Emmylou Harris back where it all started

Geoffrey Himes Special To The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — There’s a reason so many artists have signed on to take part in “The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert Celebration” on Saturday at Constitution Hall. Harris, 67, is so beloved in the roots-music industry for her generosity in singing on other people’s records and recording other people’s songs that Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Mary Chapin Carpenter and many more will be on hand.

And there’s a reason the concert is taking place in Washington: It was in this city and its suburbs that Harris’s career twice took a decisive turn.

In December 1971, the Flying Burrito Brothers were booked for a couple nights at Cellar Door, the brick-walled basement club in Georgetown. Gram Parsons had left the band more than a year earlier, but two other ex-Byrds, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, were still on hand. The new lead singer was Rick Roberts, a 21-year-old kid who had spent some time living in Washington. He knew the local club scene, and several of his old pals had told him about a female singer who was playing at Clyde’s, Emmylou Harris.

“Rick Roberts said, ‘There’s a girl singer down the street who’s very good. You should go see her,'” Hillman recalled in a 2003 interview. “So I did, and he was right; she was very good. At that time, she was more into that Joni Mitchell-Carolyn Hester folk thing. She had a real innocence about her and she had a really good voice. I told her, ‘You should really sing some country songs; they’re real emotional and would fit you real well.’ We got her up on stage to sing ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ with us at the Cellar Door.”

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Several months later, the phone rang at Harris’s parents’ house in Clarksville, Maryland. It was Parsons, whom she had vaguely heard of. He was telling her that Roberts and Hillman had spoken highly of her and he’d like to meet her. Why didn’t she drive to Baltimore, where he was playing a gig, and pick him up? No, she wasn’t driving up to Baltimore to meet someone she didn’t even know; if Parsons was serious, he could come down to Washington and meet her there.

Amused by her gumption, Parsons took the train to D.C. and met Harris at Clyde’s. It was pouring rain, and only five people showed up for her gig, two of them being Gram and his wife, Gretchen. Gram was so enthused, however, that he joined Harris in the basement amid the beer kegs to sing Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.” They sang it onstage during the second set, and Harris’s voice wrapped around Parsons’s as if they had rehearsed it for hours.

“It was so important to have someone to sing with,” Harris told me in 2012. “That’s how I learned to become a singer. When you’re singing with someone else, you have to have some restraint so you fit with the other voice. But you can’t think about having restraint; you just have to go with the song. And you have to respect the melody in country music; you can’t go off on your own and do whatever you want. That’s another kind of restraint that’s helpful.”

After the show, the band and Parsons and his wife walked over to a nearby house, rented by friends of Harris’ boyfriend and bassist, Tom Guidera. In the kitchen, according to Parsons’ biographer, Ben Fong-Torres, Parsons tested Harris with one of the trickiest country duets he knew, George Jones and Gene Pitney’s “That’s All It Took.”

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“She sang it like a bird,” Parsons told Fong-Torres, “and I said, ‘Well, that’s it.’ And I sang with her the rest of the night, and she just kept getting better and better.”

Harris had a major role on Parsons’ final two albums, 1973’s “GP” and 1974’s “Grievous Angel,” and on his legendary 1973 tour with the Fallen Angels. Between the releases of the two albums, however, Parsons died of a drug overdose at Joshua Tree National Monument on Sept. 19, 1973.

Harris mourned for a while, but she couldn’t mourn too long — she had rent to pay and a daughter to raise. It would seemed like a backward step to return to the solo folksinger routine, so she put together a country-rock band along the lines of the Fallen Angels. Guidera played bass; guitarist Bruce Archer, drummer Mark Cuff and steel guitarist Danny Pendleton filled out the quintet. The group landed a weekly gig in Bethesda, Maryland, at the Red Fox Inn, where Ricky Scaggs and members of the Seldom Scene often sat in.

“Once I started singing country music with Gram,” Harris said, “there was no turning back for me. Of course, Gram’s death was so tragic, it was like having your arm cut off. So I put together a country band and started playing the same clubs I had been playing folk music. But now I had a different sensibility.”

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Mary Martin, Parsons’s A&R representative at Warner Bros., called Toronto producer Brian Ahern, already renowned for producing Anne Murray’s early hits, and asked if he might like to produce Harris. He did, and he had some tunes that might fit her from a young, unknown songwriter named Rodney Crowell.

“I heard Emmy for the first time at the Red Fox Inn in Maryland with Mary Martin,” Ahern told me in 2004. “I recorded four sets of Emmylou and her band with my portable Uher cassette machine. Besides being visually very appealing, Emmy took control of the band and the stage. That impressed me. I didn’t want some namby-pamby singer.”

Harris, Ahern and Crowell soon relocated to Beverly Hills, where they recorded and released two albums in 1975, “Pieces of the Sky” and “Elite Hotel,” that changed country music forever by building a bridge between Parsons’s experiments and mainstream country radio. They made the records in California, but the crucial connections were forged in Washington.