emmylou harris was born on 2 april 1947 in birmingham, alabama. the daughter of a military pilot, harris moved with her family throughout north carolina, but spent the majority of her formative years between virginia and washington, d.c.. harris attended the university of north carolina, having earned a scholarship for dramatic studies, but it wasn't long before she found her true calling. local performances as part of a folk duo, formed with mike williams during her college years, inspired her to head for new york to take part in the folk music scene that had blossomed in greenwich village in the 1960s. in 1969, harris married tom slocum and landed a recording deal, but both would soon sour. not long after the release of her debut album, gliding bird, her label record went bankrupt, leaving her without the support necessary to bring her music to the attention of a larger audience. pregnant with her first child, the strain of harris' troubled career was too much on her marriage, and she and her husband parted ways, leaving harris to move back to washington, d.c. and raise their daughter, hallie, alone.
in 1971, harris met chris hillman, who introduced her to gram parsonsboth of whom were involved with the flying burrito brothers, a musical outfit known for exposing rock & roll audiences to a country & western sensibility. hillman, taken with harris' skill as a musician, had intended to invite her to join the flying burrito brothers, but wound up leaving the group to join stephen stills' manassa before that could happen. it was then that hillman thought of suggesting harris to parsons, who had been searching for a female vocalist to add depth to the solo project that he had been developing. impressed with her talent, parsons invited harris to los angeles to collaborate with him on his debut release, gp. not long after the release of gp, gram parsons died of a drug overdose. undaunted by the death of her new friend, harris returned to the east coast, enriched by the brand of country music to which parsons had exposed her. having received recognition for her contribution to the critically-acclaimed album, harris joined forces with the angel band, which would later give way to her own hot band. harris' hot band, which would eventually see the names rodney cromwell, hank devito and albert lee pass through its roster, set the stage for the many ground-breaking accomplishments that harris would acheive throughout her career. harris' music straddled the line that separates folk and country music and, while the former tends to be a bit more liberal, the later tends to tolerate women only in the role of crowd-pleasing frontwoman. by establishing herself as a bandleader, as opposed to just a singer, harris identified herself as a force with which to be reckoned. the tenacity and determination responsible for ushering the talent of country luminaries from ricky skaggs to vince gill to the public consciouness would serve as a driving force many times over throughout the course of her career.
harris' work with the angel band landed her a recording contract with reprise records, which drew her back to los angeles. harris' major-label debut, pieces of sky, was successful not only because it spawned the hit single "if i could only win your love", but also because it did win her the love of producer brian ahern. 1976's follow-up album, elite hotel, was recorded with the hot band, the line-up of which now included two former elvis presley musicians. elite hotel spun off two number one hits in "together again" and "sweet dreams", and earned harris a grammy for best female country vocal. a prolific songwriter and musician, harris churned out one solid album after another, releasing luxury liner, quarter moon in a ten cent town, profile and blue kentucky girl back-to-back. for the later, harris earned her second grammy award and, with its decidedly country flavor, set the stage for roses in the snow, an exploration of acustic bluegrass. in 1980, harris released the christmas album light of the stable, further expanding her growing audience. with undeniable talent and a musical style that successfully straddled country and folk music, it was natural that harris and her band would establish for themselves a considerable audience of dedicated fans.
though she had already won two grammys, it wasn't until the release of 1981's evangeline that harris came to know the thrill of receiving a gold record. harris followed up the compilation with cimarron and 1982's live effort, last date. white shoes marked the end of harris' professional relationship and marriage to ahern, allowing her to embark upon a romantic and professional collaboration with paul kennerley, whom she married in 1985. in 1986 and 1987, harris released thirteen and the angel band, respectivelythe later a collection of traditional country songs.
having established herself as a legend within the country and folk communities, harris joined with fellow divas linda ronstadt and dolly parton, in 1987, to release the critically-acclaimed trio. the fulfillment of recording with her fellow country icons, coupled with the commercial success of trio, inspired harris to record duets, on which she collabortates with a veritible panthaeon of country music dieties. bluebird and brand new dance ushered harris into her third decade in the music business and set the stage for another of her most startling accomplishments. backed by a new band known as the nash ramblers, harris was determined to record an album at the now-defunct birthplace of the grand ole opry, the ryman theater. her 1992 recording, at the ryman, was such a success that it inspired the restoration of the great landmark to its original glory. moreover, by recording at the rymanand continually covering songs by country and bluegrass legends, such as bill monroe, steve earle and nanci griffithharris was conveying her sentiments regarding a country music industry that was already showing signs of the commercially-based changes that would not see fruition for several years to come.
in 1993, harris parted ways with both reprise records and paul kennerley, releasing cowgirl's prayer on asylum records. it was roughly at the time of her 1994 release, songs of the west, that the music industry noticed a dramatic change in nashville. capitalizing on a strategy as old as billie holiday and popularized by motown mogul, berry gordy, nashville turned its back on its traditional and established country legends in favor of more cross-over-ready acts that would be more likely to appeal to a larger audience. having witnessed once-marginal musical genres such as r&b and hip-hop gain legitimacy with acts that hitched their wagons to more conventional pop stylings, country music set out to earn itself a place at the table with acts such as whitney houston and salt-n-pepa. gone were the days of the rhinestones and leather fringe of artists such as dolly parton and tammy wynette in favor young, new artists such as faith hill and trisha yearwood.
refusing to be just another country music memory, harris again set out on a bold, new course of action. melding her folk and country influences with rocka genre typically more loyal to its legendsharris produced wrecking ball, considered by some to be her most ingenious effort in a career replete with ingenuity. collaborating with artists such as producer/songwriter daniel lanois, neil young and lucinda williams, wrecking ball drew the attention of an entirely different audience to harris' considerable talents. recognizing her newly-found popularity with a previously-untapped market, warner music released a three-cd collection of harris' work, in 1995. harris further established herself within the rock community with the 1998 release of spyboy and appearances as a featured performer at the female-focused lilith fair summer concerts. also in 1998, harris again teamed up with dolly parton and linda ronstadt for trio 2, once again landing her on the country music charts, the irony of which was not lost on asylum records president evelyn shriver who commented, "so, here we have three women in their 50s, who country radio had turned away from, and they're turning country music on its head again."
in 1999, harris received the honor of being named the eighth recipient of billboard magazine's prestigious century award, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the world of music. billboard's editor-in-cheif, timothy white, commented on the announcement in the may 8th issue of the magazine, saying, "as both a truly venturesome, genre-transcending visionary and a provocative guardian of country music's living heritage, emmylou harris has uncompromisingly advanced the cause of roots music in our nation and its artistic and cultural resonance around the world." he goes on to say, "harris' recordings are the sound of a brave, honest, intelligent heart, digging deeper to help us all grasp music's ability to alter our inner and outer worlds for the better. anyone who thinks music, and those who make it, cannot change, and even revolutionize, the way our culture sees itself should acquaint themselves with her incomparable body of work."
now in her 50s, emmylou harris inadvertently makes one of the boldest statements of her career by simply refusing to fade away. her music is not only more innovative and accomplished than it's ever been, but she has also flown in the face of convention by repeatedly introducing herself to new audiences. like her contemporariespatti labelle, cher, and tina turnerharris stands as an icon within her chosen genres. for not turning her back on a genre that, at times, failed to support her and for forging new trails, even when she didn't have to, emmylou harris is, truly, a diva.