NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Emmylou Harris: Country’s Timeless Songbird

It Was High Time for Her to Enter the Country Music Hall of Fame

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The induction of Emmylou Harris into the Country Music Hall of Fame, for me at least, was one of the most special moments in country music history that I have been privileged to witness.

I can’t think of a person who has done more good for country music than Harris. As a singer, songwriter, performer, bandleader, duet partner, teacher, musicologist and social activist, no one has eclipsed her contributions to the genre. Nashville owes her a huge debt of gratitude for doing what she did in saving the Ryman Auditorium from the wrecking ball. She has done yeoman work with Concerts for a Landmine Free World and on behalf of animal rights.

Her career covers modern folk music, California country-rock, mainstream country, bluegrass, Americana, gospel, blues and beyond, and she’s done it all with aplomb and finesse. Her musical partnership with the young Gram Parsons did much to elevate her musical profile and hasten her musical education, but it did fully as much for Parsons.

When it finally came her turn in the barrel at country radio and the main stations dropped her from their playlists in one of country music’s periodic youth movements, she accepted it gracefully. Unlike some artists who grow bitter or reclusive once their day in the sun has passed, Harris moved on to other avenues of expression. I’ll never forget hearing a DJ from a major country station say, as dismissively as he possibly could, “Emmylou Harris’ voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard. My listeners will never hear it again.” So be it, Harris seemed to say, and she never looked back.

Honored Sunday (April 27) at a medallion ceremony, her memories were reprised and songs from her career were sung. It was a simple ceremony, but one replete with elegance. There were many, many people in the audience from her past and present, proving that she and country music are so intertwined as to be inseparable.

All of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees are special in their own way. Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman was a venerable pioneer from country’s earliest days, and he has been long overlooked. The Statler Brothers are one of country’s all-time great vocal quartets. They also introduced the funniest band in country music history, with their recordings as Lester “Roadhog” Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys. The Statlers will be inducted alongside Tom T. Hall on June 29. The latter is one of the influential songwriters whose emphasis on narrative storytelling helped change country’s direction. But Emmylou Harris has been and continues to be a bit of everything that country has sorely needed. An empathetic and compassionate spirit who truly lives, as well as loves, the music.

That was reflected in the respect accorded her by the artists saluting her in song at the ceremony. Buddy Miller, who has been her collaborator and lead guitarist, dueted with Patty Griffin on “Love Hurts,” the Boudleaux Bryant song made famous by the Everly Brothers. Lucinda Williams sang an expressive version of “Boulder to Birmingham,” which was inspired by Parsons. At a reception after the ceremony, Williams said she had never sung the song before but now plans to record it.

On stage at the ceremony, Guy Clark talked about the circumstances of co-writing “Bang the Drum Slowly” with Harris. The sung was written as a tribute to Harris’ father after his death and she needed a song of both tribute and consolation. “I was just there as cheerleader,” he said. He sang the song tenderly, accompanying himself on guitar.

Miller returned with Griffin and former Harris bandmates Vince Gill, Sam Bush and Jon Randall for an uplifting and rousing run through “Green Pastures.”

One of these days I’m going to compile a large Emmylou Harris musical family tree, linking her with all of her influences and all those who she has influenced, along with songs she’s written, co-written or dueted or sung harmony on. Those links alone will run from Bob Dylan to Roy Orbison, from Neil Young to Linda Ronstadt. Besides Miller, Gill, Bush and Randall, her former band members include Ricky Skaggs, producers Tony Brown and Emory Gordy Jr., Rodney Crowell and guitarists James Burton and Albert Lee.

Harris’ next album, All I Intended to Be, is due to be released June 10 on Nonesuch Records. This is Harris’ first solo release since 2003’s Stumble Into Grace. The singer-songwriter recorded the new album over a four-year period with her longtime producer Brian Ahern at his studio in Nashville. All I Intended to Be will contain original material and some of Harris’ favorite songs with guest vocals from Dolly Parton, Gill and Miller.

Her music remains timeless and spans audiences and across generations. May she record forever.