The Untold Truth Of Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris is what industry professionals refer to as a musician's musician. She's one of the most prolific, well-respected, and award-winning country/folk performers and recording artists of the past several decades. She has honed powerful collaborative relationships with her fellow artists and has contributed to building a warm camaraderie among the country music community with everyone from Gram Parsons to Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson. Harris is also known for her admirable values and staunch integrity off the stage.

She began her career in the country rock genre in the early 1970s and is still active today, but Harris wasn't always bound for country music fame. Instead, she came to it honestly by letting country music find her. Fellow musicians and fans alike would agree it was fate. She's also got a few unexpected talents up her sleeve. 

This American gem is much more than a performer. Read on to get to know the woman behind the music. 

Emmylou Harris was class valedictorian

Not only is she a talented musician, but Emmylou Harris is also wicked smart. 

Born in 1947 in Birmingham, Alabama, she was raised in a military household. Her father was a Marine Corps officer who served in the Korean War. He was reported missing in action for a time and spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war. Because her father was a Marine, Emmylou and her family moved a lot during her childhood, ending up in Woodbridge, Virginia, where Emmylou attended Gar-Field Senior High School. While there, not only was she a straight-A student, but she played saxophone in the marching band and was also a cheerleader. It's no surprise that a young woman with such diverse talents became class valedictorian in 1965, according to CMT. Afterward, she set her sights on pursuing the arts. 

Emmylou moved on to the UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Emmylou Harris set out to become an actor, not a singer

After high school, it was never Emmylou Harris' intention to become a singer. She had her eye set on becoming an actress. Emmylou started drama school in North Carolina but never graduated. During college, she juggled acting in many school plays, including Shakespeare's The Tempest, and playing live local gigs singing and playing guitar, but she was never a music student.

She found her true calling when she began performing live music, but it's notably not why she quit college. "I had gotten frustrated with taking lots of classes that weren't important to me," Harris told Tom Steadman of the News & Record. "I had had a 4.0 average at the high school I attended for five years. I was tired of taking 'Introduction to Anthropology,' 'Introduction to French,' 'Introduction to Sociology.' I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty." 

Ultimately, she left to start working. As she played small folk clubs and earned a little money, she also paid to continue training as an actress. "When I went and did some serious acting classes I realized that it was work of a kind that I didn't have a natural instinct for compared to music," she mentioned in an interview with Gibson

It would be several years before she'd become a country music star. Harris did, however, occasionally return back to acting through her career, making an appearance in the HBO series Big Love, for example, in the mid-2000s.

Emmylou Harris didn't have any country albums growing up

For someone who became quite the prolific staple of the genre, Emmylou Harris' roots were not in country music. She fell in love with 1960s folk legends like Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan in her teens and began performing music in college. 

She heard some country from her brother's record collection growing up, however. "I wasn't unaware of it because my brother was a huge country fan way before it was popular to be one," Harris told Gibson. Her brother introduced her to artists like Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens. Thanks to him, she came to learn country music via osmosis. That and her love of folk were her earliest influences. 

"I was a kind of tabula rasa, not really having any inclination to anything," Harris said in her Gibson interview. "Between folk music, and then discovering country, all roads were open to me. I could embrace each singer, each writer, each song. I never limited myself."

Emmylou Harris got her start in the DC music club scene

According to Biography, after Emmylou Harris dropped out of college, she moved to New York, where her first marriage, to Tom Slocum, only lasted a year before it fell apart. She headed south with her baby daughter, Hallie, to move back in with her parents.  

Harris sang and played guitar in many DC-area music venues in the early 1970s, including The Cellar Door, The Assembly, The Red Door, and the well-known local chain Clyde's. She was initially mentored by a music duo, Bill and Taffy Danoff, who played at The Cellar Door and had already established a local following. "They kind of took me under their wing, you know, and introduced me to club owners that hired local talent, Emmylou said in an interview with DCist. "And that's kind of how I really got my start, from Bill and Taffy."

It was at Clyde's where she met Gram Parsons, who would help take her music career to the next level.

