Born April 2, 1947, Emmylou Harris was performing in D.C.-area bars when she met singer Gram Parsons, who became her mentor. After his death in 1973, she released her major label solo debut album, Pieces of the Sky (1975). Several other albums followed, such as Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978) and Blue Kentucky Girl. In 1985, Harris reinvented her sound by mixing several genres in her autobiographical album, The Ballad of Sally Rose.
Country singer, songwriter and musician Emmylou Harris was born April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, Alabama. Harris' father was a decorated Marine Corps pilot who spent 16 months as a prisoner of war in Korea during the early 1950s. The family moved a great deal, and while Harris spent most of her childhood in North Carolina, she attended high school in Woodbridge, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
Harris studied drama at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before dropping out to move to New York City and pursue a musical career. While performing folk and country music in Greenwich Village clubs and coffeehouses and waitressing, Harris met songwriter Tom Slocum, whom she married in 1969.
Harris recorded her debut album, Gliding Bird (1970), with the small folk music label Jubilee, which filed for bankruptcy shortly after the albums release. Later that year, Harris and Slocum moved to Nashville to try their luck on the country music scene. The marriage failed that same year, and Harris moved back to her parents' farm outside Washington, D.C., with her infant daughter, Hallie.
Harris resumed singing and playing the guitar in D.C., which was becoming known for its unique receptivity to country, folk and bluegrass music. While performing with a trio at local bars, Harris met several members of the maverick country-rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers, who introduced her to their ex-bandleader, Gram Parsons. Parsons had just begun his solo career, and needed a female vocalist to sing harmony on his debut solo effort, GP (1972).
Harris became Parsons' protégé of sorts, and learned a great deal from his groundbreaking country-rock fusion style. She also went on tour with Parsons and his backup act, the Fallen Angels, and returned to the studio with him in 1973 to record his acclaimed follow-up album, Grievous Angel. Tragically, in September 1973, Parsons died in a California hotel room from a heart attack brought on by drug and alcohol abuse.
After the untimely death of her mentor, Harris formed her own group, the Angel Band, and signed with Warner Bros./Reprise Records. In Los Angeles with producer Brian Ahern, Harris recorded and released her solo major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. Ahern and Harris were married in January 1977, and Ahern would helm all of Harris' next 10 albums. An eclectic collection of covers of songs by artists as diverse as Merle Haggard and The Beatles, Pieces of the Sky spawned the Top 5 country hit "If I Could Only Win Your Love," by the Louivin Brothers.
She recorded her second album, the top-selling Elite Hotel (1976), with a new backup band called the Hot Band, which included two sidemen who played with Elvis Presley. Anchored by the success of two No. 1 hits, "Together Again" (written by Buck Owens) and "Sweet Dreams" (written by Don Gibson), Elite Hotel earned Harris a Grammy Award for Best Country Female Vocal Performance and marked her breakthrough into the top ranks of country-folk performers.
Before the end of the 1970s, Harris released five more albums, including Luxury Liner (1977), Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris (1979) and Blue Kentucky Girl (1979), the last of which won her a second Grammy. Blue Kentucky Girl was Harris' sixth straight gold album. She also sang guest vocals on Bob Dylan's 1976 album Desire. Harris gave up touring while pregnant with her second child, Meghann, and instead recorded a hit Christmas album, Light of the Stable (1979), with a title single that featured guest vocals by Dolly Parton, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt.
The acoustic bluegrass album Roses in the Snow (1980) also went gold, as did Evangeline (1981), a compilation of songs left off previous albums. Around that time, several key members of the Hot Band, including backup singer/songwriter Ricky Skaggs, left to begin solo careers, and Harris' marriage to Ahern began to disintegrate. After two less successful studio albums (1981's Cimarron and 1982's White Shoes) and one live effort, 1982's Last Date, Harris and Ahern separated in 1983, and she moved back to Nashville.
Joining forces with the singer-songwriter Paul Kennerley, with whom she had worked before, Harris wrote and recorded a semi-autobiographical album, The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985). The album had mediocre sales, but was seen by critics as a defining moment in the evolution of Harris' unique musical style, a blend of pop, folk, gospel and blues mixed with a strong dose of pure, traditional country. After touring together in 1985, Harris and Kennerley were married.
After two more solo albums—Thirteen (1986) and The Angel Band (1987)—Harris recorded Trio (1987) with fellow luminaries Parton and Ronstadt. The album quickly became Harris' bestselling effort to date, featuring such hits as "To Know Him is to Love Him" by Phil Spector, "Telling Me Lies," and "Those Memories of You." She closed out the decade with another solo album, Bluebird (1988).
Harris made an auspicious beginning in the 1990s with the release of Brand New Dance (1990) and Duets, the latter was a compilation of her earlier hits with artists such as George Jones, Willie Nelson and Gram Parsons. With a new backup band, the Nash Ramblers, she released a second live album, At the Ryman (1992). In 1993, Harris left Warner/Reprise and signed with Asylum Records. Her marriage to Paul Kennerley also ended that year.
After the release of Cowgirl's Prayer (1993) and Songs of the West (1994), Harris switched gears, teaming with the producer Daniel Lanois (best known for his work with such artists as Dylan, U2 and Peter Gabriel) to record her most experimental album to that date, Wrecking Ball (1996). More rock-oriented than Harris' previous albums, Wrecking Ball showcased Harris' throaty vocals on tracks written by, among others, Neil Young (the title track, which featured Young on backing vocals) and Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love").
An enormous critical success, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album and helped revitalize Harris' career. That same year, she released a three-album retrospective, Portraits, including selected songs from her years with Warner Bros.
A resurgent Harris released three albums in 1998 and 1999, including Spyboy, named for her new band; Trio II, which reunited her with Ronstadt and Parton; and Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, with Ronstadt. She also toured with the popular all-female Lilith Fair and further strengthened her ties to a new generation of fans and performers. In 2000, Harris released her first album of original material in five years, the acclaimed Red Dirt Girl, which featured appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa and Dave Matthews.
Harris released her next album, Stumble into Grace, in 2003. She collaborated with artists such as Shawn Colvin and Rachel Portman for the soundtrack of the film Because of Winn-Dixie (2005). In July of the same year, she released The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways. In 2008, for her extensive work in country music, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Harris released her 21st studio album in 2011, Hard Bargain, which showed the singer paying tribute to her fallen mentor Gram Parsons. She released a duets album with old band mate Rodney Crowell called Old Yellow Moon in 2013 which went on to win a 2014 Grammy for Best Americana album.
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