Emmylou Harris has an impressive 14 Grammys plus a lifetime achievement award.
But who is Emmylou Harris, and how did she get her start?
We wanted to know more about this incredible artist, so we dug into the details.
Let’s dive in!
Emmylou Harris’ Early Life
Emmylou Harris was born in 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama. She spent most of her childhood growing up in North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia. Exceptionally gifted, she graduated valedictorian of her class and won a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
In college, she studied music by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Like many famous musicians, Harris dropped out of college and moved to New York to pursue her career. Folk music boomed in the 1960s, and Harris released her first album, Gliding Bird, in that flavor.
At this early stage of her career, Harris established herself as an interpreter of other composers’ works. She excelled in remaking songs such as I’ll Never Fall in Love Again (Burt Bacharach), and I Saw the Light (Hank Williams).
Singer for Gram Parsons
Due to an unsuccessful marriage and a new baby, Harris moved in with her parents in Maryland. Soon, she started performing as part of a trio with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. The country-rock group Flying Burrito Brothers saw her perform.
Lead Chris Hillman recommended her to Gram Parsons (the Byrds), who needed a female solo artist. The collaboration was born.
Emmylou toured with Gram Parsons’ new band, the Fallen Angels. She shone in the vocal harmonies delivered by the group. In 1973, they worked on the album Grievous Angel. Parsons died from an accidental drug overdose, and the album was released posthumously in 1974.
Parsons is recognized for influencing country and rock music by blending them seamlessly together. Harris’ work with him gave her enormous exposure.
In 1975, her first major-label album, Pieces of the Sky, came out with Reprise Records. In it, she continued her eclectic style of remaking covers, including songs by the Beatles, Merle Haggard, and the Louvin Brothers.
From The Hot Band to Country Star
Pieces of the Sky was one of the most expensive country music albums of the time. Harris had her first big hit with Herb Pedersen If I Could Only Win Your Love. Everyone recognized her talent. Warner Brother executives said they would record her if she got a “hot band.” Indeed, she did.
Emmylou Harris used her straight-A mentality and pulled together The Hot Band. The group included Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen Harden. She also got former Parsons band members and went on tour, dovetailing around Elvis Presley.
In 1975, Elite Hotel became Emmylou’s first number one album and won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. She continued her growing list of collaborations with artists across the music spectrum, including Guy Clark, Neil Young, and her early influence, Bob Dylan.
Harris’ singing and songwriting success continued. She won a Grammy with Roy Orbison in 1980 for That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again. Emmylou also established strong working relationships with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Pardon. Their Trio disc in 1987 was the most significant commercial success of Harris’ career.
Emmylou Harris’ Best Known Songs
Red Dirt Girl
Red Dirt Girl is written from Emmylou’s own heart and soul, reflecting on her youth in Alabama. Guy Clark wanted a strictly Harris written record, and it took her nearly five years to write it.
The Red Dirt Girl is a very straightforward country story we can all relate to – someone from a small town who has choices to make. Listening to it repeatedly, we can find depth in the meaning of the lyrics.
Emmylou Harris says, “… I much prefer the pre-made-up song.” Orphan Girl, written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, shows Harris’ gift for finding great writing and putting her own spin on it. The song is a story about Welch’s childhood adoption. With producer Daniel Lanois and Harris’ vocals, it becomes a powerful rhythm we love.
Pancho and Lefty
Harris has a way of hearing songs and lyrics, then finding a way to retell them in her powerful way. She heard Townes Van Zandt perform Pancho and Lefty in 1968 and was stunned.
Emmylou acknowledges she was not the first to sing the song and didn’t write it. But she made it a pivotal piece in her repertoire. In this song, we can relate to Lefty and the decisions he must live with, all due to Harris’ interpretation.
Is Emmylou Harris Still Performing?
Emmylou Harris is still performing today. Currently touring in the U.S., She also has international dates that include Spain and Canada.
Her life’s work involves activism and supporting young musicians in her collaborations. She performs in annual concerts that benefit various causes, including Habitat for Humanity and Landmine Free World. Bonaparte’s Retreat is a rescue organization named after one of Harris’ rescue dogs.
An Impressive Music Legend
Emmylou Harris is a musical interpreter, taking words and telling stories through the country, folk, and rock genres. She does more than just make music. She makes impressions we want to feel again and again.
What do you find the most amazing about Emmylou Harris?