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Backup to Star: The Evolution of Emmylou Harris

Backup to Star: The Evolution of Emmylou Harris

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).

An illustration of Emmylou Harris singing and playing guitar.

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.  

Orphan Girl

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?

Carl Austin

Tuesday 30th of August 2022

I saw Emmy Lou back in the 80's. I have always loved her and still listen to her a lot! Thank you Emmy Lou!

Sally Whitaker

Monday 29th of August 2022

I met her once backstage in Utah. She inspired me. I always love everything she does. I sang along with much of her music

Rusty Maddox

Monday 15th of August 2022

Huge fan of Emmylou since first heard her her captivating voice on Quartet Moon in a Ten Cent Town album at record store in college. Was hooked and have bought all of her albums over the years (literally decades as I will be 65 in November). Looking forward to seeing her in concert in Charlottesville, VA next week.

Elizabeth Jane Previti

Thursday 16th of June 2022

Ironic you would have this piece on Emmylou. For the last 3 weeks we have had her on the forefront of our music to listen to as we roll down the road. She has always been a first choice fav of ours but being in Yellowstone & Tetons it’s even better. The beauty of these areas with the forests & mountains just goes together. I was actually thinking of looking up ways to tell her how her music has made our trip even richer. We are full time RVers and thank you for giving her this well deserved spotlight. Janie & Mike Previti

Great Oldies

Thursday 16th of June 2022

We're glad you enjoyed the article. Ms Harris is pretty awesome!

Les

Thursday 16th of June 2022

There are not many people that I would like to meet, but Emmylou Harris is the first on my list.

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