Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Conor Oberst. Who doesn’t want to sing with Emmylou Harris?
She has one of those magnetic voices that sounds good with or without a collaborator. There’s good reason behind those 12 Grammy Awards Harris has won, bookended by her 1976 Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “Elite Hotel” and her 2005 win in the same category for “The Connection.”
Her voice is melodic, even over the phone, 2,000 miles away from Billings in Birmingham, Ala.
Harris is startlingly direct. She’s no saccharine gloater, but a passionate musician with the voice of an angel. Harris is headlining the Red Ants Pants Festival Saturday night in White Sulphur Springs with her good friend and collaborator Rodney Crowell.
“I love coming to your state,” Harris said. “I am so excited to come to this festival. We are just finishing an album together and I know Rodney will sit in with me or I’ll sit in with him. Just try and stop us.”
Harris said she and Crowell have been playing music together since 1974 and talking about this record almost 30 years, but other projects kept getting in the way.
“When you get a call from the people representing Mark Knofler, you go. Then it turns into an album and a tour. There are all of these musicians out there bumping around and I like running into them,” Harris said.
She’s no Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen, Harris explained right off the bat.
“I don’t count the number of shows we are doing,” Harris said. “I look at this calendar in front of me and see we are going to be out there for most of the summer and finish up in mid-November when we’re going to Australia. I’m not Willie. I’m not touring like Willie. I keep going to pay the bills.”
Later, Harris commented on the length of her shows compared to the legendary three-hour shows by Springsteen, whose recent concert at London’s Hyde Park ended abruptly when officials pulled the plug on his amplifier because he went past the 10:30 p.m. curfew.
“A lot of times, people will come up after a show and say, ‘I wish you had done this or played this.’ You have to change it up just a little bit to try and keep it fresh, but you can’t play everything. I’m no Bruce Springsteen.”
Harris grew up in the South, graduating as the valedictorian of her class at Gar-Field Senior High in Woodbridge, Va. She studied music at the University of North Carolina on a drama scholarship before moving to Greenwich Village to play folk songs in coffee houses in the 1960s. In those early days, she played music by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and sometimes tried to sing like Dolly Parton.
“I started out wanting to be Joan Baez or Dolly Parton. I ended up being me,” Harris said. “I read somewhere that style is a product of your limitations, which is an interesting way to look at it. There are singers who can’t hit every note and curly cue, but you wouldn’t want them to. Style is really an intangible thing. Why somebody’s voice can touch people and why somebody who is a technical singer sometimes can’t.”