WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Country music star Emmylou Harris is coming back home again.
Harris, whose award-winning career took off on a mix of her pure, folk-music voice with a hard-driving country rock band, starts a U.S. tour this week with two shows at the Birchmere, a venerable club near Washington D.C., where it all started.
It’s a return to her roots for Harris, who went to school in the region and was discovered singing in a bar in the Georgetown area of Washington by ill-fated rock star Gram Parsons.
“As far as my musical career, my life, so much of it emanated from my time in D.C. and the people I met,” she said, speaking by phone from her current home in Nashville. “There was a club scene happening where you didn’t have to have a record contract, and you could play your own music,” she said.
Harris’s association with Parsons, who sang with the Byrds and is credited with making U.S. country music cool for younger listeners in the 1970s, brought her to Los Angeles to record and tour with him.
Her solo career took off in the latter part of that decade, and eventually eclipsed that of her mentor, who died a drug-related death in 1973, aged 26.
“He opened my ears and my soul, really, to country music... Gram helped me to find my true voice. I was an imitator up ‘til then,” Harris says of Parsons, who introduced her to the traditional country musicians who were snubbed by Harris’ rock ‘n roll loving peers.
Harris’s classics “Elite Hotel” and “Luxury Liner” were among five gold records she earned from 1975-1979, which set the pace for the country-inflected rock of the period. In total, seven of her solo albums went gold and a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton in 1988 went platinum.
She has sustained her career by weaving in and out of styles, ranging from the bluegrass live album “Live at the Ryman” to the moody, atmospheric “Wrecking Ball,” produced by U2 and Bob Dylan collaborator Daniel Lanois. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Initially independent of the conservative country music establishment, she jokes that people buying her records were also buying records by new wave band Talking Heads.
Along the way, Harris has passed along the favor of Parsons’ mentorship, bringing a series of lesser-known artists to prominence by recording their songs or playing with them. Her current tour teams her with New England singer Patty Griffin, singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin and alternative country guitar master Buddy Miller.
“I just want to find music by people that inspires me,” she said. “It’s a gift when someone comes along like Patty.”
Her recent album “All I Intended to Be,” which is featured on the new tour, marks a return to a more intimate, stripped-down sound.
The album includes two songs recorded in part at the rural Canadian home of singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
“The sound of their voices ... to me is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world,” Harris said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it ... talk about being in their own world, kind of from their own planet.”
Harris’s artistic vitality, mastery of different styles and enduring success with core fans has provided her with a hard-won independence.
“I’ve managed to survive ... because of an incredibly loyal fan base,” she said. “Either people are moved by your music or not.”
Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte