"Icon." Singer and songwriter Emmylou Harris pauses to ponder the word, as if examining an unfamiliar garment that doesn't look like it fits.
"What is an icon?" she muses. "Sounds like a missile or something. You have to be around a long time to be an icon, don't you? Or can you be a young icon? I don't know. You tell me."
Harris is being saluted by Carnegie Hall in October with a series of concerts "in celebration of an American icon," so she'll have to wear the word whether she thinks it fits or not. In truth, she has created an astounding body of work that has made her one of the most revered and respected musicians of her generation. Her new CD, Stumble into Grace, is being hailed as yet another masterwork. Containing some of the finest songwriting of her career, it is the work of an artist in full bloom, rather than some venerated legend of days gone by.
Stumble into Grace contains musical textures provided by Buddy and Julie Miller and the McGarrigle Sisters, Anna and Kate. These artists, along with Steve Earle and Patty Griffin, are among the peers and protégés of Emmylou Harris who are participating in this month's tribute, with appearances in Zankel Hall leading up to Harris's own concert on Saturday, October 25, in Isaac Stern Auditorium.
"Basically, it's their shows," says Harris of the four Zankel Hall events. "We have all sung together before. So each night I'm going to be sitting in on one or two songs, I imagine. Then we're hoping to have them hang around and do more together on my show on Saturday."
Earle, Griffin, the Millers, and the McGarrigles are just a few of the hundreds of gifted collaborators that Harris has had through the years. She came of age musically with the late, legendary Gram Parsons, and, since then, has worked with such country stars as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, The Judds, Alison Krauss, Tammy Wynette, and many others.
But as her reputation as a peerless song interpreter and a performer of rare integrity spread, her relationships extended well beyond the country community. Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, The Band, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen, and others have also recorded with her.
Harris's solo LP Pieces of the Sky electrified the music world in 1975, becoming the first of eight consecutive million sellers. The record gave newfound respect to the country-music idiom and was followed by four equally acclaimed collections in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Harris led the way back to traditional American sounds with Roses in the Snow (bluegrass), Angel Band (gospel), and Trio, the lovingly hand-stitched Appalachian collection with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton.
It was Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska that inspired her to renew herself as a songwriter. She'd begun her career with original material, but rose to fame by introducing outstanding songs by others, such as "To Daddy" and "Two More Bottles of Wine."
"Maybe I just felt like what I wanted to say was being said, written by other people. I thought, 'These are the songwriters, and I'm the singer.' And I was never unhappy with that role, even now. But when Nebraska came out, I was so knocked over by the writing on that record. At that point, I was a bit tired, artistically, and felt the need for a change. I'd had the idea for this concept record for maybe three or four years, so that's when I thought, 'Right! In order for me to continue as an artist, I've got to push myself a little more.'" The result was the acclaimed The Ballad of Sally Rose, her first self-composed collection.
In the 1990s, Harris embraced the emerging Americana movement promoting "roots music" styles. In fact, two of her ten Grammy Awards to date are for works that won for "Best Contemporary Folk Recording," the category that honors Americana albums. Those were for her CDs Wrecking Ball (1995) and Red Dirt Girl (2000). She is also on 2001's landmark Grammy winner, O Brother Where Art Thou? These records find Harris, 56, exploring an entirely new musical style, one that is uniquely hers. It combines folk instrumentation with electronic elements, world-music sounds, country inflections, and rock rhythms.
"The more eclectic the better," she says. "Never underestimate an audience. Never play down to an audience. You should always be pushing. Audiences want to be surprised, I think. They want you to just hit them with your best shot. Besides, it's a way of keeping fresh. I've always fed off the people around me and the energy around me." And her collaborators at Carnegie Hall are a case in point.
"Of the artists who are joining me in New York, I go back furthest with the McGarrigles," Harris says. "As I've gotten older, I've renewed friendships and intensified friendships, especially with them. Let's face it: I spent most of my adult life on a bus with a bunch of guys, my 'brothers.' That was a great thing. But I didn't get a chance to be with too many women. That's changed as I've gotten older. So one of the goals I set for this record was that we be real collaborators. I might do a record with just the three of us one of these days.
"Steve Earle would be next. I was on my way home from dinner in downtown Nashville in, I think, 1984. We decided to stop at the Bluebird Cafe to see who was playing. The sign said, 'Steve Earle & The Dukes.' I said, 'That can't possibly be the guy's real name. It's too cool.' We went inside. Steve did 'The Devil's Right Hand,' and I thought it was a fantastic piece of songwriting. And then he began making those great records."
She sang on several of Earle's CDs and has recorded his songs "Guitar Town" and "Goodbye." They have also performed together at benefit shows for progressive political causes.
"I met Buddy Miller when he was playing guitar for Jim Lauderdale," Harris continues. "They opened for us in 1991 or so, when we did a pretty extensive tour overseas. And I don't think I heard Buddy speak a word! We would just kind of nod at each other. Later, I sang with Jim in L.A., and that's when I met Julie. Shortly after that, they moved to Nashville. Buddy and Julie were making a record and asked me to sing on it. Gradually, one gets to know Buddy. You get to know Julie right away. Anyway, we had a wonderful evening in the studio together.
"When we started recording Wrecking Ball, I was thinking, 'How the heck am I going to take it on the road?' I thought, 'I'll bet Buddy would be the guy.' I just had this feeling that he could do anything that was asked of him. I definitely made the right call there." Buddy Miller has been Harris's guitarist ever since. He and Julie also continue to be record makers, both individually and as a couple.
The 1995 Wrecking Ball sessions are also where Harris became aware of Patty Griffin.
"She was working on her own record in the same studio," she recalls. "I heard these songs, and I couldn't believe it! How could somebody like that hide in plain sight? It was unbelievable to me that I'd never heard of her. She blew me away with 'Let Him Fly' and 'Sweet Lorraine.' Those are the two that stick out in my mind. So I met her. She was so lovely and shy. I became an instant fan." Griffin sang on the Red Dirt Girl CD. Emmylou Harris has recorded her "One Big Love" (2000) and "Falling Down" (1999, with Linda Ronstadt).
"Emmylou Harris is an incredible performer, and she's curated an extraordinary mini-festival for us," states Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Robert Harth. "It's exactly what we hoped for. This will be the first of many. We've created a number of partnerships, and one of those is with Nonesuch Records. So in addition to Emmylou, there are Youssou N'Dour, Caetano Veloso, and many other possibilities for us. I'm excited about our expanded horizons."
Robert K. Oermann is a Nashville-based entertainment writer with seven books, more than 3,000 magazine and newspaper articles, dozens of scripts for television and radio, and 89 sets of record-album liner notes in his résumé.