By Jim Simpson/Jason Estopinal
Emmylou. Like Elvis, Dolly, Liza and Frank, she’s attained single-name recognition. It seems as though she’s been around forever, but she arrived in Nashville in 1970, driving a beige Ford Falcon that she bought from her uncle for $400. She was waited tables at a Polynesian restaurant and then played and sang at a gay bar while nursing her first child (while not on stage, we’re sure). Nashville was a struggle the first time around, and she stopped playing.
She later moved to D.C. and began to play more clubs where folks took notice, including a visiting Gram Parsons. The rest, as they say, is history. Emmylou is a steadfast supporter of roots music and a skilled interpreter of compelling songs, and has sung with a dizzying array of top-notch, legendary artists; however, she’s not above backing up newcomers like Dylan LeBlanc.
We were privileged enough to chat with the multi-Grammy winner recently in L.A.
How did you first get involved in the Country Music Hall of Fame and to what end do you participate?
Well, I moved to Nashville in 1983 and it was shortly after that when I was invited to be a member of the board of the Country Music Foundation, which is the Hall of Fame, and I actually was president for a while and I don’t think I did anything but show up to the meetings and be kind of a cheerleader for that place, because its an extraordinary place. And besides all the cool stuff like, you know, Elvis Presley’s Cadillac and Patsy Montana’s boots, I mean it’s an amazing archive for all the music, all the stuff that’s been written about them, all the video clips and all the photographs, just an amzing treasure chest. It houses the history of country music. I’m emeritus right now, I guess that means I’m retired from the board, but I’m still welcome anytime.
We heard there was some damage to the ground floor.
I don’t think they lost anything. I think the main damage, I think water came up to the main stage in the Ford Theater, which is a fantastic little theater there in the Hall of Fame. But the flood happened in June, and in August they resumed their residencies, which they have one artist in residence for three to four weeks; you know one night a week and it was Buddy Miller, and I was there for two of those performances. They didn’t really miss a beat. Obviously, there was some damage — the insurance covered some of it — but a place like the Country Music Hall of Fame is always going to incur operating expenses, so we’re just going be here to make sure it stays open and that we never have to close our doors. We can keep on going because there’s always more stuff coming in, and history keeps marching on.
Tonight is a guitar pull, can you tell the people what that is and your first guitar pull?
Oh wow, I don’t know if I remember my first one, but it started probably not in a venue but in somebody’s living room — you know, songwriters in Nashville playing their material to each other. There’s a wonderful camaraderie that goes along with that. And somebody got an idea to do a show, probably at The Bluebird (which is still open) where songwriters can swap stories and songs, and people would pay to listen to them. [Tonight’s performance] is just a slight extension where we’re mainly having artists who are also songwriters to do their songs, or maybe somebody else’s. But you don’t bring a band and its just a wonderful fundraiser because there aren’t many expenses. You don’t have to pay for production, you don’t have to bring drummers, not that I have anything against drummers. But I’ve participated in these the last three years, and before that a few years ago we were raising money for the campaign for A Landmine Free World with John Prine, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Baez, just to name a few. W would have a different group of people almost every show and I find it very enjoyable because it’s different every night; you don’t know what songs everyone is going to do, and also you get to listen to the show as well as participate.
Any memorable one?
They all were. It was wonderful to be on stage with Joan Baez over in England.
It’s very exciting that you’ll be playing with Kris Kristofferson, do you remember the first time you guys met?
Gosh, I’m trying to think; I feel like I’ve known Kris forever. Obviously, I became a huge fan first probably by hearing his songs played by other people and then kind of discovering him as an artist. But no, you’re asking a person who’s been around too long to remember the first time I met someone, but I’m just glad that I did.
Country music has changed a lot since you and Kris started, how does it feel to have such a talented younger person like Taylor Swift, whose genre of might be a little bit different.
As music becomes more, I don’t want to say ‘global’, but the point is the pure forms of music, like the blues and country music, they came out of a certain social situation and a certain historical situation. Now, everybody listens to everything, at least I do. And I think most people listen to lots of different kinds of music, and as an artist you’re influenced by all different kinds of music. I think that’s healthy, and that’s how every generation reinvents itself artistically, because that’s just as true for a young artist today. That’s as true for what’s influencing them as somebody who grew up cut-off in the hollers of Appalachia. You might hear some electronic music and you’re a traditional artist and you just go ‘Yeah, I love that.’ That doesn’t mean you’re going to put it in your music, but it somehow has an influence on you.
Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, I have a new record coming out in the spring.
Who is producing it?
A fellow named Jay Joice.
Information on Emmylou’s early days in Nashville gleaned from They Came to Nashville by Marshall Chapman (2010, Vanderbilt Univ. Press/CMF).