Mamalou: A Profile of Love and Grace
On a damp November night, songstress Emmylou Harris is half-way into an intimate acoustic show at the Birchmere Music Hall, Washington D.C.’s premier music venue for veteran performers, when she recounts an incident surrounding her song, “Red Dirt Girl.”
“Red Dirt Girl,” off Harris’s Grammy-award winning album of the same name, explores the inexorable fate of “Lillian,” a fictional character who, like Harris, is Alabama-born and dreams one day of “making a joyful sound.” Like much of Harris’s material, “Red Dirt Girl” explores love’s netherworlds, where longing and loss are the norm, and hero and heroine never quite seem to reach romantic terra firma within the same bandwidth.
This night as she is introducing the song, Harris reveals a dainty slice of her personal history: she is circumspect so as not to reveal too much – she is famously discrete –, but the story she weaves is enough to reassure the audience that nothing in her early life, her childhood or her adolescence, has led her to her trademark predilection for melancholy, to what she describes as her passion for “those sad, sad songs.”
Sometimes Harris segues into a tragic song by disarming the audience with “My childhood was blissful,” or “I came from a wonderful, loving extended family.” But tonight she prefaces the story of Lillian’s inescapable downdraft by describing an encounter with a fan who would have preferred to find a gritty, real-life persona behind Lillian’s fictional character. As she tunes her guitar, Harris tells the audience:
I wrote this song… thinking about memories of my childhood down in Alabama…. I had a wonderfully happy, idyllic childhood. Well, you know, that’s illegal in the music business… you can get fined for that… but it’s true, so I couldn’t really write about my childhood, so I had to make up a sad story to go along with all these sad songs. Somebody asked me once if …if this tragic character was a real person and I said, ‘Well, no.’ The disappointed fan haughtily responded, “Pity,” and walked away leaving Harris speechless.
The story is quintessential Emmylou. It’s evident that the audience, a musically-savvy group of hardcore fans, appreciates the irony of the vignette, and this dulcet performer, with a penchant for heartbreak, has bestowed a prized-slice of herself, all the while exuding both deprecating charm and humor.
Red Dirt Girl
Me and my best friend Lillian
And her Blue Tick hound dog Gideon
Sittin’ on the front porch cooling’ in the shade
Singin’ every song the radio played
Waitin’ for the Alabama sun to go down
Two red dirt girls from a red dirt town —
Me and Lillian
Just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian
She said, ‘There’s not much hope for a red dirt girl
Somewhere out there is a great big world
That’s where I’m bound
And the stars might fall on Alabama
But one of these days I’m gonna swing
My hammer down
Away from this red dirt town
I’m gonna make a joyful sound.’
— Emmylou Harris, from “Red Dirt Girl”
* * *
In Nashville, where Harris has resided for over twenty years, she is well-known and well-loved, and rightly occupies wall space in the pantheon of Nashville’s neo-royalty. And like her childhood, when she is at home she is nurtured by a vast, extended and loving family, who circumnavigate her celebrity with an over-abundance of domesticity, at which Harris and her mother, Eugenia, form a genteel nucleus.
The household schedule is nominally managed by Harris’s long-time assistant Carol, who oversees Harris’s professional commitments, and by her niece Abigail, who, with baby Blythe in tow, manages to orchestrate the family’s schedule, meals, doctors’ visits for Eugenia, UPS deliveries, housekeeping, dry-cleaning, and an endless punch list of domestic details. In addition, there’s Kate, who oversees Harris’s expansive rescue dog endeavor, which has commandeered the backyard acres for a dog run for the abandoned pets Harris has managed to succor from euthanizing at the pound.
Generally, chaos ensues as soon as guests cross the landing, as several of the family’s “indoor dogs,” – dogs who have become too beloved to be extended for adoption – descend en mass, and every effort is made to ensure that the cats remain in cat-land, their partitioned section of the house.
