Emmylou Harris Winds Down Life's Dusty Road

The country legend talks about activism and her 2011 album, Hard Bargain


Emmylou Harris is getting older.

That’s not to say she writes bad music, that she’s unattractive or that her musical career is nearing its end. In fact, she will release her 24th studio album next year. But there comes a point in every long and fabled career when the past seems a little brighter and the future a little dimmer.

Harris captures this feeling on “The Road,” the first track on her 2011 album, Hard Bargain: “I can still remember every song you played / long ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away / How could I see a future then, where you would not grow old?”

“The Road” is a song about Harris’ mentor, the hugely influential songwriter Gram Parsons, who died from a drug overdose in 1973. It’s also an expression of the fact that there’s more road behind Harris, now 65, than there is before her. In a recent interview with Boise Weekly, Harris elaborated on the sense of loss that comes across in her songs and this image of the open road.

"I’ve been out there a lot. I actually really love it, so maybe I’ve been a little deceptive,” Harris admitted. “It’s a metaphor for everyday life for everyone."

Harris will wind down a less metaphorical road when she travels to Boise for a performance at the Eagle River Pavilion Saturday, July 21. In addition to belting out old favorites, Harris will play tracks from Hard Bargain, an album in which shards of introspection shimmer against the backdrop of Harris’ social consciousness.

Harris talks about activism as though it’s something separate from her 9-to-5 of cutting records and collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. When she speaks, her voice has the same wholesome, lazy enunciation of the letter "S" it has on her albums.

“My real heart at this point in my life is animal rescue. And dogs right now,” Harris said. “It’s really become a second career for me.”

But music and activism haven’t proven to be mutually exclusive. Both “Big Black Dog” and “Home Sweet Home” on Hard Bargain are expressions of her concern for stray dogs and the homeless, respectively.

“Every creature deserves a safe place to call home,” she said.

“Home Sweet Home” ruthlessly posits that behind society’s uneasiness with homelessness is the individual’s fear of plunging into destitution, while “New Orleans” describes––in soaring tones and insipid lyrics––the spiritual transcendence of the Big Easy after Hurricane Katrina.

Harris is most consistent on Hard Bargain when telling stories and indulging in introspection. “My Name is Emmett Till” lays down a fiery account of the lynching of a Chicago youth in 1955, and “Hard Bargain,” the album’s titular tune, delves into the temptation to give up and the voice in the back of Harris' head that compels her to resist it. It’s the kind of gnomic utterance delivered by someone who has learned to pick her fights.

Harris said she rarely crosses swords with her bandmates and collaborators.

“I like to think of myself as being a member of the band. I just trust my guys. I don’t ever tell anybody what to do,” Harris said. “You let the group that you have take on a personality.”

Playing well with others has defined Harris’ career as much as her solo projects. Her work on The Legend of Jesse James with Johnny Cash and Levon Helm of The Band helped solidify her creative credibility, and later collaborations with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits breathed life back into her career after she received lagging radio play during the mid 1990s.

“I’ve done work with some of my biggest musical heroes and my friends,” she said.

But some heroes stand above the others.

“Neil Young is probably my favorite artist of all time. I’m a huge fan of Elvis Costello. I’ve been able to tour with him. They’re just into the moment and into the music,” Harris said.

Earlier this year, Harris released Hickory Wind, a compilation album she cut with producer, engineer and musician Malcolm Burn at his New Orleans home. For a woman who lives in Nashville and records in New Orleans, the album features wide-open resonances and electric riffs that sound like they’re right out of Austin City Limits.