Saturday 24 February 2018

Emmylou Elegies for my lost friends

Nick Kelly

Is there a more beloved figure in the world of country and roots music than Emmylou Harris? The 64-year-old, who's playing Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre next month, has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton, from Willie Nelson to Conor Oberst.

But her first significant collaboration came in the early 1970s when she sang in Gram Parsons' touring band The Fallen Angels and appeared on his last album Grievous Angel.

Parsons' death in 1973 at only 26, from an accidental overdose of drink and drugs, had a profound effect on Emmylou, prompting her to write her famous elegy in his memory: "I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/

"If I thought I could see, I could see your face."

Parsons' legend has grown in the decades since his demise in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, California -- he is feted as one of the founders of country-rock and is mythologised as a sort of James Dean-type anti-hero who will never grow old in the public imagination.

Now, more than 35 years later, Emmylou is taking stock of her old friend's short life and their time spent playing country music together.

The opening song on her new album Hard Bargain, titled The Road, is addressed directly to Parsons -- and has an emotional directness that can bring a lump to your throat.

"I can still remember every song we played/ Long ago when we were younger ... /How could I see a future then Where you would not grow old / With such a fire in our belly/ Such a hunger in our souls /I know I didn't save you/ And no one is to blame/ But the road we shared together once/ Will never be the same again."

This is music from the gut, pure and true, laying it all on the line. Was it difficult to write a song so open and exposed?

"I've been very open over the years expressing how important Gram was to me," says Emmylou from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. "I was 24 or 25 when I first met him. His influence was enormous. Working with Gram, I really found my place and my voice, and how I wanted to use it. It was the beginning for me, in a way, as a serious singer with something to say and a way to say it."

And what about the mythology that has built up around Parsons since his death?

"People think it's very glamorous to die young. But it's just a waste and a tragedy," she says mournfully.

Another song on the new album that hits you right between the eyes is Darlin' Kate -- Emmylou's tribute to her late friend Kate McGarrigle, who passed away last year from a rare form of cancer.

Along with her sister Anna, Kate was the matriarch of Canada's most celebrated musical dynasty (a dynasty which included her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III and their children Martha and Rufus Wainwright).

Emmylou and Kate sang on each other's records down the years -- they last collaborated together on Emmylou's 2008 album All I Intended To Be.

Was Darlin' Kate a difficult song to write or did it just come pouring out?

"In one sense it poured out. In another sense, I cried a lot when I was writing it," answers Emmylou. "I sent it to Anna early on to get her approval. I definitely wanted Anna and Lily (Anna's daughter, Kate's niece) to come down to sing on it. But in the end we decided that I was gonna do all the harmonies myself. But I did my best to recreate the McGarrigle sound on it myself.

"But we did some filming of a few songs for the DVD that comes with the record and I was able to have them come down to sing on the filmed version. They've all told me that it means a lot. But in my mind, I always feel that Kate would have written a better song (laughs).

"She was an extraordinary musician. She and Anna have been very inspirational to me. I was lucky to be able to write with them. But more importantly just to hang with them. I love their company and I kinda wanted to be a McGarrigle!" she laughs.

Another song that's close to her heart is New Orleans. Emmylou recorded some of her finest albums in The Big Easy, including her seminal 1995 masterpiece Wrecking Ball and the classic Red Dirt Girl in 2000.

Now she has paid musical tribute to the city's resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"The thing about that song that I love is it's got a real vibe of 'We shall overcome'. It's a joyous song about coming back from the dead, so to speak. People have written that city off. But it's not about to go away. The spirit of the people there is heroic. Life is gonna knock us all down at one point and we just have to get back to up. They certainly are an inspiration to people everywhere."

When not touring or recording, Emmylou spends her time working in her dog rescue pound. Absolutely nuts about mutts, she has penned a song on Hard Bargain, titled Big Black Dog, about her four-legged friends ...

"I have four dogs of my own. Two of them travel with me. One of them is Bella, the big black dog, and I have a big yellow dog. And in the back yard, we have a dog rescue where we have five dogs in the bunkhouse and Nicky up here in the office.

'They're all up for adoption and then we have another half a dozen dogs in foster homes around the community but they're all under what we call Bonaparte's Retreat. That's the name of my rescue operation, named after my dog Bonaparte that passed away in 2002.

"I'm very active in the community -- walking dogs, scooping poop. We have dog adoption days and we take all the foster dogs to the park on Saturdays and meet with the foster parents."

Another highlight of the new album is My Name Is Emmett Till, Emmylou's chilling re-telling of the racist murder of a 14-year-old black boy who dared to chat to a white woman in 1950s Mississippi. The case helped spur the fight for civil rights in the US.

"It wasn't like the story needed to be revisited but I heard them talking about him on public radio here in the US and I just got the words in my head of him saying 'I was born a black boy'.

"So the idea of telling the story in his words came to me. It was putting yourself in his shoes. What I wanted to say was, yes, he changed history and achieved a certain level of fame but he should never have had to pay that price. He should have just lived an ordinary life."

Of course, America has come along way since Emmett Till, with Barack Obama in the White House ...

"The euphoria when Obama was elected! I felt we really were the country I thought and hoped we were. I think it's extraordinary to go from Emmett Till to only a few decades later having a black family in the White House.

"I was fortunate to be invited to sing when Paul McCartney was being honoured at The White House. To see Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder on stage together singing Ebony And Ivory to the First family of America, I wanted to weep. The feeling of joy and hope was so strong.

"We really must follow the better angels of our nature. We do it sometimes. But it is possible. Barack and Michelle. There's something emanating from those two. You really do feel it."

Emmylou Harris plays The Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, on May 28. Hard Bargain (Nonesuch/Warners) is out next week

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