Lyle Lovett calls her ”the female country singer of our time.” Rodney Crowell says, ”Every woman artist in this business has been influenced by her dignity of spirit.” Sure, Harris has an impeccable ear and loads of integrity, but that’s just the icing on her cool cake. You can thank her for paving the way through the wigs and glitter of ’70s country music to a new, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea-populated place. Among the first country artists to bring a folk sensibility to the genre, Harris injected a much needed dose of reality with her unaffected, unsexed-up beauty. ”Cool?” Harris laughs. ”Does that mean I can stop worrying about it for the first time since high school?” At 46, the prematurely silver-haired singer and rhythm guitarist is unimpressed with the critical drooling that goes on over her, preferring to attribute her integrity to her ”blissful ignorance of all the rules. And I’ve been real fortunate in having extraordinary musicians working for me who set a standard.” No lie. Harris’ Hot Band, formed in 1975, includes such illustrious alumni as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Albert Lee, and Crowell. They were famous for breathing new life into hard-core country with electric guitar and the attitude and rhythm of rock. Harris says it was country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons who inspired that unexpected combo. A member of the Byrds on their seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and a founder of the Flying Burrito ! Brothers, the now-legendary Parsons met Harris in 1971 in Washington, D.C. The two went on to collaborate on the acclaimed albums GP and Grievous Angel before his 1973 death of a drug overdose at 26. ”Until I started working with Gram, I was just a hippie folksinger who didn’t really hear the poetry in country music,” says Harris, who was born in Birmingham, Ala., grew up a ”service brat” in the D.C. suburbs, and now (after three marriages) lives in Nashville with her two daughters, Meghann, 13, and Hallie, 23. ”It was Gram who said we should be singing traditional country. He understood that it belonged with rock & roll. I feel funny getting all the credit when all I’ve been doing is carrying on the music I thought Gram would have done.”
Since coming to country through what she calls the ”back door” of folk, Harris has achieved an archival knowledge of the form without being precious, interpreting other people’s songs in her own ethereal yet down-home style. But while her steady stream of well-reviewed albums steered clear of country’s embarrassing ”urban cowboy” and ”outlaw” periods, the raves have never added up to big sales. Despite six Grammys, only her harmonizing with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on Trio (1987) went platinum. Still, Harris stuck to her guns (the integrity thing), even quipping, ”I decided that all my fans died at once of a mysterious disease.” Now she says simply, ”I tend to cover eccentric, slightly twisted songs that appeal to a small number and always will, and that’s never bothered me because I still am more popular than I ever could have imagined. After the first album came out, somebody said it was number 107 on the charts.” She laughs. ”I mean, it never occurred to me that I would even make it to the charts!” In September Harris will release her 22nd album, which is as yet untitled. Although she prefers to unearth old gems rather than write her own songs (”Writing really intimidates me,” she admits), there will be a self-penned tune on it, as well as a cover of a new song by one of her favorite singer- songwriters, Lucinda Williams. As always, Harris is unconcerned about her album selling a million copies. In fact, she says her only fear is that her music will become ”just more background noise.” Not a snowball’s chance in hell, Emmylou.