Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Emmylou Harmonies

Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Emmylou Harmonies

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.


She was 34 years old and famous-to-the-ear-and-eye when Emmylou Harris helped create a Trio. She’d often paired up with other artists since she began her vocal career at Reprise Records in 1975. But this Trio took many breaths away.

Emmylou Harris liked to sing ensemble, and trio-ing up with two other stars, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, to sing as a group, that sounded original. It still does.

Harmonizing, but Not Yet in Trio

The three golden voices had been combined in earlier recordings, but never commercially. First of all, they each recorded for different labels. No-no. Each was a valued star on her own, and labels can get tough about giving up profits. So any duets and the like, they’d be credited like “she and accompanied by.”

Emmylou Harris had been open to collaborations for years. Here are some high points:

•With Gram Parsons: He was an ill-starred boy from Waycross, Georgia, who heard Emmylou sing in Baltimore, and she toured with him and sang on his two solo LPs for Warner, GP and Grievous Angel. They were together until his death of over-dose from morphine during a 1973 trip to Joshua Tree Monument. He was then 26.

•February, 1975. Her first Reprise album, Pieces of the Sky, was produced by Harris’ future husband Tom (a collaboration there, see?). Although a country singer by habit, Emmylou and Brian stretched out, covering writers from The Beatles (“For No One”), to Merle Haggard and The Louvin Brothers. Two singles charted: “Too Far Gone” and her duet with Herb Pedersen, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” which made it to #4 on the charts.

• Within her record label, the advice to her was “get yourself a hot band.” Solo singers were harder to promote on the road. Emmylou made a band with the help of Rodney Crowell, who’d been “found” by Emmylou with his song “Bluebird Wine” on that first album. Her band got called, perhaps to please the record company, her “Hot Band.”

Elite Hotel • Luxury Liner • Quarter Moon

• December, 1975. Emmylou and her Hot Band’s next album was Elite Hotel. Buyers of rock liked it, and buyers of country liked it. It went #1 on the Country chart, but rock buyers bought it big, too.

• Meanwhile, Emmylou “guested” on albums by others, blending in with Linda Ronstadt, Guy Clark, Neil Young, and even (uncredited) with Bob Dylan.

• January, 1977. Bigger and more: Next, out came her biggest LP yet: Luxury Liner, with songs she felt close to, from writers from Chuck Berry to Kitty Wells. Emmylou was in the center. People snuggled up to her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.”

• January, 1978. Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town was filled with original songs, not cover versions. And then more to come. But she wanted a different kind of home.

Emmylou had her career. Or as she told us in 1978:

“I don’t know what makes a hit record. You sing a song; you do it in a certain way and to you it’s done the right way. Luckily, the records sell, so I can keep making those records. I haven’t had any pressure from Warners to sell more. I’m sure they would love for me to have a pop single and at the same time I think they think that just might happen with something I just happen to do. Eventually I might accidentally make a hit pop record.”

• For the record, Emmylou released her next albums with a minor label switch to Warner Bros. Records from Reprise. Here those come:

Blue Kentucky Girl * Roses in the Snow * Evangeline/p>

• April, 1979: Blue Kentucky Girl. In this album came “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” with Emmylou Harris joined for background harmonies by Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. “Beneath Still Waters” became Emmylou’s fourth #1 Country hit.

• May, 1980: Roses in the Snow. The emphasis is on bluegrass backing here. “Wayfaring Stranger” got to #7.

• January, 1981: Evangeline. An earlier recording of “Mr. Sandman” with Parton and Ronstadt was disallowed by their labels, so for this album, Emmylou sang all three parts in a newly recorded version.

Cimmaron * White Shoes * Sally Rose

• November, 1981: Cimmaron, with three top-ten Country singles: “Born to Run,” “If I Needed You,” and “Tennessee Rose.”

• October, 1983: White Shoes. Two songs – “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz” and “Pledging My Love,” each made Billboard’s #9 Country chart.

• May, 1985: The Ballad of Sally Rose, loosely based on Emmylou’s early relationship with Gram Parsons, with songs now co-authored by Emmylou and her husband, Paul Kennerley.

Moving to Nashville

In 1987, almost ten years since the three of them had sung together, but couldn’t make an album together for legal reasons, that barrier got been busted. Emmylou, Dolly, and Linda invented a new act, and named it Trio. Their album came out big on Feb. 26, 1987.

Their recording became the biggest hit of Emmylou’s life. It spent five weeks atop the Country chart, and Top Ten on the Pop Albums chart. Millions of copies were sold. Four Top 10 Country hits, including a #1 in “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a song written by Phil Spector for his vocal group, The Teddy Bears.

Experience the Trio singing that one here:

And it is with pleasure that I recall that Trio came out on and was distributed by Emmylou Harris’ long-time label, Warner Bros.

Trio II

A follow-up would take 12 years to come out: Feb., 1999.

And this second Trio II was now released by WCI’s family, Asylum. (Emmylou holds still another, all-time record for albums issued on different WCI label deals: six of them, they being Warner, Reprise, Asylum, Elektra, Rhino, and Nonesuch.)

During that 12 year Trio-gap, the three ladies had been constantly busy, in different towns, and overdubbing was needed time and again. Trio II reached #5 in the Country charts. But it took until 1999 for it to emerge, and even then had to use girlhood pictures of the three, since getting them together for an album cover shot proved exhausting.

The hit in the album was the Trio singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”:

Her Living Room

During the 1989 recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II, she is heard remembering for those in the studio how her life began:

“Years ago, I had the experience of sitting around in a living room with a bunch of people, singing and playing, and it was like a spiritual experience. And I decided then: that was what I was going to do with my life, was play music, do music. In the making of records, I think over the years we’ve all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect. We’ve lost the living room. The living room has gone out of the music, but today, I feel like we got it back.”

And now, after years, decades of records, and many hits, Emmylou Harris has come home. To a living room, with a fireplace.

Decades have passed, but Emmylou still harmonizes. She still makes music and albums her way. She has that home of her own. She’s a grandmother, with white hair. She’s pure Emmylou.

-- Stay Tuned