Emmylou Harris is a country music icon and LGBTQ ally. This conversation took place when she performed at the 2012 HRC Nashville Equality Dinner.
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You've been known throughout the years as a consistent supporter of equality issues. Beyond your own personal convictions, why do you feel it's important to stand up and speak out in a public way?
Harris: When you are an artist and you have visibility, there are certain things you have an opportunity to do and, as you say, speak out. I don't understand why we're having problem, and why we all can't get along. So many friends of mine who have a different sexual persuasion are having these problems. I don't understand why they should be, why they have their lives made so difficult. It's so important if you feel as I do, and I think most people in this country feel that way, to speak out. There are so many other issues. Let's focus on poverty, war and hunger, and about killing animals and animal cruelty.
Emmylou Harris - Red Dirt Girl (Live at Farm Aid 2005)youtu.be
Many musicians say their sole responsibility is to entertain the audience and avoid delving into social and political issues. How do you feel about using your own celebrity as a platform for your causes?
Harris: For musicians that are successful artists, we are truly blessed to do the work we love and to make a living. I think it's our sacred responsibility to give back. When you have an opportunity you have to give back, as I do with an issue that's close to me---animal rights and working against animal cruelty and euthanasia. There are millions (of people) in this country and it takes everyone else involved in the issue to do something. The people involved at HRC do the heavy lifting. For the artists, it's such a small thing and such little effort to come join in. We add our voices to whatever we can do to put a little muscle to the issue, and speak out (to make others) think about it.
What are your thoughts on anti-gay legislation that has put Tennessee into the national spotlight?
Harris: I believe one day it's just gonna go away like segregation. I think the new generation is going "What? What is this all about?" We all have friends that deal with this problem, and it shouldn't be a problem. This generation, and all the people I associate with, you get surprised by it when you realize that this is still going on. It seems to me everyone in this world should have a right for happiness or peace wherever they can. We're all in the same boat: we all lose people in our lives and we all suffer heartbreak and we all have problems. Can't we just be kind to each other and respect each other? It seems sometimes so absurd to me that this is still an issue. We have real problems that affect everybody, and politicians and all of us as people have prejudices. But it's important to be decent and kind and respectful. Let people live their lives. That's what this country was based on, regardless of what some people would like you think.
Although you've often expressed your admiration for classic country artists such as George Jones and Merle Haggard, you also have a great ability to approach your music from a progressive perspective. Have you always had this inquisitive nature about different forms of music?
Harris: I think it's something that happened over a period of time. I became passionate about music during the folk renaissance when there was a big folk explosion. I got a guitar and began learning songs from Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan. I also got into bluegrass then. Country came a little bit later with my work with Gram Parsons. I came to realize the beauty and poetry of country music through Gram. I kind of came through the side door, so I did things that maybe you weren't supposed to do. When I got the opportunity to make a major album with Reprise (Records), I did a song by Dolly Parton, one from the Beatles, one by Rodney Crowell. It seemed perfectly natural. It was all about the song. I don't have a traditional country type of voice. I read once that style is a product of your limitations. If everybody could sing everything, then we wouldn't have Every voice is unique; every experience is unique. All those things come together different, and you make it your own. Music has brought a great deal of joy to my life, and I've had the chance hang out with musicians who are very compassionate and very interesting people.
Your numerous roles—social activist, animal rescue organizer, traditional country music torchbearer—seem to all involve people and projects that are hanging on the fringes of society. What draws you to these often compromised characters?
Harris: You could say the same for so many artists. It's just part of what we should be doing. We couldn't do it without the organizations that are already out there. As artists, our time is mainly put into work and our creative work. (For these causes) we just show up and take the applause. (laughs) There have been huge gains on this issue, but a lot of work left to do.
Emmylou Harris & The Nash Ramblers on Austin City Limits "Roses In the Snow" (1993)youtu.be
You're renowned as one of country's greatest interpreters of songs, but recent albums have included many of your own compositions. Was it a concerted effort to do so?
Harris: I wouldn't say it comes naturally. (laughs). After I made Wrecking Ball, which was produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson), he said that I really needed to write. About the same time, Guy Clark told me "You need to write your next record." I knew that it was time for me to head on a different path; you have to keep yourself fresh. So then I made Red Dirt Girl, and then I had a few songs on Stumble Into Grace and All I Intended to Be. I decided I really needed concentrate on the writing.
You've recently been nominated for a Grammy Award for your album, Hard Bargain. What does that recognition mean at this stage of your career?
Harris: It means I can keep working. (laughs) I can't imagine ever not working. I have no sense of retiring. Willie Nelson said once, "All I do is play music and play golf. Which one do you want me to give up?" I have continued to work all these years and go down different paths. I'm kind of out in left field. There's plenty of room out there!
The major-label system is so different from when you first made an album.
Harris: It's a very different world. With the internet and all this technology, people are being able to make records in their bedrooms. There's a freedom now, and a different way of accessing music. I was very fortunate when I came to the forefront. I had a really good label with Reprise. They had huge-selling artists, but the people that ran the label also liked artists that wouldn't sell millions but had a strong fanbase. They didn't make a distinction between artist. It wasn't a horse race that you couldn't win. Now I'm with a wonderful label in Nonesuch Records, and it's brought my music back to a beautiful place where you don't live and die by radio. They give you complete freedom to what you want; they're music junkies and really smart businessmen. I couldn't be with a better bunch.
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