The Polar Music Prize 2015 is awarded to the artist Emmylou Harris from Birmingham, Alabama. No one in the history of popular music has harmonised like Emmylou Harris. For five decades she has embellished other artists’ recordings by adding vocal parts that did not exist in the melodies. But it is as an artist in her own right that she has made the greatest contribution. The music of Emmylou Harris contains the history and topography of the entire American continent. Her voice follows the contours of the American landscape, from the highest peaks to the endless prairie. Weather, soil and colour, it can all be perceived in her music. As she sings in one of the best of her own compositions, she is a red dirt girl from a red dirt town. Emmylou Harris has also used her position as a musician to work for feminism, animal rights and the care of people affected by war. Emmylou Harris makes the world bigger and smaller, more valuable and more beautiful.
For the most part my songs are autobiographical in the sense that it has to come from a real emotional experience that I have gone through.
Emmylou Harris , 2011“
Childhood and education
Emmylou Harris was born on April 2, 1947, to a military family stationed in Birmingham, Alabama. She spent most of her childhood in North Carolina and Virginia where she graduated from high school. She enrolled in 1965 at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and majored in drama. She also started to seriously study music, playing songs of her great idols Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Harris finally dropped out of college and moved to New York by the end of the 60s, appealed by the folk scene centered around Greenwich Village.
From Greenwich to Nashville
Harris arrived to New York just at the time when the dynamic folk scene was more and more turning into the psychedelia and rock era of the 70s. She regularly performed folk and country music in Greenwich Village clubs, was a regular at the legendary folk club Gerde’s Folk City and worked at the same time as a waitress. Harris released her first album Gliding Bird in 1970, with some own compositions and featuring covers of fellow Laureates Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach.
From Nashville to Washington D.C
Just after the record’s release the label Jubilee declared bankruptcy, so the first album never got the distribution it deserved. Harris lived in Nashville for at short period with her husband singer songwriter Tom Slocum, but after their divorce she moved to the Washington area close to her parents.
Meeting Gram Parsons
Emmylou Harris played with Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera as a folk trio when Chris Hillman, ex-Byrds and at the time in the Flying Burrito Brothers saw her perform. He recommended her to the Burrito Brothers’ former front man and enfant terrible Gram Parsons, who looked for a female voice to sing on his solo project. Parsons and Harris connected musically and started working together for Parsons’ two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel. Emmylou Harris was also part of Parsons’ touring band The Fallen Angels.
Emmylou Harris could harmonize with a barking dog and break your heart.
David N Meyer, Twenty thousand roads - a biography of Gram Parsons , 2008“
Their magical duets and harmonies would characterize this meeting between country and folk, the path that Emmylou Harris would continue on during her whole career. The backup played by a rockband would also define what Parson would call his ”Cosmic American Music,” a trailblazing fusion of country and rock. They would tour for about a year with the Fallen Angels to promote Grams solo debut. The second album, Grievous Angel, with even more amazing vocal blend between them to would sadly be released posthumously in 1974 as Parsons tragically passed away in 1973.
A second debut
“Once I started singing country music with Gram,” Harris once said in an interview with the Washington Post, “there was no turning back for me.” Harris continued to perform with members from the Fallen Angels after the passing of Gram Parsons, now playing country music in the clubs where she used to play folk. Parson’s former A&R at Warner, Mary Martin, introduced her to producer Brian Ahern in 1974.
Mary Martin was the manager and A&R who signed Emmylou Harris, who had also worked with Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell and Van Morrison during a long and successful career within the business. Harris moved to Los Angeles and released her second debut solo album after Gliding bird, Pieces of the Sky in 1975, produced by Ahern. She would work with Ahern until 1981, and they would then reconnect 20 years later.
The Hot Band
The record label told Emmylou Harris to “get a hot band” for her tours, which she did by putting together a new backing unit with James Burton, Glen Hardin, who also played with Elvis Presley, John Ware, young songwriter Rodney Crowell, Hank de Vito and Emory Gordy to form The Hot Band. Harris’ second album Elite hotel was released shortly after Pieces of the Sky, in 1976, with the Hot Band being the backup unit. The tracklist was quite eclectic, containing songs written or performed by Hank Williams, The Beatles, Gram Parsons, Patsy Cline and Buck Owens.
A decade of success
Emmylou Harris and the Hot band set a benchmark for all country groups during this period, mixing perfectly the folk and country influences with more rock inspired performances, and Harris recognition as being the most influential artist on the contemporary country scene started to be built here. During the following decade, Emmylou Harris released 12 albums, almost all of them reached high positions in the US charts.
Back to Nashville
Harris moved back to Nashville in 1982. On all her albums so far, most of the songs were classics from the folk and country scene written by other composers, and only a few songs were written by Harris herself. At this period she started to work even more with her songwriting skills which resulted in the concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose, released in 1985, for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs.
The album tells the story of ”Sally Rose”, a pseudonym name she sometimes used while on tour, and was loosely autobiographical and inspired by her relation to Gram Parsons. Harris described it as a “country opera” and although it was not a huge commercial success, it showed the wide range and genious of her songwriting and storytelling.
All star band Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt released Trio in 1987 after having collaborated in different ways during the previous ten years. The meeting of these long time friends and internationally recognized country and rock singers was an immediate success, Trio is up to date one of Harris’ best selling releases. It’s a collection of hits such as “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (the Phil Spector classic), “Telling Me Lies,” and “Those Memories of You.” The album went multi-platinum and won two Grammy awards. A follow up on this success, Trio II, was released in 2006.
