Recorded in Nashville and New Orleans, Wrecking Ball remains one of Harris' most acclaimed releases. Critics were mostly ecstatic, although Robert Christgau was a notable skeptic: He complained about "Lanois' one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul." It's an interesting viewpoint, but Wrecking Ball perhaps demonstrates how starved the nascent Americana audience was for any aural innovation. Listening to it today, I hear it as a typically intelligent bag of songs selected by a singer with a great ear for material, and if the gauze may muffle the proceedings at times, it remains a landmark of Americana on the level of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or Buddy Miller's Universal United House of Prayer.
Along with Lanois, drummer Brian Blade and keyboardist Malcolm Burn — all of whom played on the record — and bassist Jim Wilson, Harris will perform Wrecking Ball in its entirety tonight at Nashville's Marathon Music Works. The Cream caught up with the great singer after she had returned to Nashville after a series of dates on the West Coast. She remains active — last year's full-length, Hard Bargain, found Harris working with producer Jay Joyce on a set of songs that peaked with her version of Ron Sexsmith's title track, and she has a new collaboration with longtime associate Rodney Crowell set for release early next year. Harris is a warm, intelligent interview subject, and wears her legendary status without affectation.
Nashville Cream: Emmylou, it's great to talk to you. We hear you just got back from a trip to the West Coast.
Emmylou Harris: I was out in Los Angeles for a while, and we did some shows. We were up at the Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass] Festival, which I've done every year since their first year.
NC: Sounds like a lot of fun.
EH: It's always good. It's a little sad this year, because Warren Hellman, who started the whole thing, passed away last December. So it was the first year he wasn't there, and there were a lot of tears, but a lot of joy. It was really quite moving — wonderful, wonderful crowd. It's just an amazing thing he started.
NC: We understand the Nashville performance of Wrecking Ball is a benefit. Tell us a little about that.
EH: This show is a benefit for Crossroads Campus, which is a bigger animal rescue we're trying to put together here in Nashville.
NC: How did the idea to perform Wrecking Ball live come about, Emmylou?
EH: About two or three years ago, Brian Blade had asked me and Dan [Lanois] to come out and do a benefit for a homeless shelter in Portland, Ore. I went out there, and it was fantastic to play those songs again. Not that I hadn't done it with my band, but I hadn't played with Dan, and I hadn't played them with Brian. And Greg Leisz was there also — he came up and played some pedal steel. We did it at the Roseland Theater, which was a real historic venue, you know. And then, last year, Dan has started his [Greenbelt] Harvest Festival, which is a benefit for the local organic growers in his hometown in Hamilton [Ontario], and we did it again. And I said, "You guys, it would be great if you could come to Nashville and do a benefit for my thing, you know, the animals." And everybody was on board about that. This year, Malcolm Burn is going to join us, too. So we're really looking forward to it — it's great to get those people together again and revisit that record. And obviously, the songs have become part of my repertoire. But to actually play the entire record, you know, I think it'll be a real treat for people who were touched by that record. We did the record with a small group, and you don't need a big band to get those sounds that Daniel and Malcolm are able to come up with.
NC: At the time of its making, did your record company have issues with the experimental nature of Wrecking Ball?
EH: I've always sort of colored outside the lines. Certainly, Wrecking Ball went way beyond that, because I've always drawn upon the traditional music, but used it in experimenting and just taking things wherever they seemed to want to go, in the studio and on the road. But I think there was some confusion with the record company — the whole sense of "Where do we even rack the record?" You know what I mean? I mean, I hadn't really been played much on country radio for a while, anyway. I had been, so there was a lot of confusion. Actually, the record succeeded more on a ground level, you know — there was a curiosity by people who were fans of Daniel and his work, and then my old, staunch, loyal fans who have zigged and zagged with me over the years. Then there were a few people who thought — I think I've said this before — I was abducted by aliens, and didn't quite understand it. But it's certainly stood the test of time.
NC: It's regarded as a classic.
EH: For me, as an artist, when you get those opportunities to sort of expand those boundaries and be inspired by different musicians and different rhythms and different sounds — to sort of shoot you off into another stratosphere, almost — it doesn't mean you leave behind everything you've done. It just adds something to what you've been doing over the years, and it makes everything better; it makes everything newer. It gives you that sense of creative power that comes from, obviously, collaboration. Which I think is always the case.