You might find Eugenia in the kitchen – she is famous for her lemon ice box pie and chocolate cake. Or if you’re lucky, she’s simply making a slice of cheese toast on white bread and invites you to join her for a cup of tea. The birds she tends in the feeder just off the kitchen porch have been so well- fed over the years that some are flight-challenged by their heft, which causes you to wonder how Eugenia manages to retain her slender, almost fragile skeleton.
Everywhere you turn, the house is a buzz of animals, babies, musicians and friends. (In addition to Emmylou, Eugenia’s widowed son Rutland;, three of Eugenia’s five grandchildren, and three of six great-grandchildren live within a stone’s throw of the fanciful white colonial in a tree-lined Nashville neighborhood.) The portrait of idyllic domesticity is a throwback to a kinder time, and emboldens even the pessimist to dream a dream of a loving web of a family. “Who would have guessed that at sixty-two, I’d be single, living with my mother, my brother, five dogs and four cats in Nashville?” Harris jokes. But her contentment is evident; likewise is the pleasure she derives from having her mother, her “best friend,” under her own roof.
Harris convinced her mother to move to Nashville in the fall of 1993 after Harris’s father, Walter, suffered a sudden and fatal stroke. Eugenia inhabits what used to be Harris’s music room, now a first-floor suite off of the living room, with louvered doors enclosing a sun-lit sitting room, bedroom and bath painted a poised celadon green. There, amid rashes of family photos , tubes of peony-scented hand cream, lamp-shades covered with silk scarves, and mementos of Harris’s four-decade career, Eugenia’s own rescue dog, Ernie, a rag-tag muffin of a dog with skinny legs, bat-like ears, and a foxy-red coat, trails after Eugenia as she moves from room to room.
Eugenia is Southern through and through, but Emmylou is a hybrid. Like her mother, Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama and spent her early years there. But later in her youth, she and the family moved from base to base following her father’s military career. Nonetheless, Harris inherited a cultural – or perhaps genetic– predilection to gentility doubtless from her mother, and the singular adoration Eugenia receives from Harris’s musician friends and others who know both women, has earned Eugenia the affectionate moniker “Mamalou.”
The two women are joined at the hip: even when Harris is on the road, they talk every day by phone. And despite the constant flow of communication between mother and daughter, friends swear that the two women are incapable of uttering a cruel or demeaning comment about another person; nor do they share gossip. It’s almost as though the chip that judges others harshly is missing from their wiring. Theirs is a world of poignancy and sweetness.
Harris is inordinately proud of her mother for her gentility, her striking beauty, and the grace with which, at eighty-seven years of age, Eugenia comports herself. Each describes the other as “strong, compassionate, and caring.” Likewise the physical similarities between the two women– the texture of their voices, their mannerisms, their appearance is disarming. But there parallels don’t stop at the present. Both women, loyal and obedient daughters reared by loving parents, decided to buck their families’ expectations: Eugenia eloped with a young Marine she hardly knew, and Harris dropped out of college, moved to Greenwich Village, and lived impoverished and challenged as a single mother in order to pursue a career as a musician. What gave these two women the fortitude to embark on these the loftier, yet far riskier propositions, contrary to their parents’ wishes?
“I was raised under the shade tree of one of the great marriages.”
— Emmylou Harris
On Wednesday, January 20, 1943, during the fiercest epoch of World War II, twenty-one year old Birmingham- born and bred Eugenia Murchison, eldest daughter of Dewey and Emma Lou Murchison, rose as usual to breakfast with her mother and daddy before heading to work as a secretary at Southern Health and Life Insurance Company in downtown Birmingham. The oldest of the three Murchison children, Eugenia had no cause to give her parents heartache; on the contrary:
“Good grief, I didn’t even know what the term ‘rebelling’ meant. Daddy and Mother told us what to do… and we did it!”
Eugenia was translucent blond and delicately beautiful. She was considerate, obedient, sweet tempered, laughed easily and often, and was blessed with a voice that exposed a singularly elegant drawl. And she was engaged to Ray Williams, a high school classmate, who was aboard a Navy ship; she wore the diamond ring he had given her. But after tidying up and helping her mother with the breakfast dishes, Eugenia left the house in the quiet, middle class Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham and headed downtown to the Thomas Jefferson Hotel.
