How Emmylou Harris Saved Country Music’s Sacred Temple
Her voice is as a clear as High Sierra creek water. There is an instant recognizability to her singing that feels as familiar as a warm summer wind. Today singer-songwriter, Emmylou Harris is the silver-haired angel of real country music. The character she brings to the American song breathes with the lifeblood and haunted history of over a century of country music; in her voice you can hear her love for Sarah and Maybelle Carter, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline. And her love for Bill Monroe is never far from her sonic world. But Emmylou Harris is and always has been one of a kind as an artist and as a human being. An often-overlooked chapter of her life illustrates this. Not much has been said of her activism from 1992. Here is her story.
With a recording career that dates back to 1969, her initiation into the limelight of country-rock music came through her association with the quintessential tragic hero of the genre, Gram Parsons. Parsons and Harris found a platonic friendship through their talent and their common love for real, traditional country music. Parsons’ music was founded on the authentic reinvigoration of the music.
In the years following Parsons’ death from an accidental overdose in 1973, Harris has established a solo career that has eclipsed Parsons’ legend. But she has also continued his legacy of honoring authentic country music. Harris has carried on a kind of soul continuity with the spirit of the country-rock innovator, and her theme has often been restoration and preservation of that which is forgotten.
Harris has released a long line of albums rooted in traditional country music, interpreting traditional genre artists like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline. During her career she evolved into a songwriter, a sought-after session vocalist who famously contributed background vocals on Dylan’s masterful Desire album, a guest artist for tribute recordings, and an in-demand interpreter of contemporary songs.
In an indirect way, Emmylou Harris may be Gram Parsons’ greatest contribution to country music. In 1991, she became the catalyst for the restoration of Nashville’s holiest of venues, the Ryman Auditorium. For Harris, it is a lesser-known but perhaps the most significant story of her long music career.
In 1991, the durable vintage hall had been sitting for years in disarray and near-ruin. Except for its use by Hollywood—Lorretta Lynn’s story, Coal Miners Daughter and Clint Eastwood’s homage to Jimmie Rodgers, Honky Tonk Man—the auditorium remained haunted, dark, and Gothically inactive. It was a romantic image of distant history, but a rich history was embodied in the old church-turned-concert hall.
Built in 1892 by riverboat captain and recent convert to fundamentalist Christianity, Thomas Ryman, it was meant to be a church home to replace the tent show revivalist services of the times. These were the days of fervent religious revival in the old South. On completion in 1892, the building was named the Union Gospel Tabernacle in order to brand Ryman’s holy intentions. It was given its better-known name after Thomas Ryman’s death in 1904: Ryman Auditorium.
After 1904, during the years before The Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast moved in, the hall became a cultural center known for the appearance of famous acts and for its boundary-pushing cultural diversity. This was thanks to a visionary entrepreneur, a single-parent named Lula Naff. During her years, she booked the auditorium acts, including W.C. Fields, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Presidents William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Bob Hope, John Phillip Sousa, and Charlie Chaplin.
The Ryman Auditorium became a place of integration decades before the Civil Rights Movement, thanks to Neff’s booking practices. Along with being a cultural center, L.C. Naff bucked the system of the day and won the right to feature acts like Fisk Jubilee Singers, a famous vocal group from the local all-African-American college.
In 1943, the national radio broadcast, The Grand Ole Opry, was looking for a home. The move opened the gateway to the golden age of country music. Over the next 30 plus years Ryman Auditorium was the host for the debut of many of the most important country music artists in history, including Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Earl Scruggs, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, and a young Memphis singer named Elvis Presley. It even became home to Johnny Cash’s network television show.
In 1974, after the Opry moved to its current home, the great hall was abandoned, uncelebrated, and unused for nearly 20 years. Over the years, political battles were waged to tear down the historic building.
Enter Emmylou Harris, who in 1991 was at the peak of her recording and touring career. She came equipped with hit songs, crossover gold and platinum records, multiple Grammy wins, a Country Music Association award for Vocalist of the Year, and the respect of the music industry and the Nashville establishment. With the rumblings of possible demolition still in the air and the building in dismal condition, Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers recorded a live album during a series of concerts at the decaying hall. Her intent was to raise the money to help save the historic building. She succeeded. The critical and popular acclaim for the album revived interest in the auditorium.
The accolades for Harris followed in 1992 for her popular recording career and her activism. This was the year she was invited to join The Grand Ole Opry. She, along with the Nash Ramblers, won a Grammy that year for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 2008, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Over the years since she nearly single-handedly saved the Mother Church of Country Music, Harris has had a career full of transitions and artistic growth. Beginning in 1985, she recorded an album of self-penned songs along with her then husband, Paul Kennerley, The Ballad of Sally Rose. Today, it is regarded a country music classic. She co-founded the group Trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, resulting in a series of best-selling, critically acclaimed albums. She has also recorded albums and toured with former Hot Band member Rodney Crowell. In addition, she continued her legacy as a songwriter on the excellent 2011 album Hard Bargain.
Hard Bargain begins with the song, “The Road,” for Gram Parsons. The song is a continuation of her classic recording of 1975’s “Boulder to Birmingham.” The song, written by Harris after the death of Gram Parsons, includes a chorus: I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham/I would hold my life in his saving grace/I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/If I thought I could see, I could see your face. Although Harris and Parsons were not involved as lovers, there was a deep, soulful musical connection between them. Her more recent words ring true to her life as she sings on “The Road.”
I wandered in the wilderness
For a while, I was so lost
To everything there is a season
And every blessing has its cost
So I took what you left me
Put it to some use
When looking for an answer
With those three chords and the truth.
Emmylou Harris has learned her lessons well on a road that’s been lined with heartbreak. She has had happiness as well. Today, she is a mother and a grandmother. But, for country music fans, she should be known as the one who saved the Mother Church of Country Music. Without her, a great and treasured piece of American music history would be no more. Thanks to Emmylou Harris, the Ryman Auditorium remains a very bright light on a hill in Nashville where country music is still celebrated. Its easy to imagine Gram Parsons giving a wink and a smile.
Emmylou will be at the Belly Up in Solana Beach on Wednesday, October 6 at 7:15pm. Lisa Sanders opens.