Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 1:06 pm | Fair 57º


Jeff Moehlis: Catch the Legendary Emmylou Harris at Santa Barbara Bowl

Legendary Trio member and solo artist Emmylou Harris returns to Santa Barbara Friday, July 8, 2016. Click to view larger
Legendary Trio member and solo artist Emmylou Harris returns to Santa Barbara Friday, July 8, 2016. (Emmylou Harris photo)

The legendary singer Emmylou Harris nicely sums up her approach to music as follows: “For me, obviously, there’s a certain amount of ego, but it’s always about the song. You are the vessel through which the music comes. So it’s a sacred responsibility when you have that gift of being able to sing and being able to perform. I just think that that should be your priority.”

Harris first made waves singing, touring and recording with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons for the two years before his untimely death, including on his solo albums GP and Grievous Angel.

She then launched an acclaimed solo career, which has won her Grammy Awards, Gold Records and the hearts of fans for over four decades.

Mixed in with the critical success was the smash-hit album Trio, recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, and Harris’ heavenly harmony vocals on recordings with artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Lucinda Williams, Leo Kottke, Steve Earle and Guy Clark. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Emmylou will return to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday night, this time with country singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, with whom she has also recorded. Tickets are available here.

She talked to Noozhawk about her life in music.

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Jeff Moehlis: I want to ask you about something that happened a long time ago — I read that you played at the Santa Barbara Bowl back in August 1975. Any chance you remember anything about that show?

Emmylou Harris: No [laughs]. But it would’ve been with The Hot Band, so it would’ve been a great show with those fantastic musicians... Rodney [Crowell]. We always had fun when we played, so I’m sure it was a good time.

JM: Of course 1975 was a big year for you. That’s when two of your solo albums came out — Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. What are your reflections on those albums, a little over 40 years later?

EH: I think they stand the test of time. The success of them was a bit of a surprise to me. I’m very grateful for it. I had those great musicians playing on the albums, and I was able to take most of them on the road with me.

I think it kind of set the tone for even where I am now — it set the bar of having a really good touring band, and really good people in the studio. I was one lucky girl.

JM: Throughout your career, you’ve had a reputation as a great interpreter of peoples’ songs. How do you decide what songs to cover? What is it about a song that speaks to you?

EH: Well, I think you said it — it speaks to you. I have to really like it. It has to be something I want to sing. It was never one of those things, like, “Ooh, this will be a hit!”

I just found myself in a very fortunate position where I could do what I wanted, going back to the surprise success of the first and second albums. I sort of went, “hmm, all I have to do is do what I want, and collaborate with great producers and great musicians.”

I wasn’t really writing. I didn’t have to depend on [laughs] coming up with the songs myself. I could just gather what I wanted. They just seemed to come to me, the songs.

You know, you immerse yourself in songs, and then I was surrounded by wonderful writers like Rodney, of course, who introduced me to Guy Clark, and I had known Townes Van Zandt when I was playing the folk clubs in New York.

There were just so many good songs around. Susanna Clark. There just seemed to be a plethora of good material out there, and not everybody was plucking from that particular tree, if you know what I mean.

JM: I want to ask you about Gram Parsons, who you’ve been championing for decades now. How would you describe the Gram Parsons that you knew?

EH: He was really generous. I mean, God, he gave me such a huge part of his stage on the recordings and when we toured. We had a very, very lovely, gentle friendship.

For me, I was kind of like the student and he was my teacher. I think he delighted in all the wonderful surprises that he had in store for me musically, you know, turning me on to the Louvin Brothers and helping me discover my harmony voice, which really helped me find my real voice.

So I think we both found that partnership, he as a teacher and me as a student, and collaborating on music that I came to really, really love.

Because before that, I kind of dismissed country music. I did it a little bit, more as kind of a joke. You know, Hank Williams was OK, and Johnny Cash was OK. But he turned me on to the soulfulness of George Jones, of course the poetry of Merle Haggard and the harmony singing of the Louvin Brothers. And really, that was the great beginning for me, I think, as an artist. Finding my own place.

JM: I’m amazed by how many albums I have that you were on. One I want to ask you about was Desire by Bob Dylan. What was that experience like, recording with him, and how was that different from recording, say, with Gram Parsons?

EH: Well, I didn’t really talk to Bob [laughs]. I came in, sat on a stool next to him with lyrics in front of me that I’d never heard the songs before, we’d never worked them up, and “1, 2, 3, go!”

And, of course, he has been my idol — when I first really got into music and started singing, it was because of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He was like this larger than life figure.

But then, when you actually get down to the work, you have to just do the work, so I had no time to be overwhelmed by the fact that he was Bob Dylan.

I just had to come up with the goods — from the downbeat, I had to sing on a song that I had never heard before — and I just jumped in.

I think the reason I was able to do it was I just assumed that I could go back and fix things, but of course that was not the case.

Because Bob is a recording artist for the moment, and I realized later that whatever things were imperfect on my part was a part of the painting.

Like, somebody throws paint on a canvas. I thought, it’s OK, because we were recording the moment. I learned something from that, too, that perfection is overrated [laughs].

JM: We’re lucky here in Santa Barbara. Dolly Parton is coming in September to the Santa Barbara Bowl, the same place where you’ll perform, and a couple months ago Linda Ronstadt was here to talk about her life. With you, that means that — not at the same time — we’ve had the Trio come to town this year.

EH: They’re putting out the two albums plus the outtakes — it’s coming out in September.

JM: Cool! Were you surprised by how much that took off? Or given who was involved, was it like, “Of course that’ll be successful?”

EH: Well, you never know what’s going to be successful. For us, we had such a joy singing together. We shared a love of harmony singing as well as a love of a good song.

Linda and I especially were very close friends, and we shared the fact that Dolly was our favorite “girl singer,” as we said to each other when we first met, Linda and I.

So it was just a delightful experience to be able to hang — Dolly, Linda and I — and have that experience of girlfriends hanging together, and all the while making music. What a wonderful opportunity. What a wonderful experience to have.

For the full interview with Emmylou Harris, click here.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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