Commentary

Like baseball, Emmylou Harris is back

Originally Published: April 21, 2011
By Mary Buckheit | Special to ESPN.com

April has been quite an eventful month for the vocal legend, Emmylou Harris.

[+] EnlargeEmmylou Harris
Brendon Thorne/Getty ImagesEmmylou Harris, 64, says touring keeps her young: "I still feel full of energy and I still have a real passion for what I do."

After celebrating her 64th birthday at the beginning of this calendar page, she is now showered with excitement surrounding the release of "Hard Bargain," her 21st studio album, set to drop Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Country Music Hall of Famer, 12-time Grammy winner and Billboard Century Award recipient is poised to kick off a four-month international tour at the El Rey in Los Angeles. But even with all this excitement, the illustrious troubadour maintains that baseball has her perennially enthused this time each year.

We caught up with the lovely luminary by phone to talk about the archives, her new album and the Atlanta Braves.

The Life: We're told you're a pretty serious Atlanta Braves fan. Can you prove it? Do you know Chipper Jones' real name?

Harris: Larry. I thought I was being tested. This is a test?

The Life: You passed. You really are a baseball fan.

Harris: I'm always excited when April rolls around because I have baseball back.

The Life: Do you remember where you were in 1995, the last time the Braves won the World Series?

Harris: That was a really good year for me, too, 1995. That is when my album "Wrecking Ball" came out. It was kind of a pivotal record for me; a rejuvenation of my music, a turning point creatively, I think. I remember that I was playing The Bridge Concert -- Neil Young's benefit concert that he and his wife, Peggy, do every year for The Bridge School -- and so I wasn't able to watch the game and somebody came up to me and told me the Braves won the World Series. And I said, "Yesss." That's what I remember.

The Life: Let's look back on the early years. Hank Aaron hit his 715th in 1974. What was your hallmark of 1974?

Harris: In 1974 I was trying to get my first little band together. That year marked kind of a traumatic point in my life, but I had a lot of support from friends and family and a lot of good things ended up coming out of it. I was very much still figuring out what I was going to do with myself but I got a record contract [Reprise Records], made my first record ["Pieces of the Sky"], and then I hit the road. That was about the beginning of it all.

The Life: Between 1975 and 1989, you released 13 studio albums, plus your platinum "Trio," a collaboration record with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. How did you become a baseball fan when you were so busy making all those records?

Harris: It goes back to 1990 when I started a bluegrass band with a fellow named Sam Bush. Sam is a huge baseball fan. He is very passionate, very interesting, funny and loves the Cardinals. Throughout our tour together, it just so happened that every day off we had was in a city with a baseball team, so we started going to baseball games. In fact, we came to call it, "The Stadium Tour." Which was a kicker, because Sam and I were playing all the clubs, and then we'd go to stadiums on our days off. But of course, the real popular acts play the stadiums and hang at the clubs afterward.

The Life: If Sam Bush was a St. Louis fan, who were you rooting for?

Harris: Well, the World Series that year was between the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland. I asked Sam who I should root for and he said, "Well, I don't care about either team, but you gotta go for the National League." So I started rooting for the Reds. Everybody thought that Oakland was gonna sweep, but, of course it turned out that the Reds swept in four games and that was it for me. I said, "I like this game!"

The Life: Members of The Low Anthem, a band you toured with last year, told us in a recent interview that you're very vocal onstage about your reproach for the DH.

Harris: Yes, I always say that we're a National League band. What I mean is, if you play an instrument, you have to sing. So I always call our drummer up. Even the drummer has to take a turn on the microphone.

The Life: How did you come to support the Braves?

Harris: Really, when it came time to just sort of watch baseball, I only had two choices: I could watch the Cubs on WGN, or the Braves on TBS. I love Chicago but I didn't think I had enough soul to be a Cubs fan.

The Life: It's hard to believe that a lack of soul would keep Ms. Emmylou Harris from doing anything.

Harris: Well, yeah, I just really got into the Braves and that's when they were going from worst to first so it was a great time to come in and get caught up in being a fan. Their pitching was so exciting to watch and I really just fell in love with seeing a team do so well.

The Life: And now you've even got a T-shirt in your merch section that looks like the Braves Tomahawk logo. That's pretty cool.

Harris: Oh, I hope so, because actually I haven't even seen it yet.

