Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 219
Fri. Sept. 20, 2013
Emmylou Harris & The Pretenders
Emmylou Harris once famously said, “I smoked country music but I didn’t inhale.” Lucky for all of us, Gram Parsons inspired her to try the good stuff, his brand of country music and the result was a career steeped in classic songs, accolades and lyrical memories we will never forget. Jessica Hundley recreated the moment, in the fall of 1971, when Gram first met Emmylou, as she wrote, in her book Grievous Angel: An intimate biography of Gram Parsons, “In the smoky back hall, amid the pervading smell of stale beer and cigarette, Gram took out his guitar and hit a chord, and the two of them were off, voices intertwined like lovers, everything coming together in one crystalline moment. Gram and Emmylou had been destined to sing together, each possessing a voice that made the other’s complete. By the end of the night, Gram was buzzing with excitement over the way Emmylou held his notes afloat, the way she followed his trail, reading his eyes and knowing innately, whether to travel up a note or down. At the hotel Gram grabbed Emmylou impulsively, hugged her tightly, then look at her dead on. They were going to make great music together, he could feel it. They were going to change each other, and there was no stopping it now.” Unfortunately, Emmylou and Gram only spent two years making beautiful music together, Parsons passed away in 1973.
In 1999, Harris recorded a duet with The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde on 1999’s tribute to her former collaborator Gram Parsons called Return of the Grievous Angel. My favorite cut from the album, the way that Hynde and Harris’ voice effortlessly intertwine with such beauty and lyrical grace you just know Gram must have been smiling from up above. Almost ten years after her collaboration with Emmylou Harris on 1999’s Return of the Grievous Angel’s most heartfelt tribute “She”, Chrissie Hynde finally went to Joshua Tree where she “had an epiphany” while paying her respects to Gram Parsons in 2008 as she explained to Music Radar, “But then I was in the Joshua Tree Park in California, and I wandered about and found the spot where Gram Parsons’ body was buried. I don’t know what happened, but I had a moment. A moment of clarity. The whole theme and direction of the album came to me and I knew what I had to do.” Hynde would once again channel Parsons inspiration to create her 2008 album Break Up The Concrete. Back in 2006, Looking back at her recording career, Chrissie said this BBC6, “I have been in the game a long time and I’ve sung with some of my favorite people – including Iggy Pop and Emmylou Harris.” Hynde had fond memories of her collaboration with Emmylou as she told WCity in 2012, “Emmylou Harris–a goddess. We weren’t in the same room either, but I have sung with her since and we’ve become friends.”
Did you know, Hynde’s friend Emmylou Harris was Gram Parsons initial inspiration for the song “She” from his 1973 album GP. Originally Emmylou started out as a folk singer but started singing Country music because of Parsons as she explained to the New York Times in 2013, “I started out being a fanatical lover of folk music. Country music, even though I was exposed to it, I just thought that I couldn’t be bothered with it. I could not hear the subtlety in it; I couldn’t hear the poetry in it. I was a Joan Baez wannabe. But Gram, he heard something in my voice. He thought I could sing country music. I started as a harmony singer, that was his way to kind of sneakily turn me onto this extraordinary body of music, and in singing country music I really found the place that my voice was supposed to be. It also made me appreciate the joys of working with a band, which meant a drummer, which was anathema to folk singers. I can’t imagine that I would have gotten to the place I am artistically or even vocally, if it hadn’t been for Gram.” When asked by CDNow, how Gram Parsons influenced her musically, Emmylou Harris replied, “Well, he really taught me how to sing. […]But Gram was different because he was bringing the poetry of his particular experience and generation into this form, this genre of music, and he was changing it. But he was keeping the heart and soul of it; he wasn’t just using it cosmetically, like, “Oh, isn’t that cute, a pedal steel.” He really understood things that the rest of us just hadn’t picked up on. What Gram was doing was very subtle, and it took me a while, but when I got it I was converted so thoroughly that, well, here I am [laughs].”
Looking back, Harris remembers fondly her time with Parsons when she said this to London Sunday Times in 1999. “Once we were on the road we sang all the time. We sang in the hotel room, we sang in the bus, we sang before the show, and the more he sang the stronger he got, and he wouldn’t be drinking. You know, I sometimes think if I’d been with him in the desert singing with him . . . things would have been different . . . but you can’t sing for ever.” Thankfully, this lovely rendition of “She” by Emmylou & Chrissie Hynde has been immortalized on wax for all of us to hear eternally. The music would is grateful that Gram Parsons convinced his angelic singing partner to inhale the beauty of country music. If you have any doubts about the everlasting vocal stylings of Emmylou Harris, all you have to do is pin this classic song inspired by Gram Parsons’ lyrical muse, The Grievous Angel was so right, “She sure can sing,” and we hope Emmylou keeps on crooning her celestial country voice until the end of time.
Click here to experience Emmylou Harris and The Pretenders exquisite tribute to Gram Parsons’ “She”