Emmylou Harris is a music legend who was born in Birmingham and returned for family visits in the summer. A folk singer who describes herself as a “Joan Baez wannabe,” Emmylou didn’t have radio success but didn’t need it. She built a lifelong career in music her way, singing her songs with her bands and harmonizing with the biggest voices in American music.
She says she is good at music and the work of making music, but her passion is rescuing dogs and she lights up when she talks about them.
The Southern Rambler interviewed Emmylou on her day off during the Cayamo music cruise in February.
TSR: Last night, we watched The Mulligan Brothers from Mobile have a magic moment on the Cayamo main stage that was bigger than anything they had done before. And the crowd and the song seemed to take them to a new place. What was your “moment?”
EH: I started as a folk singer in high school and was doing it for fun. The summer after graduation, my mother and I lived with with my aunt in Birmingham because my dad was overseas in Japan. A cousin took me to a little club called Lowenbrau where they had live music. No one knew who was I was, but that was the place where people first really listened to me. That was my moment. My career happened slowly and organically and it is hard playing in clubs when people don’t know you and don’t care and you have to deal with being ignored. You just have to play for yourself. It has been a long road for me. I opened for John Hammond, Townes Van Zandt, and The Greenbriar Boys and did two shows a night, six nights a week.
I began as a Joan Baez wannabe. My first band was a country band and they were one of the greatest bands. The band is your family and we play to each other. If the audience is listening, that is gravy. We put out my first album, Pieces of the Sky and my song, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” was making some noise on the country charts. We played at an outdoor festival around L.A. and people went nuts over the song and I realized that is what the charts do for you. But the charts are a double-edged sword and I never lived or died by the charts and don’t know what it is like to have massive singles. I have always been in left field, which is a great place to be because you can do whatever you want to do. I am lucky there have been enough people in the bleachers to make a living and do what I want to do. I never had to be a one-trick pony.
TSR: Do you still go on the road with different bands, like the Red Dirt Boys? Will Kimbrough, from Mobile, played with them.
Emmylou: I am putting the Red Dirt Boys back together this summer and we are opening for John Mellencamp. Will is a part of that. I have to have Will. Last year I went out with a girl band with completely different songs. I will do it again this summer with completely different material and that will keep it fresh. I don’t have to do the same set list over and over because I have hundreds of songs and some I will never perform live. I look for what will shimmer with a particular group of musicians and what works with the configuration I have.
TSR: Collaboration has been a big part of your career. Why is it important to you?
EH: Collaboration is a big part of music. Every musician has an incredible thumbprint that is unique in what they bring — their voice and the sound of their instrument. It’s like a big box of paint ready to create and throwing it on a canvas. You have an idea, but don’t know what it is going to end up being. It has been extraordinary for me starting out as a Joan Baez wannabe with a $30 Kay guitar when I was 16. And think about what a joyful, blessed career I have had. It is all about the people. Music is not made in a vacuum.
Martha Wainwright was one of the most inspirational people in my life. I loved singing with the Wainwrights and smoking cigarettes and eating sugar pie with them. I loved their personalities and motherhood. They never seemed to juggle and had a natural way with children, family and music. I didn’t have that with my own kids but appreciated it when I was around it. The Wainwrights are music and intellectualism and humor.
TSR: What is the story behind your song “Emmett Till?” I recently went to Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, where Till was accused of whistling at a white woman, only to be murdered there a few days later. Feeling the history and beginning of the Civil Rights movement in that tiny town shakes you up.
EH: Emmett Till was the tipping point for Civil Rights and I found a book about it. I am going to be 70 years old and remember seeing the picture of him in the casket and the picture of Mose Wright pointing to the men who took him. Did you know that Emmett stuttered and his mother taught him to whistle before he spoke? It doesn’t matter what he did, nothing deserved what happened to him. I heard the story on NPR and the line, “I was born a black boy, my name is Emmett Till.” No one wants to be a martyr, he was just a 14-year-old boy. How many dumb 14-year-olds do you know? He had no idea what he was getting into. I didn’t want it to be an angry story, I just wanted to tell the story. Why couldn’t he have a normal life with the usual difficulties? Some songs come to you and I was just the vessel for that one. I had no experience like that, but all people have a channel for compassion and empathy. We can be touched and horrified by what happened to him.
I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
I walked this earth for fourteen years
Then one night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was as white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know
I’d come down from Chicago
To visit with my kin
Up there I was a cheeky kid
I guess I always been
But the harm they put upon me
Was too hard for what I done
For I was just a black boy
I never hurt no one
But I’d have rather lived
‘Til I was too old to die young
Not miss all I left behind
All that might have come
The summer clouds above my head
The grass beneath my feet
The warmth of a good woman
Her kisses soft and sweet
Perhaps to be a father
With a black boy of my own
And watch him grow into
A kinder world than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men
“Emmett Till,” by Emmylou Harris
(Here is The Southern Rambler’s story about Money, Mississippi)
TSR: What does it mean to have a voice that can speak out against injustices, or draw attention to issues such as refugees?
EH: I hope my voice makes a difference. Last year I did the LAMPEDUSA benefit concert with Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, The Milk Carton Kids and Robert Plant to raise money for the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Global Education Initiative. Kids growing up in refugee camps is unacceptable. I met some from Eritrea where young people are pressed into military service. Some escaped and they were full of hope. The young mind and spirit is a miracle and the JRS provides sports, music and English classes to keep these minds active.To these kids reading and playing music is a luxury, but we all know those are necessities. Donald Trump seems to be against immigration and wants to close our borders. To me, that is the opposite of what the American soul is about, but I don’t think the America that I know will close her doors to people who need us. Shaking up the liberal and Democratic core could be a good thing.
TSR: As much as music and helping refugees means to you, animals are your passion?
EH: Yes. The thing that affects me most is animal welfare, and I have a dog rescue called Bonaparte’s Retreat. Saving one life at a time is something I can do on a daily basis with the help of a lot of volunteers. Saving a dog that might have been euthanized and giving it a home is the best feeling in the world. I grew up loving dogs. My grandfather kept hunting dogs and my father was studying vet medicine when World War II broke out, and he left to join the Marines. My aunt took in every stray in Howard County and I got my first dog when I was four. We had cats too. I was always around companion animals and I am so affected by them. Once you get into animal rescue you see the enormity of the problem and the abuse, neglect and senseless killing. You also become aware of a whole army of people who want to help. You are never unaware of the one you couldn’t save, but you can’t be stopped by that.
My one regret about my career is that I didn’t take a dog on the road with me until the early ‘90’s. It is the normalization and being in the moment with dogs and they get me out of my room. Dogs can find the little spots where there used to be a real world. They are so delighted to just see you and having them in the dressing room and running up and down the aisles during sound check is pure joy. It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you are with your dog and they don’t care where they are as long as they are with you. It would help a little bit if everyone had a dog. I just took possession of an 11-year-old blind cat. She is gorgeous and completely confident in herself.
I love that I have been able to make music and do something that I know I am good at on every level. I can deal with travel and things going wrong. I am good at the work of music. But being able to see the difference you make saving the lives of these sacred beings, who can bounce back no matter what they have been through, means even more. Animals get over what happens to them and move on. It is a good lesson for people. I am so happy we can talk about dogs. It is my favorite thing to talk about.