100 Greatest Women, #4: Emmylou Harris

100 Greatest Women

#4

Emmylou Harris

The living embodiment of artistic integrity, Emmylou Harris has been creating acclaimed music for more than three decades, building up the most consistent catalog in the history of country music. In her early days, her mix of contemporary songs and classic country songs was seen as forward-thinking and progressive, but over time, she would be seen as a protective guardian of country music’s heritage, even when she strayed far away from it on her own recordings.

Her own roots were not in country music, as she was an aspiring folk artist in her early days. While she was also interested in drama, she was increasingly drawn to the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, eventually leaving college and moving to New York in 1968. However, the folk scene was beginning to die down, and though she found occasional work, it wasn’t much. She married in 1969, and worked as a waitress to supplement the meager income brought in by her Greenwich Village coffeehouse performances.

In 1970, she recorded her debut album, Gliding Bird, for the struggling independent label Jubilee Records, which folded shortly thereafter. Harris would later call the album a disaster, and disowned it so much that she named her fourteenth studio album Thirteen. Disenchanted with the New York scene, and her first marriage coming to an end, she moved to Nashville briefly, but then relocated to her parents’ home in Maryland, feeling disconnected from music until she discovered the music scene in Washington D.C., through which she would met a young performer named Gram Parsons.

Chris Hillman, lead singer of The Flying Burrito Brothers, caught a Harris performance, and recommended her to Parsons, the former lead singer of the band, who was looking for a female singer to complement his vocals on his solo album, GP. Parsons and Harris quickly became musical soulmates, and he turned her on to hardcore country music that she had never heard before. She was particularly drawn to the Louvin Brothers and George Jones. Harris joined Parson’s Fallen Angels band, and sang on both GP and its follow-up, Grevious Angel, creating tracks that would become classics, such as “Love Hurts” and “In My Hour of Darkness.”

Sadly, that second album was released posthumously, as Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973. Harris was devastated; she moved back to D.C., where she put together a group of musicians that she dubbed the Angel Band. By then, she’d found a friend and fan in Linda Ronstadt, who invited her to Los Angeles. Ronstadt would later recall that when she first heard Harris, she realized that there was another girl doing the same thing she was doing, only better. Ronstadt invited Harris to sing on her Heart Like a Wheel album, and was instrumental in Harris earning her own recording contract.

In 1975, with producer Brian Ahern, she began crafting Pieces of the Sky, her first country album. The album was meticulously produced, with far more time spent in the studio than was the Nashville standard at the time. Harris covered songs by her favorite artists of all genres, including The Beatles (“For No One”), Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”), Merle Haggard (“Bottle Let Me Down”) and the Louvin Brothers. Her take on the Louvins classic “If I Could Only Win Your Love” would become her breakthrough hit.

The album was a surprise success, selling gold. The rock press swooned over her own composition, “Boulder to Birmingham”, which dealt candidly with her emotions over Parson’s death. It was also historically significant for introducing a young writer named Rodney Crowell to the world, who was a member of her Hot Band, her backing group that would become legendary. Over the years, several major figures in country music would emerge from behind Emmylou, most notably Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Emory Gordy, Jr.

The success of Sky had Harris’ label eager for a follow-up, and later in 1975, she released Elite Hotel. It was slightly less cohesive than its predecessor, featuring a mix of live tracks and studio recordings, but became a bigger hit, topping the album charts and producing major hits like “One of These Days” and her covers of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and Buck Owens’ “Together Again.” For the album, Harris won her first of twelve Grammys. It also featured the first recording of the Rodney Crowell standard “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, which would be a No.1 hit for Crystal Gayle years later.

Her third album, Luxury Liner, continued the formula of mixing creative pop covers (“C’est La Vie”) with classic country songs (“Making Believe”) and new, contemporary material. She again drew on the talents of Rodney Crowell, cutting his classic “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” for the project. By this time, Harris was hearing criticism that she was too dependent on cover material, so on her fourth album, she included only new songs.

The result was Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, which featured new songs by Dolly Parton (“To Daddy”), Rodney Crowell (“I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”, “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”), and up and coming singer-songwriters Carlene Carter (“Easy From Now On”) and Delbert McClinton (“Two More Bottles of Wine.”) It became her fourth gold album, and was followed by a gold-selling greatest hits set later in 1978.

