“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 30, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.
Emmylou Harris: Hi! I’m Emmylou Harris, and I’m speaking freely.
Gene Policinski: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” Our special guest today is Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter, Emmylou Harris. Thank you for being here.
Harris: Thank you, Gene.
Policinski: You know, you’ve spent your entire career singing the songs that you like to sing and supporting the causes that you like to support. And that’s not always the path in music. How has that been for you to do that?
Harris: Well, somehow, I got in under the radar at the beginning. Nobody was really paying that much attention to me, but I had an opportunity to get a contract with a really good record company, Warner Brothers, back there in the ’70s. They supported artists that they didn’t even think were going to sell lots of records. But along with their big-selling artists, they felt that they could also have some artists that maybe were going to be popular in a limited way but might be of some importance. A great producer, Brian Ahern, who had a great track record with Anne Murray and other artists and wonderful musicians — so that from the very beginning, I did a record that I liked, and then to everyone’s surprise, including me, it was more popular, more successful than anybody thought. So from then on, the record company pretty much said, “Well, she knows what she’s doing.” So they left me alone, pretty much. And I think it’s a lot harder now. There’s so much emphasis on having a hit right out of the gate, and there’s so many people making records, which is good and bad. You’ve got the independent labels, which is terrific, because a lot of people that might not have a chance in this day and age to make a record are actually able to, you know, do what they want — and with satellite radio and Internet. So it’s a different world. I’m glad I’m not starting out now, I have to say.
Policinski: Well, there is that emphasis on having a hit so early, and then if you don’t, you kind of fade.
Harris: You’re right.
Policinski: It’s almost the reverse, where you could take time in your career to develop and maybe get a following and a sound and a groove that you’re interested in.
Harris: I still think that that’s the way to go. I still think that sometimes these artists are — they don’t even know how to sing live. I think you have to pay your dues in the clubs when nobody’s paying attention to you and really get a connection between yourself and the music and what you know is real and right for you, so that you have that inner barometer. When something doesn’t feel right, you know, you go, “I don’t think I want to do this.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take chances, but I think there’s — you always have to feel a connection with that inner barometer, and I think that you’re — you’re not just — you don’t just come out of the chute knowing that. I think it’s something you have to build up. And so I was — I just came in at the absolute perfect time for my temperament, and the kind of — who I am and what I’m comfortable with. I’m not comfortable with confrontation — and fell into a group of really supportive, incredibly talented people who allowed me to learn and develop. It was like being in a little hothouse for a while. I was able to get a little strength before I had to go out on my own.
Policinski: Well, you’re being very modest. There are people who have written about you, that you saved country music, that you really brought the genre back, and that you added a life, and maybe that inner barometer, that truthfulness, which is a characteristic of a lot of very early country music, that people felt it talked about lives just like theirs, that came through in your music.
Harris: Well, you know, I was — I didn’t really come from roots of country music. I sort of adopted it when I — because I met this fellow named Gram Parsons, who was a kid from Waycross, Ga., who was a child of the ’60s and understood rock and roll, but he also had a great passion for country music and an understanding, an ability to sing, as well as to write his own poetry in that format. And by being in The Byrds, in the Sweetheart of the Rodeo project, and then going out on his own with The Flying Burrito Brothers, which really brought what we call country rock into more of a mainstream, although he was way, way ahead of his time. And I was fortunate enough to meet him and to develop a love of country music by just singing harmony with him. I basically just took the job because I was poor, and I needed — you know, it was like, “This is better than singing, you know, four sets a night, six nights a week for the drunks, you know, in Georgetown.” I shouldn’t say that. I did have some good audiences.
Policinski: Sure, sure.
Harris: But, you know, it’s — it can be a rough way to make a living.
Policinski: Those early days.
Harris: And I don’t think I had actually really found my voice or my style. I had a pretty voice. I loved folk music. I was very influenced by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Ian & Sylvia, but once Gram gave me the gift of understanding the beauty and the simplicity that was in country music, which was not — in my generation, we had kind of dismissed country music as being not on the right side of the ledger or too far to the right. And so I came to love harmony singing. He turned me on to the music of The Louvin Brothers and George Jones. I mean, I had to realize that he was right up there with Ray Charles as a soul singer and the subtlety and the beauty in his vocals. And Merle Haggard and so much amazing music that had just passed me by.
