There may be no more celebrated or influential artist working in the Americana musical realms today than Emmylou Harris. That's a bold statement perhaps, but given her track record over the span of a 40-year career, the artists she's worked with, and those that she's influenced, it's a claim that rings true.
Born April 2, 1947, in Birmingham Alabama, Harris boasts a musical impact that extends well beyond her wealth of individual albums -- more than two dozen dating from her first solo album Gliding Bird, released in 1969. This rings true through last year's critically acclaimed Hard Bargain. Then there's her work with her original mentor Gram Parsons, collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Mark Knopfler, and individual efforts featuring some of the most accomplished artists and producers in country and bluegrass realms, among them Daniel Lanois, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Ricky Skaggs, James Burton, and Albert Lee.
Even outside the scope of her individual efforts, Emmylou's presence has been impossible to avoid. She's literally contributed to dozens of projects, supplying her wistful harmonies to albums by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Band, Roy Orbison, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and Bright Eyes to name but a fraction of the recordings to her credits. As a songwriter, she's been overshadowed by her interpretations of others' material, but that hasn't stopped others from putting their stamp on hers.
Still, Harris' greatest connection with Americana tradition lies in her apprenticeship with Gram Parsons, the man many credit as helping to fuse rock 'n' roll attitude with heartland sentiment. The original "Cosmic Cowboy," so-called because of his renegade lifestyle, he tapped her as his singing partner after his former bandmate from the Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Hillman, caught her performing in a Washington nightclub in 1971.
She soon found herself singing alongside Parsons both on both his albums, GP
and Grievous Angel
, and onstage as part of his backing band the Fallen Angels. After his death from a drug overdose on September 19, 1973, Harris picked up his torch and both deliberately and by unavoidable coronation, carried on his legacy and helped keep his music alive among his hell bent devotees. She's long since come out from under that mantle, but regardless, her role as the unofficial godmother of modern country crossover has given her a reverential stature that's unrivaled by anyone else on the stage today.
Beyond the vast spread of her musical contributions and her numerous industry accolades (a dozen Grammys, three Academy of Country Music awards, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Billboard's prestigious Century Award and a VH1 citation as one of the most influential women in Rock), Harris' acts of goodwill continue to set an example for altruism that few other artists can rival. An early champion of feminism, she took part in the Lilith Fair tours in 1997 and '98. She's also an active participant in the Concerts for a Landmine Free World, where all proceeds go to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's efforts to help those impacted by conflicts around the world and the organization's mission to bring awareness to the problem of leftover landmines.
However, one of her most significant humane contributions, at least as far as animal lovers are concerned, is the refuge for abandoned dogs she created in a lot behind her Nashville home. Founded in 2004 and dubbed Bonaparte's Retreat, it was named for her first dog which is buried nearby.
Harris often toured with her own dogs in tow, but her refuge takes her love of animals several steps further, bringing in strays left behind by their owners and those dogs in imminent danger of being put down at the Nashville pound. Since the shelter's founding she's placed hundreds of dogs in new homes, including her own. Not surprisingly, one of the songs of her latest album is entitled "Big Black Dog," named in honor of a rescue she personally took in.
Given her kindness, an old adage comes to mind. "Reputation is what men and women think of us. Character is what God and the angels know of us." Clearly, Ms. Harris possesses both.
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