Emmylou Harris goes eccentric -- Country's favorite quirky misfit is back with a new album and a new outlook on the music scene

By Jeff Gordinier
September 29, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Yes, Emmylou Harris admits. A couple of years back she did make a tour stop in Branson, the glitzy Missouri mecca for country music. Just once. It did not go swimmingly. ”Um,” Harris muses with careful diplomacy, ”it wasn’t my favorite venue. I don’t like to be negative about things, but I just sort of felt like me and the audience were in different worlds.”

Actually, they were. At 47, Harris may not come off like a rebel — her speaking voice sounds as soft and weightless as mist — but the singer has in fact spent two decades quietly confounding the rhinestone regulars of country music. In the early ’70s she toured with the twang-rocking renegade Gram Parsons. In 1990 she dumped her popular Hot Band and went bluegrass, hooking up with a crack hillbilly outfit called the Nash Ramblers. Heck, she once even turned Donna Summer’s ”On the Radio” into a hoedown. ”The people that are my mainstream,” Harris explains, ”the people that have been with me since the first record, come to me because of the digressions I make.”

Let’s hope so. Aptly titled Wrecking Ball, her new disc smashes most country conventions to smithereens. Produced by Daniel Lanois, the studio guru best known for his ghostly soundscapes, Wrecking Ball sets Harris’ soprano (and songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, who makes a cameo) in an otherworldly swamp of hushed tribal rhythms and trippy atmospherics. This time, Harris says candidly, ”I really don’t expect any country airplay.”

If that’s a strange thing to hear from a singer who’s racked up enough Grammys (six) and gold records (eight) to topple a trophy case, it’s also understandable. Even before she recorded Wrecking Ball, country deejays were ignoring recent Harris gems like Cowgirl’s Prayer and At the Ryman in favor of a bodacious brigade of Shania Twains and Billy Ray Cyruses. Not surprisingly, Harris lost interest in the Nashville assembly line. ”It seemed like everything had a sameness to it,” she confesses. ”There’s always some good stuff out there, but overall, the more popular country music has become, the more constricting and narrow it’s become.”

So where does that leave her now? Thanks to the budding clout of adult alternative radio, her label, Elektra/Asylum, has high hopes that Wrecking Ball will break through with the same crowd that clamors for Hootie & the Blowfish and Natalie Merchant. Last month Harris showcased Wrecking Ball at an alternative conference in Colorado; a tour may follow. But don’t look for Branson on the bill. ”I prefer going to where people live,” Harris offers, ”rather than to where people have been eating at all-you-can-eat buffets all day.”