Emmylou Harris can’t escape the spectre of Gram Parsons. Or, for that matter, the enduring promise of his musical vision — cosmic American music, the first infusion of folk and rock into his beloved country. Together, Parsons and Harris crafted some of the finest songs ever committed to tape. And while Parsons is long dead, a victim of brash overconfidence and self-destructive habits, Harris endures. She is a survivor.
“I had got so inoculated and impassioned with country music through Gram and I really thought that we were just going to continue to write music together,” Harris told Noise11.com last month. “He was my teacher. I thought we were going to be literally on that road for a while.”
It wasn’t to be. Parsons died in 1973, leaving a jagged gash in country music and the shards of Harris’s broken heart. “I really did have to take what I knew at that point and carry on by myself and just learn what I could,” she said, alluding to the feeling of loss that accompanies every untimely death. “It was putting one chord after another and one foot in front of the other, one show after the other and here I am today”.
Since the mid-1970s, Harris has released twenty studio albums, three live collections, and a big stack of compilations. Her towering voice is as expressive and powerful now as it was back in 1972. And her songwriting keeps getting better. Harris’s latest effort, Hard Bargain, which was released last year, is as good as anything she’s ever done.
“When I started writing this album I didn’t have a clue,” she said of “The Road,” a touching eulogy for Parsons that kicks off the record. “I just started with an open-tuned guitar and an old melody I had for a while. That song just sort of fell out. It was almost a stream of consciousness looking back over the years. That’s the way it appears to me. You kind of follow the muse, wherever she takes you”.
That muse led Harris back to the nights when she and Parsons sang together under the lights, swaying and breathing as one. “The Road” is a panegyric, Harris’s testament to her friend and evidence of how much she misses him. Her songs still bear his indelible stamp; her career has carried the torch of his musical vision. And she won’t ever forget it:
“But I still think about you, wonder where you are,” she sings on “The Road.” “Can you see me from some place up there among the stars?”
Parsons may be dead, but Harris has a lot of life left to live. She remains extremely busy, touring with her band or lending her devastating, stratospheric harmonies to other artists and musicians. (Her work with Ryan Adams, Parsons’s generation-crossing counterpart, is to die for.) And she’s happy to be heading out on the road one more time.
First published in Verb, 3 August 2012.