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Jon Conover Interview with Grammy Winning Singer/Songwriter Emmylou Harris

By John Conover

I recently had the great honor of sharing a bit of time on the phone with, the genre and age defying singer songwriter icon of legendary status, Emmylou Harris. Through our intermediate parties we scheduled an interview to discuss the upcoming premier of “A Nashville Christmas,” a 60-minute music-variety special featuring popular country artists Wynonna, Emmylou Harris, Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis, Ashley Cleveland and Dailey & Vincent, on Thursday, December 7 at 8PM ET/7C.

Emmylou will be performing several numbers on the show as well as lending her graceful elegance and beauty as a pseudo host.

The day of our interview it was seasonably cold and wet in Northern IL. The dreary day served as a perfect excuse for being found, at a relatively early hour in the afternoon, at McNally’s Irish Pub in St. Charles, IL. I sat nestled in a cozy corner behind my computer and next to a second story window overlooking the literal and proverbial Main Street of Mid Western America.

As the cars splashed by along the hurried streets below, I reminded myself to take in a deep breath, slow my mind and to be fully present in such a special opportunity. On the other end of our cellular connection, Emmylou’s silky smooth voice was coming in clear as a bell from Nashville, TN. Throughout our time together, I was struck with her warmth and attentiveness. Also, I was very impressed by her thorough answers to questions that she has probably been asked on countless occasions.

Even though I’m fairly certain that Emmylou is apprised of her own status and accomplishments I felt it necessary to commemorate the occasion with a proper introduction. Then we hit the ground running.

JC: First of all I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. For the record we are speaking with one of music’s most gifted and cherished singer/songwriters, Emmylou Harris. Described by Billboard magazine as “a truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder”, she has sold more than 15 million albums, received 13 Grammy awards, as well as numerous other awards, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and collaborated with some of music’s most famous names, among them Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, and one of my personal favorites, Patty Griffin. She has, in the process, acquired the status of a musical legend. So the warmest of welcomes to you Emmylou.

Harris chuckled at my grandiose and longwinded introduction, which gave me time to catch my breath. Then she humbly replied, “Well, my that was quite the introduction and I’m very happy to be speaking with you Jon.” How cool is that? She knew my first name.

JC:  Could you tell me a little about the preparation for this show in terms of the vibe around the rehearsals, maybe reconnecting with long-time friends and also reconnecting with songs such as, “Coat of Many Colors”, which I understand you will be performing on the show?

Emmylou: Any time you get to reconnect with long-time friends in this industry it is special. This is a wonderful opportunity for all of us, not only to perform together but also to catch up. “Coat of Many Colors” has always been my favorite Dolly Parton Song. Though it may not be a traditional Christmas song it embodies what I believe is the true value of a Christmas song. We needed a third song for the show and I had performed “Coat of Many Colors” on a Christmas special that I had done with Martha and Rufus Wainwright previously, so, we thought it was a good fit for the show as well.

JC: What attracted you to, “Coat of Many Colors” when you first heard it?

Emmylou: That song became special to me very early on. I think it was the honesty of the song that first attracted me to it. It is a true story you know, from Dolly Parton’s life? A good song should tell a story, and a good story, people will relate to universally, especially when it’s honest and from personal experience. The song talks about the value of love and family being more important than the value of the things we own. This is something that we should all consider regularly and especially around the holiday season.

The words to the song, “Coat of Many Colors”, originally released by Dolly Parton in 1971, where inspired by a coat that Dolly’s mother made for her as a child. Though the coat was ragged, Dolly’s mother explained how special it was by comparing it to the story of Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors in the Bible. As a child, Dolly’s family had meager means financially but they where rich in love, faith and affection for one another. Her song expresses the spirit of what makes Christmas such a special time of year. The song has been used in schools as an anti-bullying song, making it even more relevant today and what I feel is a perfect selection for Emmylou to perform at “A Nashville Christmas”.

JC: This interview comes only a few days after Veteran’s Day weekend. I understand that your Father was an officer in the Marine Corp. Growing up, did your Father’s service in the military have any affect on your families dynamic around the holidays, and, if so, did this influence you as a writer at all?