Annoyed by her label’s desire to push her to the pop market, she set out to prove she could record a pure country album, and did so with 1979′s Blue Kentucky Girl, which was a traditional record from top to bottom and earned her another Grammy. For her next album, she pushed the envelope even further, recording a bluegrass album called Roses in the Snow. Even though radio didn’t embrace it like her previous albums, it ended up a smash hit, which Harris later credited to the fact that there’s a huge audience for bluegrass music that labels simply don’t cater to the way that they should. The album was an instant classic, winning her a Grammy and earning her 1980′s CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy.

She went back to the variety pack formula of her earlier records with her next two studio albums, Evangeline and Cimarron, which were compiled mostly from leftover tracks from previous recording sessions. Evangeline was her eighth and final gold solo album, and featured support from Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on “Mr. Sandman,” though their voices were removed from the single release because of label disputes. In 1982, Last Date became her first live album, unique in that it didn’t include live versions of any previously released material.

In 1983,  White Shoes, her last album with Ahern, was a deliberate attempt to make a rock-flavored record, and it featured fascinating covers of Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” and the Marilyn Monroe soundtrack hit “Diamond’s are a Girl’s Best Friend.” A single from the project, “In My Dreams,” was another Grammy winner.

The rest of her eighties albums were fairly pedestrian, by Harris standards at least, with the exception of three unconventional projects that were also her best work during that time. In 1985, Harris released the semi-autobiographical concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose, which was her first release to be dominated by self-written material. In 1987, she released Angel Band, a powerful collection of spiritual gospel numbers.

But it was a release from earlier that year that garnered the most attention, as her long-awaited collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt was released to rave reviews and huge commercial success. The album Trio eventually sold two million copies, was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, and won a country Grammy, and CMA and ACM awards. More than a decade later, a reunion album would also go gold and win a Grammy.

In the nineties, Harris brought her long tenure at Warner/Reprise to an end, finishing her contract with 1992′s Grammy-winning At the Ryman. Recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium, it was widely credited with bringing much-needed attention to the historical landmark, and helped get renewal efforts for the theater off the ground.

After a critically lauded album for Asylum, Cowgirl’s Prayer, Harris felt musically restless, and began working with rock producer Daniel Lanois. The album that emerged from those sessions was Wrecking Ball, which featured experimental rhythmic sounds and top-notch material from writers as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and Gillian Welch. The album reinvented Harris as an alternative country artist, and exposed her to a new, young fan base. Wrecking Ball was honored with the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and led to an equally adventurous live album, Spyboy.

In 1999, Harris collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, which led to a popular tour featuring both women. In 2000, her first solo album in five years, Red Dirt Girl, was another Grammy winner, and was notable for being her first since Sally Rose to be dominated by self-penned songs. At the turn of the century, her roots credibility was further reinforced by her participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, which led to another Grammy and a CMA award.

Her 2003 album Stumble into Grace sold strongly and also featured self-written material. Harris collaborated with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler for a studio album, which was followed by a tour and a live album. She was featured on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack in 2006, singing “A Love That Will Never Grow Old,” which won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. In 2007, Harris released a four-CD set of rarities entitled Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems. The 78-track collection did not include a single track from her first box set, Portraits, which included 61 tracks through 1995, a fact which helps illustrate just how deep her body of material is.

In 2008, Harris returned to solo recording with All I Intended to Be, which was her highest-charting solo album in 28 years, and pushed her past 1,000 weeks logged on the country album chart, a tally that doesn’t include Wrecking Ball or O Brother. More significantly, it was announced that she was one of 2008′s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a fitting honor for an artist who has done more to champion the genre’s rich history than any other woman.

It could be argued that her induction was long overdue, but it fits nicely with the understated way in which Harris has crafted a career of stunning longevity. More than thirty years after her first album was released, she is still crafting critically acclaimed music that illustrates her continued artistic relevance. Long after radio left her behind, Harris has continued to not only connect with her audience, but build on it, challenge it and surprise it as well. She was the genre’s first female album artist, and more than thirty years later, she’s still its best. In a genre rich with legendary singers and entertainers, Emmylou Harris is a legendary artist.

