Queens of Vinyl is a series where we explore the sounds, styles, and impact of some of the most incredible and influential female artists ever pressed to vinyl.
This week: Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris has been making music since 1969. Forty-three years later, she continues to be one of the most sought-after guest vocalists in the music industry. With 12 Grammy Awards and twice as many albums, this power-house musician has earned herself a spot in our Queens of Vinyl series.
Born into a military family, Emmylou spent her early years bouncing around North Carolina and Virginia. It was in college, at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, that she began to seriously consider music as a career and lifestyle. Learning the songs of Pete Seegar, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez led her to drop out of college and pursue a musical career.
While working as a waitress in New York, she cut her first album Gliding Bird. Sadly, this record would not be the one to catapult her to fame, and with a newborn by her side, she returned to her parents’ home in Washington, DC.
While some musicians may have let a slow start get them down, Emmylou continued and was discovered by former Byrds member Chris Hillman. It was this meeting that ultimately paired her up with Gram Parsons. After singing backing vocals on Parson’s album GP, the two found success as a premier country duet. Unfortunately, the world lost Gram Parsons to an accidental drug overdose in 1973, but now they had discovered Emmylou Harris.
Her days with Gram Parsons produced numerous albums and collaborations, but it was Warner Bros. who would bring Emmylou to new levels. Her major label debut Pieces of the Sky was one of the most expensive country albums ever produced and launched Emmylou’s career. Even with the first single “If I Could Only Win Your Love” hitting number 4 on the charts, Warner Brothers wanted something more.
This led to the creation of The Hot Band. Looking to musicians that she had worked with during the Parsons years as well as having played with Elvis Presley, she crafted a band that was indeed “hot.” Elite Hotel, her second release with Warner Brothers, was both a country number one and crossover chart success and earned a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female.
In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Emmylou began to change her style. Instead of sticking with the classic/contemporary mix, she decided to move towards the roots sound. While the charts were embracing rock-country, she went bluegrass. This was very apparent with her Grammy-winning album Blue Kentucky Girl and again with the 1980 record Roses in the Snow.
In 1987, Emmylou found the biggest commercial success of her career, teaming up with Linda Rondstat and Dolly Parton for the album Trio. From the ’80s to the early ’90s, Emmylou owned the country and bluegrass charts in addition to the radio waves. After dissolving The Hot Band in 1991, she re-imaged her band, and in 1995, came out with one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the ’90s, Wrecking Ball.
While primarily filled with covers and overlooked by country radio, it brought Emmylou to the attention of alternative music fans, many of whom had never heard of her. She took the music on tour, and throughout the’90s, continued to sing on albums including Willie Nelson’s Teatro, and joined Linda Ronstadt for the duet record, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.
In 2000, Emmylou joined with many other country powerhouses, including Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, to record the Grammy award winning soundtrack to the Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Emmylou Harris has recorded over 26 studio albums, 70 singles, 10 music videos, and so much more. She has been called one of VH1’s most influential women in Rock and Roll, and in 1999, she received Billboard’s Century Award. At 64 years old, Emmylou Harris is one of the most prolific Queens of Vinyl that we have had the pleasure to feature, and if you ask us, we bet that she isn’t finished yet.
“I don’t ever worry about whether I’m being true to my country roots. My country roots were adopted. I never worry about what I can do and what I should do. I just do what I want to do.” —Emmylou Harris