Emmylou: Veteran’s Day is always a special time of remembering for me. My father was a USMC pilot and gunner in World War II and also fought in the Korean War. His plane was shot down during the Korean War and he was missing in actions for 16 months. We had no idea if he was alive until we got word that he was in the last group of POW’s released in August of 1953. For his bravery, steadfast resistance and outstanding leadership, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Other than traveling, I can’t say that my Father’s service really affected our Holidays. We were a really close family, my parents truly loved each other and we were usually able to get everyone together for Christmas. I am sure his time in the service had a affect on me as an artist in some ways but what I remember most is his dedication to his wife and family. He liked to garden and play tennis and he was really good to all of us.

I will mention here that Emmylou wrote a very personal song about her father after he passed away titled, “Bang the Drums Slowly”. The heartfelt and poetic lyrics seem to speak more deeply through the music than what the writer is willing to share through cordial conversation. The song is hauntingly nostalgic and beautiful in a way that only love can inspire. If you have not heard this song, I suggest that you find a quite moment, put on a pot of tea and maybe grab a box of tissues and enjoy it in peace.

JC: When I listen to you and Gram Parsons sing, “Love Hurts” there is visceral sincerity to your voices, and the performance in general, which is so striking that it almost makes the listener uncomfortable at first, until you realize that we’re just not used to being moved so deeply by a song. Do you find this type of connection very often in duets or was that unique to you and Gram?

Emmylou: That was a unique experience because my first time really singing duets started with Gram. I found a unique voice with him. Gram introduced me to country music and it was a time of newness and vulnerability and we were really close friends. Finding your voice in a duet is much different than singing solo because your individual voices need to compliment each other and essentially function as one, so it takes dedication and work. Gram and I didn’t have to over-think it though, we just always sang well together so it was really comfortable and natural for us.

JC: Did you hear something similar to that same type of emotional harmony when you heard the Sister’s from First Aid Kit perform the song “Red Dirt Girl” in Stockholm in 2015?

Emmylou: I remember walking though a grocery store and hearing that song for the first time and I knew I liked their voices. Then I started listening to the lyrics and realized what they were singing about. It is always flattering to hear someone cover your song or refer to you in a song and especially when they do it well. Those Sisters certainly did that song well and their voices are very sincere and mature. You can hear it when someone is singing from a real place and it moves you.  

JC: I understand that you and Wynonna will be performing your first duet together ever on the song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”? How will the connection between the two of you, personally and professionally, play into this performance?

Emmylou: I’m not positive that this is a first duet together but it’s possible, I’ve sung a few duets over the years, it gets hard to keep track. I’m not sure how our connection will be a factor other than that we get along very well and we have a lot of respect for one another. We both have our unique styles of voice and I think that they will really work well together on this song.

JC: Can we expect any future collaboration in the studio possibly between you and any of the other very talent members of this year’s original program, “A Nashville Christmas”?

Emmylou: It is certainly possible but no plans at this point.

JC: You penned one of my favorite music quotes of all time and I quote, “I like to think I have my own category by now. I once said that I smoked country music but I didn’t inhale.” With this is mind, what are your thoughts on today’s country artists, is there anyone who you feel really speaks to the heart of what has always made you stand out as a very unique and original artist?

Emmylou: (Laughingly) Yes, I did say that. It was kind of clever but that was also immature of me to say. I have a lot of respect for country music but my music never really fit completely into one specific category. After Gram introduced me to country music and singing in a duet, I really started to appreciate the poetry and sincerity of it but I also had a lot of other influences. Though that statement may have been clever, I don’t want it to come across as disrespectful. There are a lot of very talented artist out today but I find that I don’t listen much to a lot of the new music out there. That is not to say that I don’t like it, I’ll still occasionally hear something on the radio that really grips me but nothing specific comes to mind right now.

JC: What do the next 5 years look like for EmmyLou Harris?

Emmylou: We have several show dates lined up, which I am looking forward to and I really love working with my foundation. Bonaparte’s Retreat is a NFP 501(c)3, which is ran out of my back yard. I established the foundation in order to rescue dogs whose time has run out at Metro Nashville Animal Care and Control and place them into forever homes. I have really become passionate about rescuing these animals and I plan on staying very involved with this endeavor.  

JC: Is there anything else that you would like to share about this new original program or otherwise before we close?

Emmylou: This will truly be a special program, with several one-time-only performances and a lot of very talented people. I hope everyone can find the time to sit with loved ones and enjoy the show. Also, I would ask people to please check out my foundation’s website to find out more information at www.bonapartesretreat.org.

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