Policinski: Well, the power of your music had brought you a number of things. A lifetime award at a very tender age. Those are always interesting. But also, you’ve now taken that step that a lot of artists don’t, and you’ve taken a look at the other things that are important in your life, the causes and the things you’d like to speak out (about). And, particularly, for a show like this, what we talk about, the free speech and a lot of the other freedoms we have. A lot of other artists are very wary about risking their career.
Harris: Well, maybe in the climate that we’re in right now. For the most part, I will say that musicians are the perfect feeding ground for benefits, for causes. Usually, it’s for, you know, like, anti-hunger or poverty or all kinds of good causes. Musicians, as a rule, tend to be incredibly generous. We also crave attention so that if we are offered, we’re going to sing anyway, whether we’re paid or not, so if we can do it for a good cause, most — I would say most artists of my generation, anyway, it seemed like they were always out there raising their voices in song for a cause. I mean, you’ve got to remember that one of my very first influences, maybe the main influence that got me on the road to singing was Joan Baez —
Policinski: Whose life has been marked by that kind of cross of music and politics.
Harris: Yes, I mean, it started with the civil rights movement, which of course galvanized all of us.
Harris: And then the Vietnam War, which split so many of us apart. So I come from a generation of musicians who — it was part of the gig.
Policinski: You just spoke your mind.
Harris: And I feel like I actually didn’t do very much of that until the last maybe eight years or so when I met up with this fellow named Bobby Muller, who was a Vietnam veteran, was wounded, lost the use of his legs, came back and started the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to address the rights of Vietnam veterans, which seemed to be different from the rights of other veterans, because there was so much — there was such a dichotomy. There — Vietnam veterans, we didn’t want to know about them, because we had such a —
Policinski: Came home to a very different atmosphere.
Harris: Very different atmosphere, but it was really because of the involvement of Bruce Springsteen that saved the Vietnam Veterans of America. I mean, it was just going under, and once he got involved and became very vocal about it, and he had Bobby appear on stage and speak about the cause. And when peace was declared in Vietnam, Bobby Muller was one of the first Vietnam veterans to go over to Vietnam and Cambodia, and he saw the devastation that was still going on with the land mines. It was like peace was declared, and we were out of there, so in our minds, it was over and done with. Finally, we had put it to rest, but they called it terrorism in slow motion, because every 20 minutes, someone is maimed or killed by a land mine, and —
Policinski: And many times, children, because of the nature of where they are.
Harris: Oh, a lot of times, it’s children. Children are usually killed because they can’t sustain the blood loss. This happens in agrarian societies where people — well, the land is held hostage, because these people are not going back to a factory job. They have to go back to farming. The land is littered with unexploded ordnances. But these people have to go out and make a living to feed their family, so even knowing that they might get an arm or a leg or their genitalia blown off by a land mine, they still have to go out. They have to live. So he and another veteran decided to put together an organization under the umbrella of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation but to make it separate, so that — he didn’t want it to be under the umbrella of the Vietnam veterans, ‘cause there might be some veterans who still felt, and rightly so, not very friendly toward the Vietnamese for what they had gone through. So this was a separate organization, the Campaign to Ban Landmines, that ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. But that was just the beginning, you see, because just because you ban them, that doesn’t get them out of the ground. So there’s an ongoing program now called the Campaign for a Landmine Free World to continue to get money to find out where they are, to get them out of the ground, and the really important thing is rehabilitation for people who have sustained injuries. I mean, in Cambodia alone, at one point, 1 in 50 citizens of Cambodia had sustained a land-mine injury. There were more land mines in Cambodia at one time than people. I mean, this is something that — I had no idea about this.
Policinski: Well, and, you know, I think a lot of Americans would still — despite of the efforts of a lot of people to talk about this subject —
Harris: Because we don’t deal with this problem, you see.