Emmylou Harris

Essential Singles

  • “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” 1975
  • “Boulder to Birmingham,” 1975
  • “One of These Days,” 1976
  • “To Daddy,” 1977
  • “Two More Bottles of Wine,” 1978
  • “Easy From Now On,” 1978
  • “Beneath Still Waters,” 1980
  • “The Boxer,” 1980
  • “Born to Run,” 1982

Essential Albums

  • Pieces of the Sky (1975)
  • Elite Hotel (1975)
  • Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978)
  • Blue Kentucky Girl (1979)
  • Roses in the Snow (1980)
  • The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985)
  • Trio (1987)
  • At the Ryman (1992)
  • Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993)
  • Wrecking Ball (1995)
  • Red Dirt Girl (2000)
  • Stumble into Grace (2003)

Industry Awards

  • ACM Album (Trio), 1988
  • CMA Female Vocalist, 1980
  • CMA Vocal Event (Trio), 1988
  • CMA Album (O Brother Where Art Thou), 2001
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (Elite Hotel), 1977
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (Blue Kentucky Girl), 1980
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”), 1981
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“In My Dreams”), 1985
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (Trio), 1988
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (At the Ryman), 1993
  • Grammy: Best Contemporary Folk Album (Wrecking Ball), 1996
  • Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“Same Old Train”), 1999
  • Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“After the Gold Rush”), 2000
  • Grammy: Best Contemporary Folk Album (Red Dirt Girl), 2001
  • Grammy: Album of the Year (O Brother Where Art Thou), 2002
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“The Connection”), 2006
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 2008

==> #3. Maybelle and Sara Carter

<== #5. Tammy Wynette

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27 Comments

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27 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #4: Emmylou Harris

  1. LeeannNo Gravatar

    Thank you for getting me into Emmylou! I love her now. Bill even likes her. I think my favorite albums by her are Pieces In The Sky, Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, Roses In the Snow and At the Ryman. There was a time when I wasn’t much into her voice, but I’m so used to it now that I can hardly remember why.

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    Emmylou Harris is very important despite the fact that she is a very mediocre lead vocalist . She does , however, have exquisite taste, has been active in the organizational structure of the genre (she was president of the CMHOF at one time) and is a terrific harmony singer, probably the best ever .

    She has exhibited integrity in all her dealings and has kept the torch burning for the Louvin Brothers. Because of Emmylou Harris, the world still remembers Gram Parsons (I think he would otherwise rest in deserved obscurity) , She has advanced the cause of traditional country at times when it was not fashionable to do so .

    She has earned her stripes

  3. I actually discovered Emmylou through CMT, of all places. I loved “Thanks to You” and “High Powered Love”, so my first Emmylou purchase was Cowgirl’s Prayer. That album was the first time I heard the song “You Don’t Know Me”, and her version is still my favorite.

    When her box set Portraits got five stars in New Country magazine, which had only given that to three other releases that year (albums by Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Johnny Cash), I asked for it for Christmas. I miss that magazine. It was their reissue reviews that made me seek out Wanda Jackson and Dottie West. Jackson because they raved about Vintage Collections, and West because they described an awful song called “Mommy Can I Still Call Him Daddy” that had to be heard to be believed. Both discs made the transition to my iPod!

  4. TomNo Gravatar

    It amazes me that Emmylou would be at #4 on this list. How can she be above such a legend as Tammy Wynette? She has had MUCH less comercial success than MANY others that are listed below her on this list. Being a CRITICS favorite NOT a FAN favorite should not be enough to be at this position. There isn’t any one who can dispute this if they look at actual statistics. Sales, Radio play, infuence on other artists, etc. I like Emmylou but when you put her this high when others desearve it more it cheapens your list.

  5. I thought Emmylou would be in the Top 5. My prediction for the top 3 in no particular order would be Dolly, Loretta and Mother Maybelle Carter.

  6. Tony C

    Would have put her at #7 behind Patsy, Reba and Tammy. I don’t think her influence on the genre is near the level of those three.

