- “You Sleep with None and You Wake with Ghosts”Emmylou Harris as the Widow of Nashville
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Emmylou Harris’s solo musical career began with a death. On September 19, 1973, her duet partner Gram Parsons collapsed from a drug overdose and died in his hotel room in Joshua Tree, California. Harris and Parsons had just completed a successful tour earlier that year, and the two singers were eagerly anticipating a long-term musical partnership. At the time, Parsons was relatively obscure, best known for his brief tenure with the Byrds and for his countercultural country-rock group the Flying Burrito Brothers. Like many artists who meet an untimely end, Parsons’s stature increased dramatically in the years following his fatal heroin binge. His unexpected death and its bizarre, bodysnatching aftermath—his road manager stole his corpse from the Los Angeles airport and burned it in the desert—sparked wider interest in Parsons as both a musician and an icon of the 1970s country-rock movement.1
Emmylou Harris had been singing professionally since 1969, first as a folk-singer and then on Parsons’s albums GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974). While Parsons was the dissolute scion of a wealthy Florida citrus family, Harris’s background was decidedly less gothic: her father was a career military officer who spent much of his career in and around Washington, D.C. Although she admired folk-singers like Joan Baez, Harris often found herself torn between the left-leaning pacifism of the 1960s folk scene and venerating her father’s achievements.2 Harris often credited Parsons with introducing her to the artistic possibilities of country music, and her work with him constituted her first national exposure as a musician. Duets composed much of that work, performed with enough sexual tension to fuel speculation about their offstage relationship.3 Given this close personal and professional association, it is hardly surprising that much of Harris’s later work would be viewed through the lens of Parsons’s Joshua Tree overdose.
By the 1980s, Harris had become a star in her own right, achieving the mainstream acceptance that Parsons had sought but never attained. Her singles came from diverse sources—the Chordettes’ “Mister Sandman,” the folk hymn “Way-faring Stranger,” and English singer-songwriter Paul Kennerley’s “Born to Run” all made it into the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot Country charts when she sang them—and she became known for collaborating with artists from across the spectrum of country, folk, rock, and pop music. This ability to work with musically and politically diverse artists made Harris into something of a bridge between two increasingly distant poles: scholarly, urban folk-music audiences and rural, working-class country listeners.
Harris’s “crossover” image was rooted in loss: the particular loss of Gram Parsons, but also the idea of loss more globally. Placed in the difficult position of being forced to react to Parsons’s death in public and on stage, Harris used the concepts of mourning and widowhood as foundations for her burgeoning career. While much of the melancholy in her public persona has its roots in the Gram [End Page 19] Parsons story, Harris has transformed this sadness into an independent aesthetic stance. This article explores what it means for Harris to build her persona on loss that is simultaneously literal (Gram Parsons’s death) and conceptual (grief more generally). It will begin with a brief discussion of the ways that bereavement resonates in the country-music culture that Harris draws upon as a performer. It will continue with an overview of the Harris/Parsons duets and their place in the context of country romantic duet singing. From there, the article will explore the ways that Harris shaped her early career in the shadow of Parsons’s death, especially on the album Pieces of the Sky (1975). It concludes with some of Harris’s...