Emmylou Harris is known for many things: a voice that rings like a bell through the night, an unparalleled artistic integrity and collaborations with everyone from Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton and Don Williams.
But she’s also a tireless advocate for a variety of causes. Whether it’s a shelter for the homeless, an inner-city dental clinic, banning landmines or saving the Appalachian Mountains, chances are you’ll find Harris lending her heart and voice to the cause.
The issue closest to her heart these days is animals. She has turned part of her Nashville property into a shelter for dogs that have reached their euthanasia date at the city’s animal control facility. Called Bonaparte’s Retreat, it’s named for the black poodle mix who was her constant touring companion until his death eight years ago.
Today, Harris hosts dog adoption days, benefit concerts and has placed nearly 200 shelter dogs in forever homes. Her latest project is Crossroads Campus , an organization that pairs shelter pets with at-risk individuals.
CMT Edge: Did you grow up in a home filled with animals?
Harris: I only had one dog until I was 17. She died, and I went away to college and I started my itinerant life as a musician. I just didn’t think having a dog was possible.
But my love of animals is not just an aberration. My father was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Virginia when World War II broke out. He joined the Marine Corps, met my mother and got married, and that ended his veterinarian career. But he loved animals, my mother loved animals, his mother was a huge animal lover, my aunt was always rescuing dogs and cats and my mother’s father loved dogs. So it’s in the blood, I guess.
When I was a child, I thought how great it would be to live in a big house and take in strays. That dream went on the back burner until one day about a year after Bonaparte died I was looking at my big backyard and I thought, “You know, I could build some dog runs and at least help with the overflow at the shelter.”
You’ve certainly grown beyond that simple aspiration.
Once you start dipping your toe into that, you realize the enormity of the problem. I mean, during this short conversation we’re having, there will be dozens or more healthy dogs and cats put down because they’ve run out of time at the shelter. It’s a problem that can be solved with spaying and neutering. And also getting people to foster shelter animals to give them an extra window of time until they find a home. It’s just terrible that we say, “Oh, well, we hate to do it, but we have to.” It’s really a problem that can be solved. It doesn’t have to be this way.
You devote so much time and resources to Bonaparte’s Retreat. What is the most rewarding part of it for you?
It’s knowing that a dog could give so much joy to a person or a family and deserves to live out its life being cared for. You know, human beings have kind of created the companion dog over the centuries. I believe we have a responsibility to all animals, even animals that we eat for food, but don’t get me started on that. I’m not promoting vegetarianism — although I am one — but I do believe we have to do something about the horror of factory farming. But that’s another interview! I just believe we have a sacred responsibility to the creatures that we share the world with. They give us so much joy and they improve our lives so much.
Do you still tour with dogs after Bonaparte passed away?
Bonaparte was really people-friendly, and he loved the road and the hotels and the venues, so he pretty much traveled with me everywhere for 10 years. Now I take two big dogs on the road. I have a big black dog and a big yellow dog that get along fantastically well and really love the road. In fact, they get upset when I have to go out without them.