Saw Emmylou Harris in concert the other night.
Saw her one other time, about 10 years ago when she toured with Elvis Costello. She sings well with men. On this year’s tour she’s (again) backed by a group of men whose voices harmonize well with her reedy, pure mezzo-soprano. She’s 63; she’s been touring for more than 40 years; and she hasn’t shredded her voice the way so many others have by belting and screaming. She lets it do what it was made to do. She accepts its changes.
She’s still gorgeous. “That hair!” a friend of mine said, when I told her where I was going that evening. My hair has gone grayer in the past six months, and I haven’t colored it. It was good for me to see a talented woman use her abilities to give others pleasure, and rest so comfortably inside herself while she was at it.
I discovered Emmylou Harris about 25 years ago, when I was involved with a guy who drank and played the guitar a lot when he was off work. Of course I drank with him. He had a bunch of vinyl, and amongst his albums was the classic Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons. My boyfriend’s voice wasn’t much good but I loved singing harmony, so we sang “Love Hurts” and I figured out Emmylou’s part and ignored my boyfriend’s voice (and also his drinking, and also my drinking) and heard only Gram Parsons singing in my mind, because Gram Parsons had a beautiful voice—a “high-lonesome” voice as Keith Richards once called it, a voice full of “beautiful pain”—and also a pretty face:
I have this powerful ability to ignore what’s really going on, which is why they say
Denial Ain’t Just a River In Egypt
(“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt?” my son said the other day, when I repeated this to him. “De-nial… haha,” he said. “Never heard that one, pretty good, Mom.” “Dude,” I said, “I didn’t make it up.”)
So I made up this whole story about how Gram and Emmylou were in love and how their love propelled them to success—because in my 23-year-old mind nobody could sing “Love Hurts” and “Hearts on Fire” the way they did without actually being in love. In fact the story is this: Gram was a stone smack and morphine addict, also an alcoholic, and wasn’t getting it “together” to rehearse their act; then they found Emmylou, and what Emmylou brought to the act was not just her beautiful voice but an actual work ethic. Discipline. She made them practice a beginning, a solo, and an ending for each song they played on tour, and everyone from the band who’s still alive credits her discipline with saving the band from being fired from every gig.
“When Gram was together [not wasted], there was nothing like his presence onstage,” Emmylou says in Fallen Angel, a documentary about Gram Parsons. “He had this extraordinary command, this amazing charisma.”
Gram Parsons never got sober—he overdosed on booze and morphine in 1973. This fact doesn’t prevent me from loving his music. I just wish there were more of it.
I thought about this story the other night while Emmylou came back onstage to play “Pancho and Lefty.” She’s still with us, able to do what she does … maybe just because she DOES IT. She keeps putting one foot in front of the other. She got paid a measly $500 for her first gig with Gram, and she wasn’t sure what to do with that money, so she went home and bought a guitar, and step by step she parlayed that first into an entire career, with hard work and faith in the work itself. It wasn’t magic. It was “simple, but not easy.” It was sober. … Emmylou Harris was never an addict, but it doesn’t matter—f0r me, she’s a model of sober life.
Sobriety doesn’t guarantee success. Sobriety guarantees the ability not to drink or use. To do that, I have to have discipline. And it’s the discipline that will lead to something greater.
This is one of my favorites of hers, from Cowgirl’s Prayer (1993).