Emmylou Harris has managed to remain true to the music she loves
Click here to see an exclusive video of Emmylou Harris playing “Six White Cadillacs” from her new album.
Emmylou Harris does not need a doorbell. The twelve-time Grammy winner has four barking dogs that let her know I’m standing on the antebellum portico of her two-story brick home that sits roughly where Redoubt No. 3 of the Confederate Army was routed in the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville.
“I hope you like dogs,” Harris says as she tries to corral the canines into a side room where her mother, who lives with Harris and turns ninety this year, sits in a recliner.
“This is my mother, Genie,” she says by way of introduction. We both smile and shake hands. Then Harris turns to me and says, “Actually, it’s Eugenia—that’s a good Southern name, isn’t it?”
Emmylou was born to Walter and Eugenia Harris on April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, Alabama, and while she grew up a “service brat” in the suburbs of D.C., that early Southern landscape has lingered in her imagination. Fifty-three years later, she called her first album of almost all original songs Red Dirt Girl; in April, Harris released her third album of mostly originals, Hard Bargain, and she is about to embark on a summer tour with her band, the Red Dirt Boys.
An aging black Lab pokes her nose against my leg.
“This is Bella,” Harris says, but I recognize her already from a song on Hard Bargain, “Big Black Dog.” Over a thumping bass, Harris sings, “Found her one day down there at the Metro…Waiting in a cage in line for the death row.” She rescued Bella from that fate, and gratitude still seems to lurk deep in the black Lab’s eyes.
Harris points out her back bay window, past blooming wisteria, to a lot behind her yard. “That’s Bonaparte’s Retreat,” she says. It’s a refuge for abandoned dogs that Harris founded in 2004 and named after its inspiration, her first dog, Bonaparte, now buried nearby. Today, Bonaparte’s Retreat takes in strays, dogs left behind after home foreclosures, and those in imminent threat of being put down at the Metro Nashville pound. Then Harris tries to find them a new home. She has placed hundreds of dogs over the last seven years.
“I always had a dream of running an animal refuge,” she says, “but this other job got in the way.” Harris has been on that other job four decades, and the fruits of her labor include forty records and her 2008 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
We adjourn upstairs to the “music room” and settle onto an old sofa. Harris has her platinum hair pulled up loosely with a clip. She is wearing gray sweatpants streaked by this morning’s muddy dog paws.
Across the room, ten guitars stand in two tiers against one wall. Most were gifts from the men who have moved through Harris’s life. There’s a paisley Telecaster from James Burton, a Gibson from songwriter and ex-husband Paul Kennerley, a Martin M-38 from Hank DeVito (given to Harris when she was too pregnant with her second daughter, Meghann, to play the boxier Gibson), a parlor guitar from Buddy Miller, and Mark Knopfler’s signature model. At the far right on the upper tier stands a Gibson J-200 that once belonged to Gram Parsons. On a wall to the left of the guitars hangs a large black-and-white photograph of Parsons singing on an outdoor stage. He appears to be playing that same blond Gibson—but that was a long time ago.
For many who didn’t grow up listening to country music at home, Parsons’ 1974 record, Grievous Angel, was our first glimpse of how deep a vein of American music really ran. It was a revelation.