Illinois Entertainer: You devote so much of your time, energy, and even your own house (!) to your Bonaparte’s Retreat dog shelter. What spurred on this mission?
Emmylou Harris: Well, it goes back to that dog. Bonaparte was my companion who traveled with me for 10 years. He went everywhere on the bus. When he died suddenly, I really didn’t think I would get another dog, but he was a rescue. All our pets have been rescues and I had a relationship with Nashville Humane and I had this big, flat backyard and I thought, as a way of kind of dealing with the loss that I could perhaps turn that into sort of an extension of . . . I set up three dog runs in the backyard with a fenced-in area so they could have a place to run. It’s a way you deal with your grief in a way – to turn it into something positive. It’s still very small, Bonaparte’s Retreat. I don’t live in the country and at this point we’re a little over-crowded. We have seven dogs, but two of them are going to move out to another place soon. But, we have a lot of fosters, so we have about 20 dogs in the system in different homes around the community. This is just something that has changed my life really. It’s like I was headed towards this my whole life and it gives me a great deal of joy to be able to help these animals who, through no fault of their own, are facing death and just need a little more extra time before they find their forever homes.
IE: You’ve teamed up with your former Hot Band guitarist Rodney Crowell for an album of duets, Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch; Feb. 26). Why now?
EH: It’s something that Rodney and I probably spoke about and said we were gonna get around to doing from the first time we met. Sometime last year or the year before I just said, ‘You know what, if we’re gonna do this record we just gotta book the time and do it.’ Because both of us are very busy. That’s the hardest part of collaboration when you have working artists. And we just booked some time and stuck with it until it was finished. And I guess you could say, I never thought about having a bucket list, but if I did that might have been the No. 1 thing on there.
IE: Your good friend Dolly Parton just released a book. Any plans to join the literary world?
EH: I have a feeling that a book is probably in my future. I toyed with the idea a while ago because I was courted by a publishing company. It’s not something that’s on my bucket list. It’s something that I think, perhaps, I might have to do at some point. Other people are gonna write about you, so I think that at a certain point you have to testify. You have to give your own testimonial because you are probably the only real eyewitness.
IE: You’re a fan of tribute albums because you say when a songwriter sings someone’s material it brings something new and different out of their voice. That seems to be a criticism of shows like “American Idol” – that it’s just glorified karaoke.
EH: It’s funny that’s one of my guilty pleasures. I hate to admit that. My oldest daughter just, she just rolls her eyes when I say, ‘Oh God, American Idol is on tonight!’ I have to say these kids are put through the fire. They have to sing every possible kind of song. Like the fellow who won this past season [Phillip Phillips], he wasn’t the greatest singer, but he had a style. And so, I think he has a chance maybe to do something. Not all the winners ever come out with anything, but this kid . . . he doesn’t have the chops that that little gal who could sing anything – I mean she was scary – but he knew how to use his limitations. I read somewhere that style is a product of your limitations, otherwise we would all sound exactly the same.
IE: In these months following Levon Helm’s passing, it seems like he’s still very much a presence and on the minds of those who knew him. What’s your favorite memory?
EH: There’s an album called The Legend of Jesse James that was a concept album telling, obviously, the story of Jesse James in song and Levon Helm played Jesse and I was Jesse’s wife, Zerelda and Johnny Cash was on the album, and it was just an extraordinary thing. We spent a lot of time in the studio together. He was one of the most delightful, real people that you would ever want to know. So funny and so down to earth and just kind of like a folk poet in just the way he talked and his turn of phrase. The thing about Levon – he was probably my favorite drummer of all time and one of my favorite singers, and that is an unusual combination. I was really blessed to be able to work with him on The Last Waltz and then to get to know him in other projects. I was able to go up and do one of his “Midnight Rambles” up in Woodstock. It was just wonderful because at that point he was in his encore of recovering from cancer long enough to get his voice back, his energy back. He still had that amazing groove like nobody else. And the joy. The joy of playing music with Levon was so infectious. The Band will always stand alone for me and of course Levon was the heartbeat of that band. We really all miss him . . . but we were lucky that we had that extra ten years.
IE: We’ve lost a lot of people this year.
EH: It’s been a bad two or three years.
IE: How do you view your own mortality?
EH: I think when you get to a certain age, I mean I’m 65 now, you’re closer to the end of your life than you were to the beginning. So, it’s there, but I think perhaps it gives you more capacity for joy in a way – more appreciation for everyday. But it’s still really hard to know that, well, first of all you’re gonna go, but I think you think more in terms of your friends. Your friendships become more precious. I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do this record with Rodney – I don’t how long either of us have. My mother is 91, but that’s no guarantee for me. And I’m still singing; I’m still strong vocally and so is Rodney, plus we’ve got all that experience behind us that shows up in our singing and the songs we choose and the songs we write. I think we have something to say, but it is tempered by loss, by the prospect of loss, and by actual loss.
Emmylou Harris appears at Genesee Theatre (203 N. Genesee) in Waukegan on Jan. 11.
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