In 1955, a 14-year-old boy named Emmitt Till posthumously ended up at the center of this country’s civil rights movement. Though the story of the teen’s murder has long since passed into the pages of America’s history, country singer Emmylou Harris gives him new voice on her latest album, Hard Bargain.
“I was driving with NPR on and they were doing a story on him,” says Harris. “The thing that hit me is that he sorta sparked the civil rights movement. His mother kept his casket open and people finally saw the terrible ugly face of prejudice.”
The song—simply bearing the name of the central figure, who was murdered in Mississippi for speaking to a 21-year-old married white woman—is more than just a history lesson. In Harris’s imagined narrative, Till speaks.
Over the 40 years of her career playing country-rock, folk and bluegrass, Harris has discovered how to use her voice to tell the stories of others. On Hard Bargain, Harris also delves into how she got to where she is today. That journey began with Harris eking out a living by singing at clubs in Greenwich Village and has culminated in collaborations with a long list of industry legends.
According to Harris, the difference between those two existences is big, and an important facet of her latest album.
“It was so hard back then,” says Harris, when contrasting the ‘60s with where she is today. “It’s like day and night. But I do think that early time, being unknown, facing people who don’t know who you are and trying to pull them in, singing at clubs as a single mother to make money six and seven nights a week was an invaluable experience.”
Harris brings that tale to light on Hard Bargain’s opening track.
“I think I did some reflecting on this last record with “The Road,”” says Harris. “You turn 65 and think, my God, what a ride this has been.”
Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
“I can say that now because I’ve had success, but it was hard,” says Harris. “Once things got going though, it was like the Red Sea parted.”
For Harris, the parting of those seas involved a series of important people who imparted the lessons they had learned, but also pulled out the potential they saw in her.
Speaking fondly of perhaps her most important collaboration—with the alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons—Harris credits him with a major shift in her approach to music in the early ’70s.
“I was influenced by folk blues, but I wasn’t able to play it very well,” says Harris about those early days. ”I could never have dreamed of working with a drummer. That was a sin for a folk singer. Gram turned me on to country music and the grace and power of it.”
Parsons wasn’t the only one with a big impact on Harris’s style. George Jones also played a role in shaping her voice.
“Jones taught me how to sing,” says Harris. “Before that I was just a Joan Baez wanna-be, which was ridiculous because who could ever be Joan Baez? There’s only one of her.”
Eventually Harris grew into the singer those early influences seemed to know she could be. She used those talents to not only write her own songs, but rework the songs of others. It’s become a calling card, but also an undertaking that she says taught her a lot about songwriting.
“I almost feel like you ingest these songs that you sing over and over again,” says Harris. “[Bob] Dylan [taught] us that a song could be anything. It was genius. He freed language up for the rest of us.”
On Hard Bargain, Harris has utilized the sum of these experiences to create perhaps her most complete album. Along with the social commentary involving the tragic story of Emmitt Till and even one about Hurricane Katrina, she blends stories of personal reflection like “The Road” and also “Darlin’ Kate,” with a gritty alternative-country sound much different from the more traditional country of her past.
Harris points to serendipitous circumstances and the lessons she’s learned for her success and for making her latest album possible.
“You never make music in a vacuum,” says Harris. “It’s one big family. Being successful makes you think there is some kind of reason for being on this planet and that you’re doing what you’re supposed to. It’s dumb luck really because talent is never enough.”
Peak Summer Nights
July 22, 6:30 p.m.
Athletic Club of Bend
61615 Athletic Club Dr.
$45, tickets at Newport Market