Policinski: Now, some artists will testify on Capitol Hill. We’ll see movie stars. We’ll see other people on Capitol Hill. And the criticism is, many times, that that’s not their job. You know, that’s not what we as the public want them to do, or we don’t expect it from them, or somehow, it doesn’t have the credibility of a scientist or somebody speaking out might be from another profession. Is that a fair assessment for artists to have to —
Harris: Well, I have to say that I share that — I’m still going through trying to shed that for myself, because I always felt that if you were in the public eye, you had to be really careful about what you promoted, depending on how much you knew, because, you know, how much do you really know? We have a right to our opinion as a citizen, but when we voice it, it might carry some weight. So actually, the causes that I have involved myself in I feel are apolitical. Land mines, to me, are just — how can you be against — how can you be for littering? And this is like littering from hell, you know. I know that there is some concern about the DMZ in North Korea. That’s the one thing that they say, “Well, our soldiers would be in danger.” Well, you know that there have been a lot of military experts who have gone on record being against land mines. They say even if you dismiss the humanitarian reasons, it’s a militarily irresponsible weapon, because you don’t — you can’t keep track of them. They end up killing your own soldiers. And ultimately, if we keep 100 million land mines in the ground in 60 countries around the world and all the problems that are incurred with it, because of this one area, we should be able to find — it should be telling us something, that we have to put some energy into finding another way, because certainly, I don’t want to put any of our soldiers in harm’s way. I mean, I’m the — I’m a soldier’s daughter.
Policinski: Sure, and yet, some people would just hear the words perhaps or a summary of the words and say that you’re antimilitary or that, you know, they would attach political motivation to those things.
Harris: No, but this — absolutely not. This is basically a weapon that is targeting civilians. We have to make sure that the people who are left behind have a chance to get back to some reasonable expectation of a normal life without the — I mean, the idea — if we can conceive of the idea of our children walking to school, and they might, you know, step on a land mine, I mean, it’s a nightmare that we can’t imagine, and yet, so many people around the world live with this every single day of their lives.
Policinski: You’ve also used your career and your fame and your reach to people for some other causes, ranging from the Ryman Auditorium and helping that get back to concern about —
Harris: You know, that was kind of a — I didn’t really set out to save the Ryman. I was — it was totally ego-driven. I wanted to do a live record with my band, the Nash Ramblers. I wanted to do it of new material that we had never recorded — that we had never performed before and record those performances. And we were trying to think of a place to have it. And at that point, I was working with a woman named Bonnie Garner. And the Ryman was — had been just sitting since the Opry had moved out to Opryland, to out there to the big television studios and the big fancy place. And basically, the Ryman was a building, was sitting there, where people would go on tours to see where music had once been made. And it was, like, the world’s biggest gift shop. You know, and Bonnie said, “Well, what about the Ryman? Let’s see if we can get permission to do the show there.” And I think just one thing led to another. We had an invitation-only audience, because the place wasn’t safe enough to use the Confederate Gallery. So we had about 200 or 300 people downstairs. And there were kind of funky restrooms and dressing rooms. And — but afterwards, I think — I don’t exactly know how it happened. I think someone who owned the Ryman got the idea that, you know, “Maybe we should look into renovating it.” And they did a fantastic job. They kept the sanctity of the Ryman exactly as it had been, except they reinforced the seating. It’s still got those incredibly uncomfortable seats.
Policinski: It does.
Harris: But they didn’t mess with the sound. And they kept it exactly the way it had been, except they put wonderful new dressing rooms and added, obviously, the entrance, the foyer, and everything. So I applaud them. They really did an amazing job. And they brought back one of the great buildings that we have in America. I mean, we’re a young country. We don’t have that many great landmarks, and we keep knocking them down to build parking lots. So, I really love it when a city will go to great lengths to preserve a beautiful building that has some historical significance, and especially when it can be brought back into its original use. Well, originally, it was a church, but it became a performing place about ten years after, I think, it was built as a tabernacle.
Policinski: Music has this incredible ability to move people and to drive emotion and to highlight causes. And we’ve seen that. And musicians, of course, because of that, are in the public eye. The Dixie Chicks took a lot of criticism, obviously, for a comment or two made off the stage. Darryl Worley has a song that many people loved and many people didn’t like and thought it was jingoistic. What is it about music and songs and for songwriters that really gives you that power to move people, really?
Harris: Well, I mean, first of all, you have, you know, an audience, generally. And so they’re going to — it’s your built-in soapbox. Instead of being an orator, you use music. I have, for the most part, in my entire career, I’ve been concerned with the politics of the heart. I’ve never really done protest songs. Certainly, I was moved by them when I first got into music in the ’60s when I first discovered, you know, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And there were just so many things going on with the civil rights and Vietnam, which we touched on earlier, so that to — and discovering, you know, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and just the whole tradition of the troubadour and the commentator side of musicianship. So I am — I think that that’s an important thing, but people still have to make up their own mind. I mean, as far as I’m concerned politically and as a musician, the one message that I wouldn’t have any problem getting out to my audiences is, please register to vote, you know. Whoever, you know — educate yourself, learn about the issues, really make up your own mind, and register, and go to the polls, because the one thing that really upsets me is that we have such a low voter turnout in this country. And when you think that there are people struggling around the world for — well, look what we’re doing in Iraq to give people the right to vote, and yet, for the past few years, election turnout has gone down and down. But I do think it’s important that people be informed. I think it’s difficult. I find myself being turned off when I go on — turn on the TV, and I see adults screaming at each other who are supposedly experts and who have points of view. I think that turns people off, too. But you can’t use that as an excuse. There are ways to find out the information.
