Emmylou Harris on how she and Gram Parsons got "fired" before their first gig in Boulder
Since first performing with Gram Parsons in Boulder in the early '70s (and getting fired), Emmylou Harris has played in Colorado many times over the years. Two years after Parsons died from an accidental overdose in 1973, she wrote one of her biggest hits, "Boulder to Birmingham," about her life with Parsons, and on her most recent effort, Hard Bargain, she wrote another tune about Parsons called "The Road." We spoke with Harris about her and Parsons getting "fired," the new album, writing songs in open tunings and working with the Fray on "Boulder to Birmingham," which appears as a bonus track on that act's new album, Scars and Stories.
Westword: How is your duet album with Rodney Crowell coming along?
Emmylou Harris: We're almost done.
How has that been working with him again?
It's been fantastic. I've always loved Rodney's company. We'll run into each other on the road or at some kind of function, but to actually be able to go in and see him almost every day and play music together and kid around, it's been great.
I was reading how about writing songs for Hard Bargain was kind of tough for you.
Well, that's what I tell people. But once I clear out a space in my life and just say, "I'm going to write," the songs started to come out. I had some stuff I wanted to write about.
How do the songs sort of come to you? Does the music come first or the lyrics?
It really is both for me. Usually it's simultaneously when I'm playing the guitar and getting an idea that kind of goes with the melody or whatever. I wrote a song many years ago called "Prayer in Open D," and it's obviously in an open D tuning. I felt bad just taking one guitar out just for one song, so I thought I'd start by trying to write in that tuning. So that's where I started. That's where "The Road" came from and "Lonely Girl" and even wrote "Big Black Dog" in that tuning and also "Home Sweet Home."
Is there something particular you like about the open D tuning?
Well, I'm basically not a lead guitar player so open tunings opens up possibilities in all these chords. It sounds like you're playing more than you actually are. I did a couple of records where open A was the tuning that I used and then of course you put the capo on it, and then it becomes B-flat.
You mentioned "The Road" earlier, which is about Gram Parsons, and I read that you and him started gigging together in Boulder, right?
Well, we got fired after our first gig. We had two weeks of rehearsal. And I was just in the band. I never worked with a band. I didn't know how you did things. So I just recorded things as we went down. But Gram didn't focus on the material from the record; he just wanted to play songs. So we sat around and played all these songs, but we never worked up a beginning, middle and end. It was such a train wreck that first night. But actually, before we got fired, the club got closed down because Weather Report had played there a few days earlier, and they were so loud that an injunction was put against the club. So, technically, we really didn't get fired.
Do you recall what venue it was?
Oh gosh, I'm trying to remember. I should know the name of the club. But we asked to play this bar in Nederland on the night we were supposed to play in Boulder, and then we had our next date in Austin. So we just went there early since we got "fired," and since we had time to work out beginnings, middles and ends and we got so many encores, we didn't have any extra songs. So we just started the set over again. Then, as we would travel along in the bus we would start working up more songs and hit them at sound check and add a few songs here and there. But that was quite an adventure.
You've played Red Rocks before. Do you have any fond many memories of playing there?
Every time I've played there, it's been beautiful. It's a beautiful venue. I can't think of one specific show. But the last I played there, we were with John Prine. That was delightful and being around John and his gang. I'm looking forward to coming back.
You recorded "Boulder to Birmingham" with the Fray. How did you like working with those guys?
It was great. I wasn't really that aware of them because they were relatively new. I was so honored that somebody knew my song, and that they wanted to record it. Basically, I'm the only person who records my songs. So that was great. Then, when I was out there for the Grammys in February, they were at the Troubadour and so we worked it out and we were able to play it there at the Troubadour, and it was fantastic. I loved hearing them and hanging out with them, and then doing the song. I don't get a lot of that -- somebody else doing my songs -- so it was kind of a real good experience for me.
With you recording other people's songs, you definitely seem to put your own their songs and really kind of putting your signature on them. What it is about other people's songs that make you want to perform them and record them?
For me, it's always the lyrics. In a sense, I try to make it my story. Obviously, if I were a writer, maybe I would have written something similar because of the story in the song. So, I don't know why some songs are okay and others you just can't wait to learn and make them part of your repertoire.
You've had a lot of guests on previous records, so why did you decide to go with more of a stripped down approach on Hard Bargain with Jay Joyce?
I had done a song for a movie with him where we did it with just that ensemble -- me, Jay and Giles Reaves. I really loved how the record was really full, and I did the harmonies and everything. When we started, he said, "Let's just get as far as we can with the small group," because he plays everything, and Giles plays everything, and I'm good at harmonies. So, we kept it open. It wasn't like we said, "No, we're absolutely not going to have anybody else on this record." We just kept playing along, and as we went along, we realized that there was something about it that we should honor that. That it was really working for the three of us, and the dog.
Can you see yourself doing more albums like that in the future?
Yeah. To me, I think you have the song and you sort of get started, and you kind of have to just honor the process because sometimes records take a life of their own, and you have to respect it. It's always been a bit of a mystery to me, like that line in Shakespeare in Love, "Well, how does anything ever get done?" And he says, "I don't know. It's a mystery."
But you work with really good people. I've worked with fantastic producers over my career, and of course just absolutely stellar musicians and engineers. Everyone involved in making the record contributes to hopefully the uniqueness of the project. All I want to do is play and sing and let everybody else do the heavy lifting.