The Life: The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. Where were you in 1966?

[+] EnlargeEmmylou Harris
Barry Brecheisen/Getty ImagesEmmylou Harris performs with Elvis Costello at Neil Young's 24th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert on Oct. 23 in Mountain View, Calif.

Harris: I was a freshman in college in North Carolina.

The Life: I was a 19-year-old freshman in college, in 1999, the first time I ever saw you sing. I was a dedicated Dave Matthews fan then, and you came out and sang a song with him at the Johnny Cash Tribute.

Harris: Oh yeah, "Long Black Veil" in New York. Sure, I remember that.

The Life: How does it feel to have a voice that is able to attract fans at so many different points of entry, and to have affected so many listeners across decades?

Harris: It's really wonderful to know that your music is cross-generational and that it has some kind of universal appeal. I'm just so grateful for every time I step out and there is an audience that seems to be enthusiastic about what we're doing. I'm blessed to be able to work at something that I'm good at, and that I love. It's not something I take for granted.

The Life: Your collaborations with other artists must also be something you're very proud of. Younger fans may have caught onto you while listening to Ryan Adams or Bright Eyes, while early adopters admire you work with Gram Parsons, John Prine, The Band, John Denver and other musical nobility. What do those co-ops mean to you?

Harris: It's so nice to be wanted. I'm very thankful for the chance to sing with some of my heroes and a lot of my favorite people -- Neil Young, and Mark Knopfler. And Bob Dylan years ago. And as for the younger artist, I really appreciate the collaborations and, a lot of times, that's how I'm able to learn about what they're doing because, there is so much music going on out here. Sometimes it's hard to take it all in.

The Life: A show that personally caught my eye on your upcoming schedule is the Dave Matthews Band Caravan Music Festival in Chicago where you'll share a stage with Ray LaMontagne, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Wailers, Ben Folds and Kid Cudi -- just to name a few. Talk about a lot of music.

Harris: You know, you probably know more about my schedule than I do right now. [Laughing.] After this long you don't really think about it. One day you're at home and the next day you're on the bus going somewhere else. To be honest, I don't even look at my schedule that closely, you know? I mean, I just really enjoy the road. Every place I play is an adventure and that sounds maybe like I'm not telling you the whole truth, but it's true. It really doesn't matter where we go, I enjoy something about the experience in every city. I do know that we are also going to Europe, and I certainly enjoy going over there, too. Touring is the way I see the world because I don't usually take vacations. You just have to learn how to pack.

[+] EnlargeSam Bush
Stephen A. Ide/Getty IkagesSam Bush, shown around 2000, got Emmylou Harris hooked on baseball back in 1990.

The Life: What's one thing that you never pack too far out of reach?

Harris: Antacids. [Laughing] And I also travel with a couple of dogs. That's really good for me. That's my company.

The Life: The musicians and athletes I speak to either complain that life on the road wipes them out, or they believe it keeps them young. Should I even ask where you stand on this one?

Harris: Oh, absolutely I think it keeps you young and I think I'm kind of the poster child for that. I still feel full of energy and I still have a real passion for what I do. I want to keep doing this as long as I can.

The Life: Well, "Hard Bargain" is your second record in less than three years so you're not exactly slowing down.

Harris: I've actually put out more records in less time, but these days this is about as fast as I'm gonna go!

The Life: How did the recording process of this one go?

Harris: Not that you can tell by listening to the record, but we made the whole thing with only three people -- myself, the producer, Jay Joyce, and a musician named Giles Reeves. They are very, very versatile musicians and very talented at playing a lot of different instruments, so the process was a bit unusual but I'm very pleased with the record.

The Life: What should fans expect from "Hard Bargain"?

Harris: People will have to decide for themselves if they like it. I don't think there is anything really new here, except the songs themselves. I did write 11 of the record's 13 songs. [Ron Sexsmith wrote the album's title track, and Jay Joyce wrote "Cross Yourself."] That's a little different for me as most of my career I've mostly covered other people's material. It's only in the last 10 or so years that I've really put an effort into writing more consistently. It's a challenge and something I'm going to keep trying to do, but basically I still really like to cover songs written by others. In the best-of-both-worlds scenario I have the option of doing both. I'm just gonna keep doing it all until they take me out and put me on the bench!

Mary Buckheit is a freelance writer based in San Diego. Reach her at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.