NC: How did you come to choose Daniel Lanois to produce the record?
EH: When Dan's record with Dylan, the Oh Mercy record, came out, and then his own first solo album, Acadie, that was all I listened to. Those records just stunned me. Obviously, I've always been a huge Dylan fan, and it wasn't that I had stopped listening to him, but it brought Dylan back to me in full force. The sound of the record powered that record. And then, of course, Dan's record, I found it so moving and beautiful, that when I was asked by someone at the record company — and at the time, I think everybody was sort of stumped about what to do with me, because I wasn't done yet, but country radio wasn't playing me — it was like, "You wanna move outside Nashville and look for somebody, you know, maybe unconventional to do your next record?" And I said, "Well, if I could have anybody, it would be Daniel Lanois." Who I did not know at all. And so — I don't know how it happened — the call was made, and Dan was sort of finished with his own record and kind of looking around for a project. So that's how that happened.
NC: What was the process of making the record like?
EH: A lot of the record was recorded at Woodland [Studios] here in Nashville. Those were the first things we recorded. We spent a couple of weeks at Woodland, and then we moved to New Orleans after about a month break. But Dan came to Nashville, and we just sat around — I had a bunch of songs, I had "All My Tears (Be Washed Away)" and "Orphan Girl," and I had "Goin' Back to Harlan" on my list of songs. You know, the things I was intrigued with. Dan and Malcolm brought in "Every Grain of Sand," and Dan said, "We need to do a Dylan song." I think Malcolm brought "Wrecking Ball" to it, and then, of course, I was introduced to Dan's songs that he had not recorded yet. So it was a real team effort, and I love that.
NC: Are there similarities between Wrecking Ball's production style and the sound of Hard Bargain?
EH: I don't know. I think [Wrecking Ball] is very, very special. I mean, it's funny — when Hard Bargain came out, the first thing we did — 'cause that record was done with just three people, with Jay Joyce, Giles Reaves and myself — was showcase in Austin and L.A. and New York, just the three of us, doing the entire record. That was pretty amazing. It's similar in the small group of people, but I will say that, with Wrecking Ball, there was so much that was live off the floor. With Jay, we obviously cut the vocals with a few instruments live. But I would go home for the evening and come back, and Jay and Giles would've just put these beautiful brushstrokes on. So every record is different in the way you birth it. That's one of the things, I guess, I love about making records, because you really never know how it's going to end up being what it is.
NC: Sometimes it seems as though Nashville artists are more interested in songs than in sound, but you seem interested in both aspects of record-making.
EH: It's always about the song, from my point of view. The song is the jewel. However, I think that the setting — what you put around it — is equally as important to make it have the most emotional impact. Sometimes that's almost nothing, and sometimes it's a lot of stuff, and it's quite beautiful. In the right hands and with the right producer, it becomes what it's going to become. The variations are just so endless, and I still find it exciting. But it always has to start, for me, with the song.
NC: You've said in previous interviews that you came to admire country music after you had been enamored of the folk side of the equation. Is that the way it happened?
EH: Oh, yeah, I was a Joan Baez wanna-be. I think a lot of us singers of my generation coming up in that era, I don't think we realized the power of songs that could not only change people's lives emotionally, but socially. It was a really amazing time to come into music, with Dylan and Baez and Pete Seeger. The only artist in country music that I didn't turn my nose up at — and I'm sure I'm not the only one — was Johnny Cash. That first record of his that my brother had — he had all the country records, and he had the record player — was Bitter Tears, which was all about the American-Indian experience. I would sneak in and put Dylan records on. It was a wonderful thing to discover that it was all right to really love and be influenced by not only Bob Dylan, but Buck Owens.
NC: I was listening to a Gram Parsons live recording recently, and he did a Johnny Bush cover, which was pretty hip for the era. I assume Gram taught you a lot about straight-ahead country music.
EH: He understood the beauty and the power of country music, but he was a child of his generation, so he was a rock 'n' roller too, and he had no problem embracing both. You take the lyrics of [Parsons and Chris Hillman's] "Sin City," which is set against something that's like an old Louvin Brothers song, that structure of the beautiful old country waltzes, and there's a certain spiritual overlay to it, and you go, "What is this?" There really hadn't been anything like that before, and he certainly was a pioneer.