Monday, December 14, 2015

Emmylou Harris: From UNCG to the Grand Ole Opry


Emmylou Harris in The Tempest, 1965
In April of 1976, country music star, Emmylou Harris, returned to Greensboro for a concert at the Piedmont Sports Arena. In celebration of this homecoming and her April 2nd birthday, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and local promoter, Bill Kennedy, declared it “Emmylou Harris Day” and held a “welcome back” party, inviting friends and professors who had known her when she was in college.  It had been only a little over a decade since Harris left The University of North Carolina at Greensboro to pursue her dreams, and on that April day in 1976, she was quickly on way to realizing them.
Born in Alabama and raised in North Carolina and Virginia, Harris entered UNCG in the fall of 1965 on a drama scholarship. While on campus, she appeared in plays, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a children’s theatre production of The Dancing Donkey, before deciding that she would rather pursue a musical career.

The Dancing Donkey, 1966
It was during her time at UNCG, that Harris became part of a folk music duo called “The Emerald City” with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate, Mike Williams. Singing primarily folk songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers, they booked local venues as well as clubs as far afield as Virginia Beach and Washington D.C.


Harris also sang at the Red Door, a bar on Tate Street that had a “coffee house” atmosphere. She later admitted to actively trying to imitate the sounds of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, popular folk singers of the time. In a 1992 interview, Harris recalls that the Red Door paid $10 a night and all the beer that you could drink – a poor deal considering that Harris did not drink beer. Those who saw her perform remember her as tall, pretty, and talented.



Emmylou Harris performing in 2008
(CC BY-SA 2.0 Eric Frommer)
Realizing that her true love was not drama but music, she dropped out of college and headed for Virginia Beach, singing and waiting tables. After brief stints in New York and Nashville, Harris landed in the Washington D.C. music scene where she would catch her big break. While playing at a Georgetown nightclub, she met Gram Parsons, a young singer and songwriter with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, who was about to break out with his first solo album. Parsons’ blend of country and rock was a good fit for Harris and they recorded two albums and toured together before his death of an accidental drug overdose at the age of twenty-six. Harris considers Parsons her mentor and credits him for shaping her into the artist that she is today. Her style evolved as a successful combination of country, folk, and bluegrass, which has made Harris an extremely innovative and influential artist. She would continue to collaborate with other musicians, such as her friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, and record her own albums as well, eventually winning a total of thirteen Grammys and inductions into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addition to making beautiful music, Harris has raised two daughters and become an advocate for causes such as animal rights and global landmine awareness. 

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