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Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris on the cover of her collection Profile
Emmylou Harris on the cover of her collection Profile

Emmylou Harris (born April 2, 1947) is a country music singer-songwriter and musician from Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

Early years

Harris graduated from high school as class valedictorian and won a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It was around that time that Harris began to study music seriously, learning to play the songs of Joan Baez on guitar.

Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969, and recorded her first album the following year, Gliding Bird. After the album's release, Harris' record label declared bankruptcy. Around that same time, Harris' marriage to Slocum began to fall apart and the couple were 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 soon returned to performing, as part of a trio with local musicians Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. One night, in 1971, members of the country group The Flying Burrito Brothers happened to be in the audience, including former Byrds member Chris Hillman, who took over the band after the departure of its founder, Gram Parsons. Hillman was so impressed by Harris that he briefly considered asking her to join the band. Instead, in 1972, Hillman ended up recommending her to Parsons, who was looking for a female vocalist to work with on his first solo album. Harris toured as a member of Parsons' "Fallen Angels" band, and in 1973, Harris returned to the studio with Parsons to record Grievous Angel. Parsons was found dead in his hotel room on September 19, 1973, from an overdose of drugs including alcohol. (Harris would reflect on Parsons' death in her 1975 composition "Boulder to Birmingham".)

Eventually, her path crossed with Canadian producer and future husband Brian Ahern (with whom she had another daughter, Meghann). He produced her major label debut album, released in 1975 on Reprise Records, entitled Pieces of the Sky. The album included a number of cover songs, including The Beatles' "For No One" and Harris's first hit single, The Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love". She created The Hot Band, a group of studio and touring musicians that included Elvis Presley band alumni Glen D. Hardin, Hank DeVito, and James Burton.

Emmylou Harris ca. 1980. Promotional photograph by Henry Diltz
Emmylou Harris ca. 1980. Promotional photograph by Henry Diltz

Harris' subsequent albums, Elite Hotel (1976), Luxury Liner (1977), and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978) were all country hits, but also won Harris points with rock listeners. While country music was enjoying a good deal of crossover success at the time, the approach of many country artists was to try to marry their music with smooth, L.A.-style pop; Harris, however, had more of a rock and roll sensibility than many of her contemporaries, and aimed her music in a bit more rockish direction.

In addition to her own solo work during this period, Harris began a number of ongoing collaborative relationships with other artists, many of which she would revisit throughout the course of her career. A Christmas single, "Light of the Stable," was released in 1979, and featured backing vocals by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young. From the mid-1970s on, Harris had begun working with all three artists, recording two trio albums with Parton and Ronstadt (as well as a number of singles), a duet album with Ronstadt, and a number of various projects with Young. In addition, her vocals were prominently featured on Bob Dylan's 1976 Desire album. She also worked with The Band during this period, appearing in their film The Last Waltz. In 1977, Harris married music producer Brian Ahern and had another daughter, Meghann in 1979. Harris and Ahern divorced in 1984.

Her 1979 album Blue Kentucky Girl featured straight Loretta Lynn/Kitty Wells-style country, 1980's Roses in the Snow was a Grammy-winning collection of bluegrass material.

In 1980, she recorded "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again" with rock legend Roy Orbison, for which they would win the Grammy Award for best vocal duo, and in 1981, she reached #37 on the Billboard pop charts with a cover of "Mister Sandman" from her Evangeline album. (The album version of the song featured harmony by Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, but neither Parton's nor Ronstadt's record companies would allow their artists' vocals to be used on the single, so Harris re-recorded the song, singing all three parts.)

1983's White Shoes was an eclectic collection, pairing a rockish reading of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" with a remake of the Donna Summer hit "On the Radio". Though not previously noted for her songwriting, Harris wrote all the songs on her 1985 album, The Ballad of Sally Rose, a somewhat autobiographical piece, based on her relationship with Parsons, which Harris herself described as a "country opera". Harris married musician Paul Kennerley in 1985, they later divorced in 1993.

In 1987, she teamed up with Parton and Ronstadt for their long-promised Trio album. The album was nominated for three Grammy awards (it took the award for "Best Country Collaboration"), reached the top ten on both the pop and country charts, and launched four hit singles.

In the early 1990s, she dissolved The Hot Band in favor of a carefully selected group of acoustic musicians (Sam Bush [fiddle, mandolin & vocals], Roy Huskey, Jr. [bass & vocals], Larry Atamanuik [drums], Al Perkins [banjo, guitar, dobro & vocals], John Randall Stewart [guitar, mandolin & vocals]) she named The Nash Ramblers. They recorded a Grammy-winning live album at the Ryman Auditorium that led to the 8 million dollars restoration of the facility into a premium concert and event venue.

Around this same time, Harris (and seemingly every other country artist over 40) started receiving less airplay, as mainstream country stations began shifting their focus to the youth-oriented "new country" format. While Harris' recent albums had done reasonably well, her chart success was on the wane. Her 1993 Cowgirl's Prayer album, while critically praised, received very little airplay, and its single, "High Powered Love" failed to chart, prompting her to shift her career in a new direction.

In 1995, Harris released Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan. An experimental album for Harris, to say the least, the record included Harris' rendition of the Neil Young-penned title track (Young himself provided guest vocals on two of the album's songs), Steve Earle's "Goodbye," Julie Miller's "All My Tears", Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love", Kate and Anna McGarrigle's "Goin' Back to Harlan" and Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl". U2's Larry Mullen, Jr showed up to play drums for the project. The album received virtually no country airplay whatsoever, but did bring Harris to the attention of alternative rock listeners, many of whom had never listened to her music before. The following year, she appeared on Willie Nelson's Teatro album, which was also produced by Lanois.

