Jay Joyce, who has worked with Patty Griffin and Cage the Elephant, produced Hard Bargain, which Harris describes as “very guitar-laden.” A few days before I spoke with her, she had just added Will Kimbrough to the Red Dirt Boys to play lead guitar on the new tour. Like Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, and Buddy Miller, Kimbrough follows in a long tradition of crack guitarist/songwriters Harris has always kept in her bands because, she says, when they produce new material, she wants to be the first to hear it.
What’s more, Harris has always been generous with her studio time, singing duets alongside many up-and-coming young artists, from Steve Earle to Ryan Adams. But when I mention such magnanimity, Harris deflects the praise.
“I want to surround myself with the people who inspire me. It’s a collaboration where you are the one who benefits because you can’t make music in a vacuum. I see myself as a caretaker, and that means the music has to come through me, and a lot of that means being inspired by other people.”
Has she completely given up on country radio? “Yes,” Harris says without hesitation. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element that you heard whenever you listened to George Jones or Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn or Waylon Jennings.” Harris pauses, runs her fingers through her hair, then whispers, “Oh God, Waylon Jennings!”
Now she’s placing her bets on younger singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Patty Griffin.
As I look back over Harris’s own body of work, what strikes me most is its arc. She never let Nashville dictate the kind of music she would make, and so hers was not a career of ups and downs. You can’t, for instance, pick out the “sellout” record or the “comeback” record; she never sold out and she never went away.
“I had enough success to give me credibility,” she says, “but it wasn’t like I was selling millions of records, which can be a real trap for artists. There are people like Springsteen and Neil Young who sell millions but always still know what they are supposed to do. I think on a smaller scale, I always knew what I was supposed to do. I hope that I’ve always served the song—that was always the most important thing.”
I survey the bank of guitars again and ask Harris if she wrote “The Road” on Gram Parsons’ Gibson. She smiles. “No, but that would have made a good story.”
It occurs to me that this collection of guitars could tell one hell of a good story. I’m sure it’s already engrained in the wood and lurking inside those hollow bodies—a presence, even in absence.