  7. RussNo Gravatar

    While I love Emmylou, I gotta disagree with how high she is here. When you talk about the women who brought country music to a place that demanded public attention, the names Reba, Tammy, and Patsy are much more influential. They were/are able to maintain their artistic integrity while living much more in the spotlight and because of that I’d put them in ahead of Emmylou. As for the final three, I’m going Dolly, Mother Maybelle, and Loretta in that order.

  8. LeeannNo Gravatar

    I love Reba, but I don’t think that she’s necessarily always maintained her artistic integrity over the years. However, I do think that Emmylou has.

  9. Leeann,

    Surely you don’t mean to suggest that the techno dance mix of “You Keep Me Hanging On” compromised Reba’s artistic integrity? :)

  10. I would not have ranked Emmylou so high. I do love her but I don’t think she has really had the impact of a Tammy Wynette or even Reba McEntire. When I think of all the young artists on the radio today, I don’t hear any Emmylou at all. Maybe a few in the alt-country scene. Great artist for sure, just not as impactful as some others in the big picture.

  11. Among radio artists today, you’re probably right, though it’s hard for me to figure out exactly who Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift are modeling themselves after. But Emmylou’s influence is pretty substantial on nineties radio artists like Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Pam Tillis and Patty Loveless, not to mention her role in bringing Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs to the forefront.

  12. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    As with her good friend Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou’s influence cannot be measured strictly in the hit singles department; one must look to the complete albums she has made.

    Emmy came into prominence in the 1970s at a time when albums had become the definitive word on an artist, and not just the hit singles that those albums spawned. This is a concept that rock had managed to grasp in the late 1960s, but which country music hadn’t (and in many ways STILL hasn’t). She saw the album format as a complete work and not a hit-making machine. This is why albums like PIECES OF THE SKY, ELITE HOTEL, and BLUE KENTUCKY GIRL, to name just three, remain definitive statements. They helped to make it hip to listen to country music as it really was, and to ignore the redneck stereotypes that it had accumulated over the years.

    And just as importantly is that close friendship she and Linda developed after Gram Parsons’ death in 1973. Emmy and Linda could, by virture of doing roughly the same kind of music, have become bitter rivals, but they both realized that it was better to become good friends. I don’t know whether such a tight-knit musical sisterhood could ever exist in today’s Nashville, but it does even to this day with these two.

  13. RickNo Gravatar

    I’ve always been amazed at the spell Emmylou has been able to cast over so many people over the years. I wouldn’t have put her anywhere near this hign on the list, but I’m not surprised that she is because of her devoted following. Back when I was attending Cal Sate Long Beach in the late 1970′s Emmylou and her Hot Band used to perform in the campus pizza and beer joint “The Nugget” on Friday afternoons on occasion. I dropprd in once and thought “she’s cute and the band is great” but it didn’t make any deep impression on me. Now when she shows up at the Opry with Buddy Miller and guests like Elvis Costello I turn the volume down till its over. But that’s just me……

  14. Joe B.No Gravatar

    I would not place Emmylou this high because I don’t believe she’s much of a vocalist. Good taste. Great musicians. Influential. Gram Parsons aside, she is very lucky she had the great vocalist Linda Ronstadt to help her get a start in the business, or she may have never been a star.

  15. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Emmy works with what she has, which Linda has compared with (are you ready for this?) “cracked crystal.” I could name quite a few other female artists out there now in country radioland that not only lack great voices but also lack even a fraction of Emmy’s track record of success and artistic integrity. She is what she is, and a lot of other people, in and out of the business, think she is a legend. So do I.

  16. JoeNo Gravatar

    Emmylou is top ten but not top five. She’s done a lot, but in a way overrated in comparison to others who deserve to be higher on the list.

  17. Pam UnderwoodNo Gravatar

    Emmylou is a great artist and deserves to be in the top ten. I had her on my list around #7. But ranked above Patsy Cline? No way!

  18. Anonymous

    Emmylou Harris had one of the purest voices in country music. This list is pretty close to right.