Gram Parsons is responsible for Emmylou Harris' big break

A former member of the Byrds, Chris Hillman, saw Emmylou Harris perform with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera in 1971 and recommended her to Gram Parsons, whom she met while performing in the DC music circuit. "Apparently Gram had mentioned to Chris Hillman that he was going to do a solo record and he was looking for a woman to do sort of a George/Tammy, Conway/Loretta type of country duets," Harris told Gadfly. A year after their initial meeting, Harris got a call to come record a record with Gram in Los Angeles. She also toured with Gram and his band The Flying Burrito Brothers after they finished their album. 

Emmylou has always spoken very highly of her musical collaboration with Parsons. "I never had to struggle," Emmylou added in her Gadfly interview. "It was almost like we were dancing partners who were able to fall into step with each other really quickly." After Gram's tragic early death, Emmylou sought to keep his musical memory alive. In 1999, she produced a tribute album to Parsons entitled Return of the Grievous Angel, which includes covers from artists like Beck, The Pretenders, and Lucinda Williams. 

Emmylou Harris won a Grammy with Roy Orbison

In what seems like an odd musical pairing, Emmylou Harris and rock/pop sensation Roy Orbison came together to sing a song. Harris and Orbison sang the Top Ten-hitting country duet "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again" in the summer of 1980, according to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

The song won Best Country and Western Performance for a Duo or Group at the 1981 Grammy Awards, and it's featured on Emmylou's compilation album Duets, released in 1990. The song, written by Orbison and Chris Price, was also featured in the film Roadie, starring Meat Loaf. 

Orbison, who died in 1988, remains one of rock's most memorable artists, turning out hits like "Only the Lonely," "Pretty Woman," "You Got It," and "Crying," with his signature vocal style. Later in his career, he became part of The Traveling WIlburys, alongside fellow music legends George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. 

Emmylou Harris sang all three parts on her hit Mister Sandman cover

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris joined forces to pitch a collaboration album after experiencing a special, harmonious sound together. "It was a glorious sound," Harris recalled to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of the first time they sang together. Despite the fact that all three women were huge stars, selling them as a trio wasn't as easy as one might assume. "Nobody wanted it. Nobody else thought it was a good idea except for us," Linda Ronstadt said, according to Taste of Country. "The record company didn't want it, none of the managers wanted us to do it [...] and none of the record companies wanted us to do it, because we were on different labels, so we'd be competing with each others'." 

Nevertheless, the concept album found a way, and Trio was released in 1987. It proved to be a success, winning a Grammy, Vocal Event of the Year at the 1988 CMAs, and Album of the Year at the 1987 Academy of Country Music Awards. The album included hit cover "Mister Sandman," which Emmylou wanted to recreate with Parton and Ronstadt in the studio for her album Evangeline. But neither recording artist was allowed to sing on the track for legal reasons, so Harris sang all three parts by herself.

The "trio" wouldn't let that awkwardness stop them for reuniting for a Trio II album in 1999. 

Emmylou Harris is a prolific collaborator

Known mostly for her country music career, Emmylou Harris has a history of collaborating with musicians from all genres, including Tracy Chapman, Ryan Adams, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, among many others. 

Working with Bob Dylan on his album Desire in 1976 was especially surreal for Harris since she grew up admiring his music in the '60s when she was starting out. "Obviously Dylan had a huge influence on me, Harris told Gadfly. "Dylan was as close to a god as anybody I had ever met."

Harris has collaborated with tons of artists and can be heard singing on many pop/rock studio albums, including backup vocals on Ryan Adams' album Heartbreaker on the track "Oh My Sweet Carolina," on Tracy Chapman's album Telling Stories, on multiple Luscious Jackson tracks from the '90s, and on two of Warren Zevon's albums from the early 2000s. Not only does she perform with artists across the music spectrum, but she also performs covers from all genres, including a song by Jimi Hendrix on her album Wrecking Ball

Emmylou can be seen performing on Jonathan Demme's documentary Neil Young: Heart of Gold, in which she joins Neil, his wife, and an arrangement of various popular musicians to perform songs from his album Prairie Wind for the first time live. 

