Master Interpreter Emmylou Harris Turns To Songwriting

New album emphasizes originals, features guests Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen.

When Emmylou Harris releases Red Dirt Girl on Sept. 12, it will be an album of firsts for the nine-time Grammy winner: It's her first studio LP since 1995's Wrecking Ball, it's her debut on the Nonesuch label and it marks her full-fledged stab at songwriting on 11 of the album's 12 cuts.

"That's a big deal to me," Harris said recently from her Nashville home. "I knew I'd have to follow Wrecking Ball with a record with a new dynamic. Also, I have wonderful work, I love my work, but it is work — but if I wanted to take this job on, I could no longer avoid that aspect of it. I had procrastinated long enough about writing songs."

Red Dirt Girl also includes contributions from some high-profile guests, such as Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen.

One of Harris' enduring compositions is "Boulder to Birmingham" (RealAudio excerpt), which appeared on her major-label debut, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975. A decade later, she and Paul Kennerly co-wrote the songs on the concept album The Ballad of Sally Rose, and Harris ventured into recording her own work again with "Raise the Dead" (RealAudio excerpt) on her Grammy-nominated duet project with Linda Ronstadt, 1999's Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.

"I have written before, but those were almost all co-written," Harris said. "This was very different, a very solitary process for the most part. If I was touring, I'd make sure to always have a guitar with me in the hotel room, and when I was home, I'd go into my music room for some part of each day and work. For me the key was clearing a space to get into that mind-set to write."

Many Roots, Many Moods

The dozen tunes (the cover is "One Big Love" by Patty Griffin) reflect Harris' diverse musical background in country, folk, rock and bluegrass, "and there are some Middle Eastern things in there, too, that Ethan Johns added to 'My Baby Needs a Shepherd,'" Harris said. "I'd originally thought of that as a Celtic tune, but those rhythms make it a much more powerful track than I'd envisioned."

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is about Harris' father, a career military officer who died in 1993. "I had been wanting to write about him for a long time," she said, "but I just didn't know how to get started. Then I was talking with Jamie O'Hara, who is also a songwriter, and told him that — I said, 'You know I have so many regrets because there are so many things I could have learned from him that I didn't ask.' And he said, 'Just write that.' So that gave me the key."

The powerful descriptions in the song "Michelangelo" came to Harris in a dream. "I read a lot, and find myself moved by the way words sound. There's almost a direct steal in this lyric from something Carl Sandburg wrote — I just kinda rewrote it."

"J'ai Fait Tout" also was inspired by the sound of words. "I came across this phrase — in French it means 'I did everything I could' — and I thought, there's a song in there. [Luscious Jackson's] Jill Cunniff had this melody and groove that really worked with the phrase. Starting with the melody isn't the most comfortable way for me to write," Harris said, "but I think we came up with something that's a good contrast to the rest of the songs on the album."

In addition to Cunniff, country's Buddy and Julie Miller, Griffin and Matthews are among the high-powered guests on the album. The cut "Tragedy" also includes harmony vocals from Patty Scialfa and her husband, Springsteen.

"Bruce's part was spontaneous," Harris said. "I love Patty's album, and I wanted her on my record. Patty and I just started singing and Bruce began a third harmony part. What a sound!"

Personal Truth

But it is Harris' own voice and vision that define the project. As a musician known as an interpreter of others' writing, is it different for her to sing her own work?

"It is, but I can't say exactly how," she said. "It certainly is a lot more work to write your own songs in the first place, and it takes a lot of courage to do that. I think you go to a different place in your own head when you sing your own songs."

She pointed out that the songs she writes are — and aren't — autobiographical. "They come through me, they are parts of my experience. But I hope they are universal enough for people to bring their own experiences to the songs, to say, 'I know exactly how that feels.' "