The histories of folk and country music go back a very long way and are as intertwined and inseparable as you might imagine. One doesn’t exist without the other. And it’s not even an example of two sides of the same coin, in terms of their development. They approach many of the same themes and ideas, but they do this from slightly different perspectives. It’s a matter of inches in some cases, but they each possess uniquely personal signifiers that only come from their respective genres.
There are some artists, however, whose work bridges the gap between these aesthetics and completely obliterates any expectation of disparate revelation. And when it comes to these particular musical waters, no musician better exemplifies this idea than Emmylou Harris, an artist whose music reaches across genres, intentions and generations. Her beautiful voice is steeped in mountain air, soft earth and the calm feeling after a spring rain. Pastoral in its range and tenor, it’s a thing that curls around your head in loping folk melodies.
Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to Walter Harris, a Marine Corps officer, and Eugenia Harris, but spent her childhood around North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, where she attended and graduated from high school. But it wasn’t until she went to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship that she began to study music with any serious intent. She learned to play songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and dropped out of college to move to New York City, where she worked as a waitress to make ends meet while she performed in various Greenwich Village coffeehouses during the folk movement of the ’60s.
She married fellow singer Tom Slocum and gave birth to a daughter, Hallie, but the two divorced shortly thereafter. Harris and her daughter moved in with her parents in Clarksville, Maryland. It was during this period of time that she recorded and released her debut record, “Gliding Bird,” which featured Harris working her way through some delicate folk movements. She then began performing as part of a trio with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. However, in 1971, a handful of guys from The Flying Burrito Brothers caught one of her performances, and the band deliberated on whether to ask her to join the group.
But instead of officially asking her to join, member Chris Hillman introduced her to the founder of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons. Harris and Parsons developed an immediate rapport, and she toured with him as part of his band. In 1973, she was featured on Parsons’ seminal record, “Grievous Angel,” and proved adept at matching him melody for melody. After his untimely death in September of that year, Warner Brothers A&R representative introduced Harris to producer Brian Ahern, who produced her “official” major label debut, “Pieces of the Sky,” released in 1975 on Reprise Records.
But Harris found her true voice and sound in the songs on her next album, “Elite Hotel,” which was released Dec. 29, 1975. The second record of hers to be shared that year, “Elite Hotel” was once again a counter to the staid and traditional country music that was wafting out of the South in those years. She didn’t purposefully lean away from those sounds-she simply took what she needed from them and rebuilt her own folk and country aesthetic from these complicated pieces. The resulting collection of songs easily stands among the best in her crowded and insightful discography.
Borrowing a bit from artists such as Buck Owens, The Beatles, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, she crafts a meticulous and stunning version of country music that appeals to both conservative fans of the genre and those with a more rock-oriented perspective. These songs feel alive and inspired, a loose conglomeration of influences that strike with an unexpected force. It’s easy to get lost in the breathless movement of her voice and her guitar, but if you let the music fade into the background too much, you miss much of what made it so memorable in the first place. Harris isn’t simply offering her take on these communal rhythms. She’squietly readjusting our assumptions and expectations surrounding the entire country music genre.
With songs that became staples of both her live performances and subsequent compilations, “Elite Hotel” gave her the room and opportunity to fully flesh out the worlds she’d begun to build across her first two records. Tracks such as “Amarillo” and “Sweet Dreams” show just how versatile her instincts and intuition are when looking to redefine the ways we approach these familiar sounds. Channeling the spirit of Hank Williams on “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and working through The Beatles’ pop mischief on “Here, There and Everywhere,” Harris unveils a devastating ability to alter the intent and realization of any type of music, and make it feel irrevocably insular and personal.
She would continue to reassess and reshape her own influences, and the very structure of country music, over the next few decades. Her music became a herald of something new, something necessary in the world of country music. And while she did reach some tremendous highs on her subsequent releases-and some fans will rightly argue that she would go on to record her greatest work after “Elite Hotel”-there is such a monumental inspiration at the heart of this record that it becomes difficult to view her later records without comparing them in some way to the patterns and tones contained here. “Elite Hotel” is a bolt of lightning that shattered and rebuilt the genre, a triumphant roar to keep away the dark. And in these songs, Emmylou Harris positioned herself as one of the true believers whose work was born of revelation and a staggering emotional connectivity.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.