Emmylou Harris Biography

A Biography of Country Folk Legend Emmylou Harris

John Mellencamp In Concert - Queens, New York
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Emmylou Harris was born on April 2, 1947, in Birmingham, Alabama. She grew up in a military family. Her father, Walter, was a decorated marine pilot who spent several months in a Korean prisoner of war camp. The family bounced around the country because of his service.

Although she was born in Birmingham, Harris spent her childhood in North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, where she graduated from high school as valedictorian. She then went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. She began studying music seriously and learned how to play Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs on the guitar.

Harris dropped out of college and moved to New York City to pursue a music career, working as a waitress and performing on the Greenwich Village circuit. She married songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969 and recorded her first LP, Gliding Bird, in 1970. Shortly after, Harris' label folded and she found out she was pregnant. Harris and Slocum moved to Nashville in hope of hitting it big in the country music scene, but their marriage fell apart. Harris moved back to her parents' farm outside Washington, D.C. to raise her newborn daughter.

The Early Years

Harris continued playing in D.C. and she met several members of the legendary country rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers while performing with a trio at a local bar, and they introduced her to their ex-frontman, Gram Parsons.

Parsons was just beginning his solo career and he was looking for a female artist to sing on his first project, GP. The two hit it off immediately and Harris became Parsons' protégé. She joined him and his backup act, the Fallen Angels, on tour in 1973, then they returned to the studio to begin work on his sophomore release, Grievous Angel. Tragically, Parsons was found dead of a heart attack induced by drugs and alcohol in a California hotel room that September. The album was released posthumously.

Harris' Country Career

Harris formed her own group after Parsons' death, the Angel Band. She moved to Los Angeles after signing with Reprise Records. Producer Brian Ahern – who would become her husband and produce her next 10 albums – helped Harris release her first major solo debut, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. The album featured an eclectic mix of covers from The Beatles to Merle Haggard.

Then Harris got a new backup band, the Hot Band. Her second album, 1976's Elite Hotel, spawned the No. 1 hits "Together Again" and "Sweet Dreams." It also earned her a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

This was Harris' big break. She released four more albums by the end of the decade: Luxury Liner, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris and Blue Kentucky Girl, which earned her a second Grammy and marked her sixth gold album in a row.

Harris continued to ride the wave through the '80s. Roses in the Snow and Evangeline both went gold. Then several indispensable members of the Hot Band left to embark on solo careers and her marriage to Ahern deteriorated. Her follow up albums, CimarronWhite Shoes and the live album, Last Date, weren't nearly as successful as her previous works. Harris and Ahern divorced in 1983 and Harris found herself back in Nashville.

She released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a semi-autobiographical work, in 1985, with the help of singer-songwriter Paul Kennerley. The album was more of a critical than a commercial success. Many critics viewed it as a pivotal moment in Harris' career. Her unique musical style combining pop, folk and the blues now sounded noticeably more countrified.

Harris and Kennerley wed in 1985. Two more solo albums, Thirteen and The Angel Band, followed, and in 1987 she recorded Trio with fellow fixtures Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. The album has since sold more than four million copies worldwide.

Harris began the '90s on a good note with the releases of Brand New DanceDuets and At the Ryman, her second live album in which she was joined by a new backup band, the Nash Ramblers. Her marriage to Kennerley ended in 1993. Cowgirl's Prayer and Songs of the West followed in 1993 and 1994, and they were typical of Harris' sound.

But she decided to change things up with 1995's Wrecking Ball. It's noted as one of her most experimental albums to date and has an atmospheric feel. The album was a massive critical success, earned her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and proved that Harris is no country elder.

She followed Wrecking Ball with the live album Spyboy and with Trio II, her second collab with Parton and Ronstadt. Then she released Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, also with Ronstadt. Harris tapped into a brand new fan base by touring with the all-female Lilith Fair music festival.


Harris released Red Dirt Girl in 2000, her first album of original work in five years. Stumble into Grace followed in 2003. She released Heartaches & Highways: The Very Best of Emmylou Harris in 2005, then 2011 marked the release of Hard Bargain, a tribute album to Parsons. She released Old Yellow Moon in 2013a duets album with former bandmate Rodney Crowell. It won the pair a Grammy for Best Americana Album.

Harris had won 13 Grammy Awards as of 2013 and three CMA awards. She was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1992 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Popular Songs:

  • "This Is Us"
  • "If I Needed You"
  • "Two More Bottles of Wine"
  • "Red Dirt Girl"
  • "If This Is Goodbye"
  • "Boulder to Birmingham"
  • "Pancho and Lefty"

Recommended Albums:

  • Heartaches & Highways: The Very Best of Emmylou Harris (2005)
  • Trio (1987)
  • All the Roadrunning (2006)
  • Hard Bargain (2011)
  • Red Dirt Girl (2000)
  • Luxury Liner (1977)
  • Pieces of the Sky (1975)