For decades, Emmylou Harris has presided as the reigning queen of alt-country. But there was a point when her crown had grown slightly tarnished.
In the mid '90s, she recalls, "I think I had just been treading water. And it was no one's fault, not even my fault. But where does inspiration come from? A lot of times, you need to do some kind of change that creates an opening."
For Harris, that opportunity came via Wrecking Ball, the velvet-textured, covers-centered masterpiece she created with veteran producer Daniel Lanois, which went on to win her the 1996 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Now, she and Lanois have hit the road to recreate Wrecking Ball live. The album was also just reissued in a deluxe three-disc set, including one CD of outtakes and a DVD devoted to the documentary, Building the Wrecking Ball.
"I was just in the moment, you know, and the sound combined with the songs really inspired me," recalls the silver-haired song stylist. "The sound and the turbulent rhythms that Dan brought to those songs just ... just took me to another place. And it was really important for me. I think it gave me a second wind that I'm still benefiting from as an artist."
In fact, Harris just nailed another Grammy this year — her 14th — for Old Yellow Moon, a duets disc with Rodney Crowell, her former band guitarist. She also regularly headlines San Francisco's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a world-renowned Golden Gate Park gathering.
And much like Dorian Gray, Harris, now 67, never seems to age. But it's all an illusion, she chuckles. "The photographer is my friend. Lighting is my friend. But my mother was looking pretty good at 92, I have to say!"
Has the Wrecking Ball material — which includes covers of Steve Earle's "Goodbye," Gillan Welch's "Orphan Girl" and even Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" — held up over the years? The vocalist, whose crystalline, quavering trill could bring a phone directory to life, believes it has, even as she underplays her own role.
"I was more of a song interpreter, connecting with the sounds around me," says Harris. "But I think songs are kind of primal, in a way. Songs that have a certain truth to them? They take on more colors and facets as you get older, and they have a richer meaning. Then some other songs might fall away, like a drinking song or something that you did for fun. And you feel like, 'Why should I bother with that?'"
Harris has other irons in the fire, as well. For instance Bonaparte's Retreat, the Nashville animal shelter she launched 10 years ago to honor her late poodle mix Bonaparte, who had accompanied her everywhere on tour.
She is also putting on her third annual Woofstock festival this June, which will feature Amy Grant, Holly Williams and a host of other animal-loving Music Row chums. Canines are welcome. "And obviously there are dogs up for adoption — that's kind of the whole point," she says of her fundraiser. "We wanted to do a day where people could celebrate their dogs and what an important part they play in our lives."
Meanwhile, the singer is just happy to reintroduce the underappreciated Wrecking Ball to a new generation of music fans. "And it's not even an anniversary — it came out in '95," she points out. "But I think this record deserves another shot. So why not celebrate a record like this?"