Emmylou Harris has lent her voice to multiple soundtracks

You may not even realize you've heard Emmylou Harris' voice featured in film and television. Emmylou sings the theme song "A Love That Will Never Grow Old" for the Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain. The song won multiple awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. 

Harris joins fellow artists Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch to sing folk song "Go To Sleep You Little Baby" for the soundtrack of the award-winning Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The soundtrack became one of the only in Grammy history to win Album of the Year in 2002. She has also contributed to soundtracks for The Horse Whisperer and The Song Catcher, among other films.

While she'd lent her voice to many a soundtrack, Harris had never written an original song for a film until 2008, when she wrote the title song "In Rodanthe" for the Richard Gere and Diane Lane film Nights in Rodanthe. "I was intrigued with the story when I first heard it and I especially loved it because of the location — the eastern shore was a place I'd read about as a child in a book called 'Misty of Chincoteague,'" Harris told The Boot

Emmylou Harris is a political activist

Promoting causes like feminism, ending racism, and ridding the world of landmines, Emmylou Harris is the organizer of an annual benefit tour called Concert for a Landmine-Free World. A portion of the proceeds also supports Vietnam Vets. Fellow musicians like Elvis Costello and Bobby Muller, co-founder of an international campaign to end landlines, make frequent appearances at the event. She joined fellow musician Sir Paul McCartney, actor Pamela Anderson, and the Dalai Lama to boycott Kentucky Fried Chicken due to their cruel practices in the factory farm and slaughterhouse business. 

Harris often sings about cases of social and historical injustice. In her song "My Name is Emmett Till," she weaves the tragic story of Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy who was murdered for "allegedly flirting with a white woman" while visiting family in Mississippi. 

She has also lent her talents numerous times to support Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair, including the first year's lineup in 1997, which is a celebration of women in music. Emmylou is a fervent supporter of her fellow female musicians and often acts as a mentor. "I'm a big Emmylou Harris fan," singer and Lilith Fair collaborator Jewel told Vanity Fair. When McLachlan was feeling pressure to include men in her festival at one point, Emmylou told her, "this is a beautiful thing in its infancy. You just have to let it be and stay the course." 

Emmylou Harris is an animal lover

Emmylou Harris is also an avid animal activist and dog owner. She has partnered with PETA to build doghouses for pups in need of shelter. She has spoken out publicly about the need for pet owners to spay and neuter their furry family members, as well as to keep them indoors as opposed to being chained outside, particularly in the winter. 

In 2004, she founded a nonprofit dog rescue called Bonaparte's Retreat in Nashville, which is named after one of her dogs. Bonaparte's is a haven for shelter dogs to assist them in finding their forever families. They partner with Metro Nashville Animal Care and Control, as well as shelters within the surrounding area. 

Apparently, dogs come in handy as a touring musician. Her dog, Bella, who she rescued from Metro Nashville, is her travel companion, along with another one of her rescue dogs. "Once you have the experience of having a dog on the road with you, you don't realize how lonely you've been without one," Harris said on Bonaparte's Retreat's website.

Emmylou Harris is a member of the Grand Ole Opry

As one of only 67 exclusive members of country music's most prominent and illustrious organizations, Emmylou Harris is part of the elite club of talented country and folk musicians of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. 

So how did Harris earn her spot? Credentials like music sales, radio presence, a musician's touring history factor into the Opry's decision. Ultimately, the way an artist becomes considered for the honor is when a current member nominates you. "Opry membership requires a passion for country music's fans [and] a connection to the music's history" the Opry states on their official website. "It requires commitment — even a willingness to make significant sacrifices to uphold that commitment."

Harris has been a member since 1992. In 2012, the Opry held a ceremony for her 20th anniversary as a member, in which she performed with Vince Gill and other artists. She joins a group of legendary fellow artists, including Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, The Everly Brothers, and more recent popular artists like Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and Blake Shelton. "I feel like I've come home to a family I didn't even know I was a part of," Harris said of joining the Opry crew. The night of her induction, she said, "Music is like food, sustenance. You certainly don't do it for the spotlight. You do it for the amazing exhilaration of singing, the feeling of the music going through you."