Emmylou Harris Makes Room For A New Passion

Emmylou Harris is looking out the window of her writing sanctuary, a small room in the upstairs of her house. Two friends are walking in the backyard.

One is her longtime friend Kate Derr. The other is a black and white hound dog named Scooter.

“I think he’s just sort of been a professional stray all his life,” she says of Scooter. “He’s a beautiful dog. Very handsome.”

Scooter is more than just a visitor: He lives with Harris, albeit in another house at the edge of her property. His accommodations are part of Bonaparte’s Retreat, Harris’ at-risk dog rescue that she started in 2004.

“There are five dogs in the bunkhouse area. One dog is going to live permanently in the office,” she says. “He has some fear issues with people he doesn’t know. But once he gets to know you, he’s just a big, loveable dog.”

The Country Music Hall of Famer calls her rescue work her second career: “The animal piece, there’s a little more urgency to it. I feel like I’m – well I am – dealing with life and death, so I suppose it’s a different kind of passion.”

But she hasn’t given up her day job. She’s got a new album, Hard Bargain, out this week. And in some ways her two passions are symbiotic. One of the 11 new songs she penned for the album is called “Big Black Dog.” The song’s about Bella, a dog with “a little too much gray around the muzzle” that she adopted.

Harris penned the tune, and the other songs on her album, in her writing room in her home in Nashville. Bob Dylan is in the disc player and pictures from various periods in her life and career are on the wall.

“For some reason I felt very comfortable in here, like a little nest or something up in the trees, you know?” she said. “I just said, `Well, I need to try to write,’ so I just literally locked myself away like the character in `Rumpelstiltskin:’ `Don’t come out of there till you spin all that straw into gold!’ So I got a big bunch of straw.”

Harris emerged from the room having taken something of an emotional journey. She visits two of her greatest influences, Gram Parsons and Kate McGarrigle, ponders difficult questions like stolen youth, death, the quick passage of time, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and does it in a subtle, stripped down way that’s simple yet still powerful.

The 64-year-old played the songs for sometime-collaborator Jay Joyce and asked him to produce the album. He brought in Giles Reaves and the three joined an engineer and Joyce’s sweater-chomping dog Clarence in Joyce’s studio to lay down simple versions of the songs.

“Emmy would play guitar and sing and we would, depending on the song, choose an instrument that was working, and we’d just kind of jam around and get the live piece done, then put some colors on top of that,” Joyce said. “There were no session players coming and going. It was just a hang.”

Harris’ collaborators often come away mesmerized after working with her, and Joyce definitely experienced the magic she’s spun over her 40-year career.

“She’s just got a real wisdom about her,” Joyce said. “You just kind of forget you’re making a record, you know. You’re just having fun playing music. I think that’s why she’s still a force because she’s always just been kind of about the music. She’s kind of like one of the people in the band. She comes from that sort of place.”

She got that from her time with Parsons, a deep influence whom she worked with for a short time before his death in 1973. It was Parsons who showed her – and many rock `n’ roll friends – the beauty of traditional country music. She opens the album with “The Road,” a nostalgic remembrance of Parsons. It is an expansive look at their relationship, one that sent Harris on the way to iconic status.

She sings: “You put me on that path/How could I refuse?/And I’ve spent my whole life out here working on the blues.”

“It was like my ears opened up for the first time and I heard the connection between my ear and my heart,” Harris said. “I crossed a line. It changed the way I heard music. It doesn’t mean country music is the only music, but it became my home base. It became my point of departure, where I could gather in all these other things. But it was like ground zero for me.”

She recently added an electric guitar player to her touring band and said she was beginning to feel excited about sharing the songs with her fans on the road. That means she’ll have to leave her rescue mission to her trusted friends for a while. But she was feeling that old passion for music again, and was ready to chase it for a while.

“And I’ve also started to think about bringing in old material that I haven’t done for a while,” Harris said. “It keeps everything fresh and new.”