Up until about a decade ago, Emmylou Harris made her living and her reputation interpreting other people's songs. But on Hard Bargain, her newest album featuring 11 original songs, she's come into her own.
Never satisfied with sticking to a formula or resting on her laurels, she added songwriting to her list of challenges with the release of Red Dirt Girl in 2000.
"I would say that for the most part my songs are autobiographical in the sense they have to come from a real emotional experience I've been through," she says.
"When you're going to sit down and write a song, you've got to have a really powerful motivation," she adds. "You have to want to capture that feeling, which is often melancholic or sad. You're trying to build a fence around something that helps you somehow absorb it and deal with it."
Highlights on Hard Bargain include "The Road," a heartfelt and grateful remembrance of her time with her musical mentor, Gram Parsons, who died in 1973 ("You put me on that pathway/How could I refuse?/And I have spent my whole life out here working on the blues), "and a sweet lullaby to her new grandchild in "Goodnight Old World."
While Harris' last album took three years to complete, Hard Bargain was recorded in less than four weeks.
Producer Jay Joyce says the pace and energy of the sessions were set by Harris, 64.
"What I really love about her approach is she's still a kid about it, she's still excited," he says, "which is something when you think about how much she's done."
The result is a sound that focuses on Harris' voice, and the honest delivery of her heartfelt stories.
"Big Black Dog" is directed at another loved one: her rescue black lab mix, Bella. Harris, a passionate dog lover who runs her own dog shelter — Bonaparte's Retreat — on her property in Nashville, Tenn., rescued Bella from the public shelter in town, and now takes her on the road with her.
"She goes on the tour bus with me now, along with another one of my rescues. I think of all the years on the road I wasted without a dog. They make it so much more pleasant. I'm making up for lost time now, that's for sure."
Emmylou Harris is on tour all summer with her band, and her dogs.