In 1998, Harris released the live Spyboy, backed with a new band which included Nashville producer and songwriter Buddy Miller. The album updated many of Harris' career hits. Also, in 1998, Tara MacLean recorded a cover of Harris' Christmas single "Light of the Stable".

Her 1999 Red Dirt Girl album was produced by Lanois protege Malcolm Burn and, for the first time since The Ballad of Sally Rose, contained a number of Harris' own compositions. Like Wrecking Ball, the album's sound leaned more toward alternative rock than country. Also in 1999, Harris released a second Trio album with Parton and Ronstadt, Trio 2 (which was actually recorded in the early 1990s, but remained unreleased for five years, due to record label disputes and conflicting schedules and career priorities of the three artists). Harris and Ronstadt released a duet album, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions the following year.

In 2000, Harris guested on alternative country singer Ryan Adams' solo debut Heartbreaker. The same year she joined an all star group of traditional country, folk and blues artists for the T-Bone Burnett produced soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. A documentary/concert film was also released about the making of the soundtrack, which is entitled Down from the Mountain. In 2002, Harris joined many of the same artists on the road for the Down from the Mountain Tour.

Harris released Stumble into Grace, her follow-up to Red Dirt Girl in 2003, and like its predecessor, it contained mostly self-penned material.

Emmylou Harris 2005 Promotional photograph courtesy of Wolftrap
Emmylou Harris 2005 Promotional photograph courtesy of Wolftrap

In 2005, Harris worked with Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes' release, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, performing backup vocals and harmonies on three tracks. In July, she also joined Elvis Costello on several dates of his U.S. tour, performing alongside Costello and his band on several numbers each night. July also saw the release of The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches and Highways, a single-disc retrospective of Harris's career, on the Rhino Entertainment label.

This same year, Harris appeared as a guest vocalist on the widely acclaimed Prairie Wind, the latest album by Neil Young. She appeared as herself in the film Neil Young: Heart of Gold, released in 2006.

All the Roadrunning, an album of collaborations with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, was released on April 24th, 2006 (April 25th in USA).


Since 1999, Harris has been organizing an annual benefit tour called Concerts for a Landmine Free World. All proceeds from the tours support the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's (VVAF) efforts to assist innocent victims of conflicts around the world. The tour also benefits the VVAF's work to raise Americas awareness of the global landmine crisis. Artists that have joined Harris on the road for these dates include Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Patty Griffin and Nanci Griffith.


The cover of Profile II: The Best of Emmylou Harris. Original photograph by Jim McGuire.
The cover of Profile II: The Best of Emmylou Harris. Original photograph by Jim McGuire.

Solo work

  1. Gliding Bird (Jubilee) 1970
  2. Pieces of the Sky (Reprise/Warner Bros.) 1975
  3. Elite Hotel (Reprise/Warner Bros.) 1975
  4. Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.) 1977
  5. Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (Warner Bros.) 1978
  6. Blue Kentucky Girl (Warner Bros.) 1979
  7. Roses in the Snow (Warner Bros.) 1980
  8. Light of the Stable (Warner Bros.) 1980
  9. Evangeline (Warner Bros.) 1981
  10. Cimarron (Warner Bros.) 1981
  11. Last Date (Warner Bros.) 1982
  12. White Shoes (Warner Bros.) 1983
  13. The Ballad of Sally Rose (Warner Bros.) 1985
  14. Thirteen (Warner Bros.) 1986
  15. Angel Band (Warner Bros.) 1987
  16. Bluebird (Reprise/Warner Bros.) 1989
  17. Brand New Dance (Reprise/Warner Bros.) 1990
  18. At the Ryman (Warner Bros.) 1992
  19. Cowgirl's Prayer (Elektra/Warner Bros.) 1993
  20. Wrecking Ball (Asylum/Warner Bros.) 1995
  21. Spyboy (Eminent) 1998
  22. Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.) 2000
  23. Stumble into Grace (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.) 2003


  1. Trio (with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt), (Warner Bros.) 1987
  2. Trio 2 (with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt) (Elektra) 1999
  3. Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (with Linda Ronstadt) (Elektra) 2000
  4. "Comin' Around" (with Steve Earle) on Earle's The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis Records) 2004
  5. All the Roadrunning (with Mark Knopfler) 2006
  6. "Blue Alleluia" (with Jared Tyler) on Jared Tyler's debut record Blue Alleluia (Walking Liberty Records) Produced by Russ Titelman 2006


  1. Profile - The Best of Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.) 1979
  2. Profile II - The Best of Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.) 1984
  3. Portraits (Warner Bros.) 1996
  4. Anthology (boxed set) (Warner Bros.) 2001
  5. The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches and Highways (Rhino Entertainment) 2005
  6. Brokeback Mountain, the soundtrack - This is a compilation album of standards and original songs. Emmylou covers an original which won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song ("A Love That Will Never Grow Old") in 2005.
  7. We Are Nowhere And It's Now (Bright Eyes) 2005

Further reading

  • In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music, Nicholas Dawidoff, Vintage Books, 1998. ISBN 067941567X
  • Emmylou Harris: Angel in Disguise, Jim Brown, Fox Music Books, 2004. ISBN 1894997034

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Emmylou Harris