AUSTIN, Texas — Emmylou Harris found herself surrounded by admirers at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference here Thursday (March 15) — first at a morning interview with film director Jonathan Demme and later at a private afternoon tribute concert. Though she is quick to downplay her accomplishments in the music business, she clearly remains a hero to music lovers.
Harris sat demurely at a table in the center of a small ballroom at the historic Driskill Hotel, graciously chatting with anyone happened to come up. After an hour or so of mingling, Charlie Louvin kicked off the concert by calling Harris one of the greatest artists in country music history, then sang “When I Stop Dreaming,” a Louvin Brothers classic Harris recorded for her 1977 album, Luxury Liner. Sweet-voiced country singer Elizabeth Cook followed the performance with “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” another Louvin Brothers song that became Harris’ first Top 10 single. Charlie Sexton, an Austin rocker, submitted a rendition of “Red Dirt Girl.”
Kelly Willis then stepped up to the stage and offered a heartfelt litany of praises, saying, “There are so many women like me who would love to have the kind of career she’s had.” Accompanied by husband Bruce Robison, Willis sang a Harris original, “Boulder to Birmingham.” Paula Cole emphasized Harris’ personal achievements as a mother and a daughter and offered “Green Pastures.”
Buddy Miller, one of Harris’ closest friends and most devoted collaborators, reached back to 1975 for “One of These Days,” and then made room for the potent duet, “Love Hurts,” with Allison Moorer. The Watson Twins, a new duo with roots in Louisville, Ky., concluded the concert with “Blue Kentucky Girl.”
Over the last 30 years, Harris has sold 15 million albums, and the milestone was recognized with an enormous plaque presented at the music conference.
“I think I might have a career!” she quipped. She also thanked Rhino Records for preserving her legacy — which will continue to be celebrated with a boxed set of rare recordings and new collaborations in September.
“We’re all of the same mind,” she said to the crowd, nearly all of whom work in some way in the music business. Noting that musicians would probably continue to be creative even if they didn’t get paid for it, she added, “We’re like-minded souls, and I don’t think you can ask for more than that.”
Harris did not have an official showcase at SXSW this year, but she did perform a few songs — “Orphan Girl,” “Love Hurts,” “Green Pastures” and “Boulder to Birmingham” — earlier in the day during her interview with Demme.
After singing “Love Hurts,” she discussed the song with the Academy Award-winning director. “It does have that line, ’I’m young, I know,’ and I have to smile a little because I am no longer young,” she said.
Without a note of regret or angst, Harris noted that she is turning 60 on April 2.
“There is something to age that deepens your experience of love,” she said. “Your compassion deepens and when you’re hurt, it’s deeper. … I think every major religion in the world tells us, except for maybe Scientology, that life is suffering. But that is part of the gift of being alive.”
After some awkward giggles from the audience, she got a bigger laugh when she added, “I don’t know why I said that about Scientology. I wanted to be clever. I’m not going to jump up on the couch!”
She spent a sizable part of the interview talking about how Gram Parsons shaped the course of her life. When they met during the early ’70s, she was a single mother and an unknown folk singer in Washington D.C. Backstage at a show, Harris’ babysitter heard Parsons’ friends recommending a harmony singer they had just seen a few nights earlier, but they didn’t know how to find her. Thanks to the attentive babysitter and a lot of serendipity, Harris got the call that changed her life.
Their partnership, which she emphasized was not romantic, “brought me more than I can imagine,” she said, as she considered the extraordinary friends she made from her stellar career in music.
“It’s so amazing how life works,” she reflected. “You’ve got to believe that there’s a plan. … I cannot believe that that wasn’t destined to happen.”