records, and released her first major solo debut album, “Pieces of the Sky” in 1975. She married her record producer, Brian Ahern, who guided her career through her following ten albums.

In 1976, she recorded her second album, a top seller titled “Elite Hotel”, with the Hot Band, which included two musicians who played with Elvis Presley. The little ’Bama girl won a Grammy for the Best Country Female Vocal Performance for that album. It was her breakthrough album, casting her in the top ranks of country artists of the day. She would release five more albums before the end of the decade.

Her bluegrass album, “Roses In The Snow” went gold, as did Evangeline. But the ’80s saw her marriage breaking up, and her return to Nashville.

Another collaboration, “Wrecking Ball” in 1996, was hailed as a “rock-oriented masterpiece” that showcased Harris' vocal range on tracks written by Neil Young (the title track, which featured Young on backup vocals) and Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love") among others.

Critics hailed “Wrecking Ball” as an enormous success. The album won her a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. With renewed energy, Emmylou released a three-album retrospective, “Portraits”.

In 2000, she released her first album of original material in five years. Critically acclaimed, “Red Dirt Girl” included featured appearances of giants in the rock industry, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews.

She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame 2008. In 2011, Emmylou released her 21st studio album. Recently, she partnered with Rodney Crowell on an album that won a Grammy for the 2014 “Best Americana Album”.

We watched as she grew as a performer, songwriter and musician. We sang along with her on ballads such as “Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town” and “Making Believe” and we watched her long raven hair turn as silver as a moonbeam. Through it all, personal triumphs and heartaches “by the number”, she remained a true lady. She never made her private life public, never pulled any publicity stunts, she just sang, and sang and sang… and we love her still.

(And I hope someone sends this to her because I sure would love to see her at Rock The South!)

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