Harris still ‘pouring water into the stream’
Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee St., Waukegan
8 p.m. Jan. 11
$37.50 to $72.50
Information at www.geneseetheatre.com; for tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or see www.ticketmaster.com
Emmylou Harris realizes her passion for music still informs every aspect of her life.
She said she does her best songwriting in her Nashville home. “It means I’m getting older,” said the 65-year-old country/rocker. “You kind of write about what’s happening at the time. I still haven’t gotten used to facing the horror of the blank page. You just try to reveal the truth. In all writing, there is truth.”
A 12-time Grammy winner, Harris performs her rhythm-driven, haunting, and poetic songs Jan. 11 at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. A trail-blazer in country/rock music for more than 40 years, Harris delivers melodic tracks with strong messages.
Her song, “Red Dirt Girl,” became an anthem for impoverished, single moms. Harris paid homage to a slain boy who became a civil rights figure in the haunting ballad, “Emmett Till.”
“We’re just a vehicle for delivering the song,” Harris related. “It’s always about the song. The lion’s share of my songs I can still sing in the original key. My voice is definitely different. Perhaps there is more emotional range in it. Maybe that’s the soul and substance of life experience.”
During her musical career, Harris kept charting a new musical landscape. While she respected the heart-and-soul influences of country music, she explored the electrifying rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll.
“We just knew we were excited about what we were doing,” Harris reflected. “I realized I could love Buck Owens and Bob Dylan. We took the best stuff from the past and made it our own. It’s all a progression. It’s all pouring water into the stream.”
Harris listened to the albums of Bob Dylan but also memorized the tracks from her brother’s Johnny Cash albums. Her life changed when Gram Parsons, known for his angelic voice, invited her to tour with him and sing country duets.
Parsons, who performed with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, died in 1973 from a drug overdose. While their time together was brief, Harris remembers Parsons’ lasting influence in “The Road,” a song she delivers with bittersweet emotion.
“When I got into music there were some brave singers and songwriters, “ Harris recalled. “We realized a song could change the world. We didn’t have an agenda. Gram taught me to honor the melody and the words, and that is what country music is all about.”
As a torchy country singer, Harris kept elevating her songwriting craft. She often found “inspiration” touring, recording, and working with other artists. The Nashville artist has performed with Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame. In her latest project, Harris recorded an album of duets with long-time friend and country music legend, Rodney Crowell.
“Rodney and I have been talking about making this duet album ever since we met in 1974,” Harris said. “Rodney really knows how to dig himself into a song. When two people are singing together, one person has to leap, but they are equal. I love the beauty of that tight sound — the third voice that is made by two people singing together.”
Harris travels with her dogs, Bella, a 10-year-old black lab, and Keeta, an 8-year-old mutt. In her Nashville backyard, she takes in homeless cats and dogs, and has named her shelter, Bonaparte, in honor of a deceased pet.
“My dogs come out on stage with me, but they don’t do tricks,” Harris remarked. “I won’t stop working for animals until I can save as many homeless dogs or cats as I possibly can. The great part about being a celebrity is shining a light on causes you believe in.”
Harris has been emboldened by her passions as an artist. “It has been such an amazing journey,” she exclaimed. “I wouldn’t still be working if my fans didn’t follow me, if they didn’t expect me to zig and zag a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with the country music I fell in love with. Songs aren’t just to make you sad or happy. They can change your heart.”