This story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
Emmylou Harris has been touring with the moving festival of roots artists known as Down From the Mountain, selling out venues from Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater to the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. But on a quiet Nashville evening, the Grammy-winning artist brought her distinctive voice and passion for great songs to a small church just south of downtown Nashville’s bustling entertainment district.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, a Gothic revival building hewn from Tennessee blue limestone, stands in stark contrast to the industrial warehouse area which has grown up around it. “From the first time I saw this church I wanted to play here,” Harris said.
It’s a multicultural, multiracial church that Harris’s mother, Eugenia, attends. When the 1852 building needed repairs, Harris staged a relaxed, informal benefit concert the framed in the dark wood and shadowed nave of the historic building. With musical friends Buddy and Julie Miller along, Harris took an intimate group of listeners through favorites of her career, plus a few extras.
“The author of this song once said he never wrote a tune you couldn’t use as a bookmark in the Bible,” she commented about Johnny Mullin’s “Blue Kentucky Girl,” and later on dedicated several songs to her mother.
She also treated the group to a couple of gospel songs she and the Millers had been jamming on around her house. “It’s great when you have neighbors like Buddy and Julie drop over,” she joked as they began a roof raising version of “If I Be Lifted Up.”
In the two years since the release of her last solo effort, the Grammy-winning Red Dirt Girl, Harris has sung on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, lent her voice to the independent film Songcatcher, for which she sings a haunting version of the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen,” and participated in the concert documentary about the Down From the Mountain show at the Ryman, in which her dedication to her favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, is amusingly caught on film. She’s also sung “God Bless America” to open an Arizona Diamondbacks game; she’ll appear at the first-ever Austin City Limits music festival in late September. In the studio, she’s sat in with Pam Tillis and has a track on the acclaimed collection Caught in the Webb: a tribute to Webb Pierce, produced by Gail Davies. Gibson has named a line of guitars in her honor, and Harris often participates in benefits for the antipersonnel landmine campaign and Nashville’s Second Harvest Food Bank.
But what about her own music? Harris is preparing for a new album tentatively set for release next year, and during a recent break in the Down From the Mountain tour she took some time away in the country just to write.
“I made a decision about three years ago to sort of let a lot of my responsibilities go, which meant my band, my management, my record company contract—all that subtle and sometimes not-so subtle pressure about ‘When’s the next record going to come out?’” Harris said, and out of that came her first major solo songwriting project, Red Dirt Girl.
Long known primarily as a song interpreter, Harris is now pursing her songwriting muse further. “I like this new direction,” she affirmed.