Some of the songs that were not chosen to the Trio album went to their respective solo recordings, Top 10 hit “Mister Sandman” for example had already previously been released on Emmylou Harris’ album Evangeline in 1981.
The Nash Ramblers
In 1991, Harris’ dissolved The Hot Band and started a new constellation known as the Nash Ramblers, with Sam Bush on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass and vocals, Larry Atamanuik on drums, Al Perkins on banjo, guitar, Dobro guitar and vocals, and Jon Randall on guitar, mandolin and vocals. They recorded a Grammy Award-winning live album ”At the Ryman” in 1991 together with a documentary at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, also called ”The Mother Church of Country Music.”
The shows also helped to gather funds for the renovation of the building that re-opened in a new better shape in 1994. At the time of the release, Harris had also been appointed to a term as President of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville.
An important landmark: Wrecking Ball
1995’s landmark Wrecking Ball was produced by Daniel Lanois, avant garde production genius who has also worked with U2 and Polar Music Prize Laureate Peter Gabriel. Wrecking Ball broadened Harris’ musical landscape even further towards a new sound, and showed her open minded approach to music, that has contributed to the whole evolution of the folk and country genres. The album received a Grammy award for best contemporary folk album the year of its release.
The release of Red Dirt Girl in 2000 once again confirmed Emmylou Harris’ strength as a songwriter besides being an interpreter and singer. She participated to the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ O brother where art thou? in 2001, recording a traditional lullaby with Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. The soundtrack got an international recognition almost even more important than the movie and contributed to a revival of old gospel hymns and traditional american folk music. The soundtrack won the Grammy for best original soundtrack 2002, and Harris, Welch and Krauss performed at the award ceremony.
Another of Emmylou Harris’ characteristics is her collaborative side, she often gets together with other artists from different genres for interpreting or co-writing, she defines it as easy as liking ”getting together with friends, meet new friends, enjoy talents and the music.” And outcome is usually great music.
She has worked and collaborated with such diverse artists as The Band, Conor Oberst, Dolly Parton, Beck, Roy Orbison, Ryan Adams, and Jill Cunniff from Luscious Jackson, both interpreting other artists’ work and inviting others to participate. She has recorded with such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Conor Oberst and most recently Rodney Crowell in 2013 for their album Old Yellow Moon, that won the Grammy for “Best Americana album” in 2014. Crowell already played with Harris in the 70s, as part of The Hot Band.
Awards & Legacy
Harris is known as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. A 13-time Grammy winner and Billboard Century Award recipient, Emmylou Harris’ contribution as a singer and songwriter spans 40 years. She has recorded more than 30 albums and has lent her talents to countless fellow artists’ recordings. In recognition of her remarkable career, Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
A longtime social activist, Harris has lent her voice to many causes. She always promotes feminism in music and has organized benefit tours to support the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Harris is also an avid supporter of animal rights and is actively involved in Bonaparte’s Retreat, the dog rescue organization that she founded.
With her catalogue of more than 30 albums, 13 Grammy awards, numerous trailblazing collaborations and a constant search for a new sound and new musical ways of expressions, Emmylou Harris is one of the most important figures of the country scene today. Her iconic career manages to join fans from everywhere, both inveterate country fans and music lovers with other references and backgrounds.
Stockholm, June 2015
The 24th Polar Music Prize was given to Emmylou Harris and Dame Evelyn Glennie during the second week of June 2015 in Stockholm. This year the Polar Music Prize festivities had been moved from the month of August to the beginning of summer, June, as it was set during several years when the prize was founded in 1992 and onwards. The Laureates arrived in Stockholm on June 8th for two days of music, celebration and festivities. As always, a pre-party was held on the evening of the 8th with the Laureates, guests and co-workers, at Marie Ledin’s home, chairman of the Polar Music Prize.
The week started with the Polar Talks at the Rigoletto theatre in Stockholm. Emmylou Harris was interviewed on stage about her long and prestigious career by Swedish music journalist Jan Gradvall. Evelyn Glennie taught the audience more about hearing and listening in her lecture “How to truly listen.” The Polar Talks also included interesting panel discussions and lectures on the power of music, creativity and science. Musicians, composers, professors, journalists, designers, among others, entered the stage to discuss the many ways that music and creativity can inspire and break down any boundary. You’ll find more info about the Polar Talks here.
Several internationally acclaimed Swedish musicians and singers celebrated the career and music of Emmylou Harris at the Stockholm Concert Hall on June, 9: Nina Persson, Rebecka Törnqvist, Sara Isaksson, Anna Ternheim, Emil Svanängen and First Aid Kit, who also read the citation for Emmylou Harris. After having received the prize from HM the King of Sweden, Emmylou Harris thanked all the people and collaborators along the way who have contributed to her music, albums and career, including Gram Parsons, Daniel Lannois, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and her late parents. As a special tribute, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, had sent his regards to the Polar Music Prize and the Laureates.
The banquet at Grand Hotel was broadcasted live for the first time, with an amazing set design by Swedish designer Bea Szenfeld. Jill Johnson, a true pioneer for american country music in Sweden, hosted the evening and also contributed with a performance of ”Boulder to Birmingham.” First Aid Kit performed their hit song ”Emmylou”, directly inspired by Emmylou Harris, that moved the Laureate to tears. As a tribute to Stig ”Stikkan” Anderson, the founder of the prize, several Swedish artists and singers, Barbro Svensson, Tommy Körberg, Pelle Eriksson and Sanna Nielsen performed a medley with some of the songwriter’s biggest hits from his broad catalogue. To honour Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion ensemble GOT Motion performed versions of Led Zeppelin’s ”Kashmir” and