One of the truly distinctive and prolific American female singers to emerge in the last 50 years, Emmylou Harris (1947- ) has made important and popular recordings in a wide range of musical styles: folk, rock, country, and alternative. Harris's singing career, now in its fourth decade, has been marked by major contributions as a songwriter, as a lead vocalist, and—perhaps most notably—as an unforgettable harmony vocalist whose ethereal voice has accompanied a very wide range of the most talented songwriters of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She has been the recipient of numerous musical awards, including 12 Grammy Awards for country and folk singing.
While Emmylou has come to be known as one of the most admired women in contemporary country music, her influence and musical activity extend far beyond it. She has recorded with many and diverse musical artists, including Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Neil Young, The Chieftains, Lyle Lovett, Roy Orbison, The Pretenders, The Band, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Beck, Elvis Costello, Beth Orton, Jason and the Scorchers, Johnny Cash, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Lucinda Williams, George Jones, and many other prominent musicians.
Emmylou Harris was born at East End Memorial Hospital in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on April 2, 1947, the daughter of Walter "Buck" Harris, an officer with the U.S. Marines, and Eugenia (Murchison) Harris. She has an older brother, Walter Rutland Harris Jr. On her mother's side, Harris's family can be traced to farmers in Chilton and Elmore counties, near the cities of Clanton and Wetumpka. Emmylou's maternal grandparents lived in Birmingham. Her father was captured in 1952 during the Korean War and spent 10 months as a prisoner of war after he was shot down while piloting a Marine airplane. Emmylou briefly attended elementary school in Woodlawn; she was about six years old and in first grade when her father was transferred to Cherry Point, North Carolina. When she was nine, the family was transferred to Quantico and later Woodbridge, Virginia, where she graduated from the recently desegregated Gar-Field Senior High School as class valedictorian. Also while in Woodbridge, Harris won the "Miss Woodbridge" beauty pageant and was awarded scholarship money and a tiara. Her grandfather, a Birmingham native, gave Emmylou her first guitar—a $30 Kay obtained from a Birmingham pawn shop—for her 16th birthday.
After high school, she won a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (1965-1967), where she studied theater, began to learn songs by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and performed with a local folk music duo. In late 1967, she dropped out of UNC-Greensboro and was admitted to Boston University, but instead moved to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she played the clubs and coffee houses on the burgeoning local folk scene—Gerde's Folk City was a favorite—and occasionally shared the stage with prominent singer-songwriters like Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg. Success was a few years away, however, and Harris kept day jobs as a waitress and bookstore clerk while singing in the folk clubs by night and living at the YWCA.
In 1969, Harris married a songwriter named Tom Slocum and the following year released her first album, Gliding Bird, on the short-lived folk label (reissued in 1979 on Emus Records). At about the same time, Harris' marriage to Slocum began to fall apart and the couple soon divorced. Harris, who lived for a brief time on her own with her newborn daughter Hallie in Nashville, Tennessee, was forced, after struggling financially, to move back in with her parents, who were then living in Washington, D.C.
Harris's first musical breakthrough occurred in 1971 when the musicians Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons—both had been members of the highly influential rock group the Byrds—heard her perform at a small nightclub in the D.C. area. In 1972, Parsons invited her to join him in Los Angeles to work on his first solo album, GP. Harris toured with Parsons' band, The Grievous Angels, until 1973. After Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973, Harris returned to the D.C. area and formed a country band that included some members of the Gram Parsons band, playing with them until her 1975 major-label recording debut, Pieces of the Sky, when she formed the first version of her group, the Hot Band. Over the years, the Hot Band included major musicians and singers such as Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell and Hank DeVito. It was on Pieces of the Sky that Emmylou recorded one of her most famous songs, "Boulder to Birmingham," a bittersweet farewell to Gram Parsons, in which some of the most emotional lyrics ("The hardest part is knowing I'll survive") are sung in the haunting, whispered, miraculous voice that would launch Emmylou's career as a major American singer.
Although her career in the 1970s was shaped by her collaborations with Gram Parsons, her work since that time has greatly surpassed that of her former mentor and friend. Propelled by an increasing reputation as a harmony singer, Harris appeared in major sessions from the 1970s such as Bob Dylan's Desire (1975) album and the recordings for the documentary concert film The Last Waltz (1978), featuring The Band and directed by Martin Scorcese. Known for many years as a remarkable interpreter of songs written by others, Emmylou has since the 1980s slowly built a reputation as an excellent writer and co-writer of her own songs. On The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985), for example, Harris co-wrote all of the songs, and her Red Dirt Girl (2000) featured a number of songs that she composed herself, as did Stumble Into Grace (2003). Harris's career during the 1980s and 1990s led her through a number of different genres, and she made important contributions to both the country and rock formats during these years, until yet another of her major breakthroughs occurred with her memorable performance on the Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball (1995) sessions, which paired her with singers such as Neil Young, took her work in experimental musical directions, and introduced her to a new audience of alternative country music fans through her renditions on that album of songs by Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, and Julie Miller.
In recent years, Harris has blended music and political activism. Since 1999, Harris has been spearheading an annual benefit tour called Concerts for a Landmine Free World. All proceeds from these concerts are contributed to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's (VVAF), who in turn assist innocent victims of armed conflicts around the world. The tour also benefits the VVAF's work to raise awareness of the global crisis. Harris is also a supporter of animal rights and an active member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Currently a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her mother, Eugenia Murchison Harris, Emmylou is the mother of two adult daughters: Hallie and Meghann.
James Emmett Ryan
Published December 3, 2007
Last updated January 21, 2010