    Real Top Five
    1. Lorreta Lynn
    2. Tammy Wynette
    3. Emmylou Harris
    4. Dolly Parton
    5. Patty Loveless

  19. Anonymous

    If I had to choose between Taylor Swift and Emmylou Harris to be played on the radio, there would be no contest. Emmylou Harris is one of the greatest country singers of all time, and she doesn’t get played anymore.
    What a shame!

  20. I think being off of the radio liberated her musically, though. She’s made consistently better albums since radio was no longer a factor, at least compared to her late eighties work.

  21. TravisNo Gravatar

    she has a haunting voice, as mentioned time over, but aside from a small amount of solo titles, her voice lends overwhelmingly better to harmony work and I would have her FAR higher on the list…… and higher I mean higher numbers, as many leaving comments on all of these wonderful ladies sections are using the terms incorrectly… in a survey of 100 greatest,, the term HIGHER would refer to higher number and lower leaning towards the number 1 spot which, in this case, the top spot… so she should be higher in the ranking

  22. Emmylou was great even if she not rant in the top five at least she’s in the top ten not too bad.

    VA Locksmiths

  23. MarkNo Gravatar

    I understand othes here questioning why Emmylou Harris ranked higher than, say, Tammy Wynette. But I think one needs to be unbiased and forget for a moment about their personal favorites, and look at it from a historical perspective. Emmylou Harris brought with her something with hadn’t previously existed within the confines of country music: namely an artistic vision and a rock and role sensibility which influenced a whole generation of rising stars who succeeded her. Everyone from Rosanne Cash and Alison Krauss to Trisha Yearwood and even Taylor Swift benefitted from Emmylou’s breaking down barriers that dictated how a female country performer was expected to sing, how she should act, what she should wear, etc., as well as making the decision to to perform a song because it’s beautiful or insightful, and not simply because “it will sell”. That is Emmylou Harris’ true legacy.

  24. Sandy HookNo Gravatar

    I recall seeing Emmylou live in 1979 and thinking she was nothing special, just a very pretty face with a squeaky little voice and a deadpan expression. Saw her again in the 90′s at the Newport Folk Festival with her extraordinary Hot Band. Now THERE was a band. My comment to friends was “Emmylou is no kind of singer, but man, is her band great.” As she’s gotten older, her voice has gotten weaker and her range smaller, such that I’ve come to find her just about unlistenable. I’m sticking to my opinion that without that very pretty face — hell, let’s be honest here, she’s a knock-out — there would not have been a big old career, no how, no way. Just my opinion, of course.

    Emmylou Harris’s long-term appeal has always baffled me, but reading your history of her I see that her range and choice of repertoire, and her self-determined image, influenced other female country artists for the better. For that, she deserves not a top ten ranking, but she wins my respect.

  25. Emmylou Harris’ voice is not for everyone, but there are many who enjoy it. I think she has a beautiful voice.

  26. ENo Gravatar

    Emmylou’s vocals have long drawn from the early nasal country and bluegrass style rather than that of the pop-country du jour. That’s why she was able to transition from country to bluegrass so easily. Today’s listeners expect a singer to “belt”, but belters don’t wear well. Someone understated may be more of an acquired taste, but such folks tend to put together thoughtful, complete albums. Particularly if they have mined country and folk history for material.

    In compiling my playlist I was surprised to find that every album available on Prime had 4 or 5 “keepers”, and the rest weren’t clunkers.

  27. JKNo Gravatar

    Emmylou Harris is a national treasure, and in my opinion, one of the best country singers of all time.

    Her original run of albums from “Pieces of the Sky” to “Roses in the Snow,” are are all classics. In fact, Johnny Cash once listed “Roses in the Snow” as one of his favorite albums of all time. I would encourage anyone to spend some quality time listening to Emmylou’s 70′s records, along with later masterpieces like 1995′s ‘Wrecking Ball.’

    In addition to being a great singer, Emmylou showed leadership in the country genre by providing a fresh, contemporary vision for what country music could be. She made music that delved deeply into the genre’s roots and traditions, but with a contemporary style and an “artistic” sensibility. She also revived interest in some of classic country’s great artists, some of whom might have fallen by the wayside otherwise. (I’m thinking of the Louvin Brothers in particular.)

    But let’s keep the focus where it should be: on Emmylou Harris’ actual music, which is wonderful.

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