Policinski: Do you think the audience is as willing to hear different types of music now? The First Amendment Center does an annual survey. And one of the results from that was that four out of ten Americans didn’t think that music that might offend anybody should be played in public. That’s four out of ten talking about music that might offend anybody.
Harris: Oh, are they talking more about sex, sexually explicit lyrics?
Policinski: Well, you know, there was no topic, particularly. It might be music that talks about a sensational issue or an issue that’s very much in debate, like abortion.
Harris: That’s so un-American.
Policinski: It’s a remarkable result.
Harris: I mean, you know, it’s like the whole concept that this country was based on is free speech. And I know that comes with a heavy downside. As a parent, you know, I’d get freaked out when my kids were younger about some of the stuff that was out there, but I’m more offended by censorship. And I think that it’s the role of the parent to, you know, discuss things with the kids and ultimately have a little faith in them too. It was Benjamin Franklin who said those who give up liberty for security deserve none — deserve neither. And that really is true, but there’s a fine line there, isn’t there? America is still a work in progress, and I think that we all have to participate, and we have to be educated and well-informed, and we have so many outlets for that now, there’s no excuse for us not to know what’s going on.
Policinski: Now, do you think those interests have come back into your work as an artist? Or are you able to kind of say, “This is what I’m going to do in my profession, and this is what I’m going to do in my personal life”?
Harris: Well, I mean, I can — I get a forum like this where I can speak about issues so that — instead of talking about what I think — where do I think country music is going, I can actually talk about something of substance and importance to me and encourage people to try to become informed about it and make their own — get their own opinion, because I think there is a lot of ignorance on so many issues. I’m ignorant about a lot of issues. I’ve chosen to become informed on the land mine issue, on animal rights issues so that that’s — if I have any area of any kind of expertise as an ordinary citizen, that’s it, and then I have opportunities in print, on shows like this, or to be able to be involved in fund-raising events to raise money and to raise awareness about certain issues. But it’s all a matter of becoming educated about things.
Policinski: Well, I would be remiss if we didn’t take 60 seconds to ask you where is country music going? Because I think people —
Harris: Well, you know, I don’t know. I have to say that I don’t listen to country music, to mainstream country music anymore. I don’t find anything that really moves me very much in general. There’s always the exceptions. I listen to — I have satellite radio. I listen to the old country stuff. I listen to the alternative country stuff. Oddly enough, the folk station I find I really love, because they just play whoever they think is good; who they think is folk. They’ll play Bob Dylan, and they’ll play Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead and Don McLean, and I could go on and on and on. And you’re constantly surprised by, you know, how many different types of music that are under this one heading. I don’t know where it’s going. I think — I believe that there is some fantastic music that is being influenced by the root country music. Obviously, the “O Brother” surprised all of us who were involved in it. I would cite Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, fantastic musicians who sound old-timey on first listen, but then when you listen to the lyrics and you see what they are doing, they are occupying a space that nobody has ever occupied before. And that’s what you have to do. You must — every generation must reinvent itself poetically and musically. It may be that country music, as a genre, is really no longer there, the way blues has morphed into something else. That doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be great music, but you have to be true to yourself. And, let’s face it, there aren’t any, you know, blues men from the delta, you know, who grew up and were raised in that particular environment to produce that kind of music. But some kid discovering, you know, Robert Johnson or Mance Lipscomb or Son House or Blind Willie Johnson, you know, is going to take that and come up with something completely unique and different because they were able to hear that stuff and they were able to come up and make it their own. That’s how music is going to grow and continue to inspire us. But anything that’s formulaic, I just don’t have any, you know — I don’t have time for that.
Policinski: Well, unfortunately, we’re out of time. And thank you very much.
Harris: Thanks for having me and letting me vent.
Policinski: My pleasure. And I think we all enjoyed that. Our guest has been the extraordinary Emmylou Harris. Please join us next week for another conversation on “Speaking Freely.” I’m Gene Policinski.
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