How does an artist who formerly disdained country music end up releasing a country album? It was a question Emmylou Harris had to ask herself in 1975, when she issued Pieces of the Sky. She freely admitted that, as a young adult, she’d found country music to be “kind of corny”; when cult hero Gram Parsons asked the then-struggling Emmylou to be his duet partner in 1972, she’d agreed only because it was a paying gig. As a divorced mother, she needed the money for her young daughter’s support. Instead, she found herself falling in love with the purity of the music, as Gram Parsons shared his formidable knowledge of country music past and present. Gram dreamed of popularizing what he called “Cosmic American Music”, a blend of country, rock, and soul that would seamlessly entwine the various genres of music birthed in America. After releasing two solo albums, he died of a drug overdose at age 26. Emmylou was devastated, left to process her complicated feelings for Gram and his life’s work. She decided to carry on with his vision, and with the release of her debut in 1975 she displayed Cosmic American Music at its very best.
Pieces of the Sky combined covers of pop songs by the Beatles and the Everly Brothers with those of country songs by Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers. It included the work of unheralded contemporary songwriters like Rodney Crowell, and an original song by Emmylou. The music hearkened back to traditional country, treating each song as an equal in arrangement and worth. To Emmylou’s surprise, she scored a hit on the country charts with the top 5 “If I Could Only Win Your Love”. The heart of the album was Emmylou’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, a song she wrote for Gram Parsons after his death. Her voice, which her friend Linda Ronstadt likened to “cracked crystal”, clearly conveyed her pain at the loss of someone so dear.
Emmylou’s next album, Elite Hotel, continued the template set up by Pieces of the Sky. There was another Beatles cover, a Buck Owens song, and songs by new writers. The album also contained Emmylou’s versions of three Gram Parsons songs. She’d decided to use her new platform to share his music with the audience that had largely ignored him in the past, carefully choosing the songs she considered his best. Elite Hotel topped the country charts, and even crossed over to pop audiences. For the coming decades, Emmylou stood out as a country artist that appealed to everyone, even those who didn’t normally listen to country music. The irony was not lost on her.
Luxury Liner, Emmylou’s third country album, was another country #1. It also just missed the top 20 on the pop charts. Again featuring several Gram Parsons songs, the album was another blend of country and rock. She duetted with Dolly Parton, and Nicolette Larson— a country star and a pop star. Emmylou’s backing musicians, The Hot Band (who got their name when Emmylou was told WB records would record her if she could just “get a hot band”) were on fire, turning in classic performances. The Hot Band’s fiddle and mandolin player was a then-unknown Ricky Skaggs, who would soon become a bluegrass legend. One of the record’s many highlights was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”.
Feeling that her Cosmic American quest had been successful, Emmylou recorded newer songs for her fourth album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. She continued to champion the work of unsung writers like Townes Van Zandt and Jesse Winchester, while blurring the line between country and pop. “Two More Bottles of Wine” was a number one song on the country charts, and its driving sound ensured its play on pop radio.
Emmylou would go on to record several bluegrass records before returning to her tried-and-true Cosmic American roots. A consistently strong artist, Emmylou has been universally hailed as a brilliant interpreter of songs. Her look and sound made country cool, and helped to birth the “alt. country” movement, inspiring the likes of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and Wilco. Her tireless devotion to Gram Parsons helped bring his work to the attention of music fans, and her championing of unknown songwriters brought success to many of the artists she covered. With her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, Gram Parson’s dream of respect from the country music elite in Nashville was brought to bear. Emmylou’s heart and soul have made her one of the queens of country music.