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Emmylou Harris back for fourth Ann Arbor Folk Festival appearance
On the title track of her latest album, last year’s “Hard Bargain,” Emmylou Harris sings that “I’m a bit run-down, but I’m OK.”
Rest assured she’s doing a little better than that.
Thirty-nine years after being introduced to the world by the late Gram Parsons on his “GP” album, Harris has achieved an iconic status as a singer, songwriter and song stylist. She’s released 26 studio albums under her own name, spanning from country to ambient pop and points in between. She’s released celebrated collaborations with Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler and as a trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. And along the way she’s notched two dozen Top 10 country singles and won a dozen Grammy Awards.
And even though she turns 65 in April, Harris — who’s making her fourth career Ann Arbor Folk Festival appearance this weekend — isn’t even close to being finished.
“No, I don’t understand this retirement contest,” she says with a laugh. “They asked Willie (Nelson) once when he was going to retire; he said, ‘All I do is play music and play golf. Which one do you want me to give up?’
“I don’t play golf, so ...”
Harris certainly has plenty on her plate these days. She’s still actively promoting “Hard Bargain,” which came out in April and debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Album chart, her best showing since 1980, and a career-best No. 18 on the Billboard 200. Harris wrote or co-wrote 11 of its 13 tracks, and she made it with just three people — herself, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves — in Tennessee.
“I figured it was time to put on the writing hat,” recalls Harris, who penned songs about Parson (“The Road”) and her late friend Kate McGarrigle (“Darlin’ Kate”) who died in 2010 from cancer. “I gave myself some time to write, cleared my schedule and sort of put my energy into writing. I gave Jay the songs as I would write them, and he really did his homework; when we started recording, he knew exactly where he wanted to go, and all I had to do was play and sing, which was great.”
Harris says the new songs also have made a significant impact on her live shows since the release of “Hard Bargain.”
“We perform a lot of the songs from the album,” she reports. “It’s always good to have new material you like to go with the old stuff that I still, fortunately, like. It keeps you fresh.”
Meanwhile, Harris has another fresh project in the making — a duets album with Rodney Crowell, a friend since 1974 and the original guitarist in her mid-’70s Hot Band.
“We always said, ‘We’ve got to do a duet record,’ and he’s been busy and I’ve been busy,” Harris says. “But earlier this year I just decided that I wanted to do a record with him, and if we didn’t book it and plan it and set aside some time, it would be something we’d get to the end of our lives and regret we’d never done it.”
Harris says she and Crowell are “pretty far along on the album, which will feature “mainly covers,” though the duo is also considering some of the songs Crowell wrote for others but never recorded himself. “It’s kind of a crazy quilt of material,” says Harris, who prefers to keep song list specifics “under my hat” for the time being. She also hopes a tour will follow.
Meanwhile, this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the first “Trio” album with Ronstadt and Parton. The Grammy Award-winning, chart-topping collaboration will be celebrated with a box set that will combine it and 1999’s “Trio 2” as well as session outtakes that Harris says “might be a real nice surprise for people.”
“That was a great thing to do,” Harris remembers. “Linda and I are really good friends ... and when we first actually met, the first thing we found out about each other was our favorite girl singer was Dolly Parton — and that was before either of us had met Dolly.
“It’s hard to believe it was that long ago, but I’ve got a lot of stuff that was a long time ago now. I’m just happy, and grateful, there are things going on now, too.”
The Ark’s 35th Ann Arbor Folk Festival takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at Hill Auditorium on the U-M campus, Ann Arbor. Ryan Adams, Devotchka, Dawes, Carbon Leaf, Elephant Revival, Sunny War and David Wax Museum perform Friday. Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Nanci Griffith, Joe Henry, Sarah Jarosz, Caravan of Thieves and Seth Glier perform on Saturday. Heywood Banks will emcee both nights. Tickets are sold out. Call 734-761-1452 or visit www.theark.org.
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