“I got up, got dressed, helped my mother and my father and left… and they didn’t know a thing about it.”
The previous evening, after spending an afternoon in the parlor of her parents’ home playing records and “just talkin’,” she had consented to wed Walter (“Bucky”) Harris, a charismatic and dashing young Marine fighter pilot from New Jersey. “I think you and I could make a go of it, what do you think?” Bucky asked her. “I think I’d like that,” she agreed without hesitation. And so over breakfast at the Jefferson Hotel, her second of the morning, the two young people reviewed the documents they needed to procure in order to be married later that afternoon by the Methodist minister Bucky had contacted just an hour before.
Prior to that day, Bucky Harris and Eugenia Murchison had spent a total of perhaps ten hours together. Late in the summer of 1942, Eugenia ventured to Pensacola by bus with three girlfriends, for a weekend getaway at the seashore. The town’s population ballooned with soldiers and sailors preparing to be shipped off to war. The girls met a group of young officers on a sidewalk near their rooming house, and a plan was hatched to go bowling after dinner. Eugenia didn’t know how to bowl; Bucky insisted that bowling didn’t interest him that evening, so the two sat at the soda counter in the bowling alley and talked. The next day the group arranged to meet at the beach; Eugenia didn’t know how to swim, so she and Bucky sat on a rock and talked the afternoon away.
No commitments were made that would have led either to believe that an attachment was brewing; both were engaged to others. But they began a casual correspondence, Bucky from his base in Pensacola, Florida, where he was in flight school, and she from her family’s home in Birmingham. And Eugenia described their writing “friendly sorts of letters” right up until Bucky was about to be transferred from Pensacola in January 1943 when he decided to make one last train trip up to Birmingham to look up this girl who had enchanted him months earlier. Nothing in their personalities spoke of impulsive decisions, flighty emotions, or disdaining convention.
By mid-morning January 21st, they had located a physician by culling through the phone directory and made haste to the doctor’s office where Bucky was given a clean bill of health and the appropriate certificate was dispensed. Next stop: New Williams Department Store, a ladies’ haberdashery in downtown Birmingham, where Eugenia and her mother often shopped for clothing. Eugenia planned to buy the robin’s egg blue suit she would wear to her wedding. Since she was a local girl, renowned for her stunning beauty, Eugenia was easily recognized.
The suits and dresses department was overseen by the steely Ms. Potts, who spotted Eugenia, in the company of a young officer in uniform, mid-morning on work day. Eugenia had to account for herself:
“I told Miss Potts that I was gonna’ get married. And she said, ‘Do your mother and daddy know?’ And I said ‘No, ma’am,’ and she said, ‘Then you need to call them and tell them!’”
Before Miss Potts would sell Eugenia Murchison the blue suit with the matching hat she would wear to the ceremony, she insisted that Eugenia make the call to her parents from the payphone outside of the store.
“So, I went to the telephone and called Mother. I said, ‘Mother, I’m going to get married.’”
“And she said, ‘Where are you?’”
“I said, ‘I’m downtown.’ She said, ‘Is that boy with you?’”
“She said, ‘Stay wherever you are and I’m gonna’ call your daddy.’”
“Well,” Eugenia continues, “Shortly Daddy showed up in his car, and he took Bucky and me back out to our home and the whole time, he kept sayin’ ‘I hope you know what you’re doin’ – and all the clichés, you know, ‘if you make your bed you gotta lie in it.’”
The young couple sat in the back seat while Dewey Murchison lectured them all the way home, but they were not dissuaded.
“I had never made any decision without my parents’ permission … never. And here I was doin’ the most important thing in my life.” Eugenia shakes her head wistfully, as if even she is mystified by the incomprehensible defiance with which she acted.
By the end of the day, the two were married. Dewey and Emmy Lou Murchison refused to attend the austere ceremony, which took place at the minister’s home at 4:00 in the afternoon. After dinner, before Eugenia departed her family home later that evening, her mother admonished: “Just be sure you don’t get pregnant!”
That night, the couple’s first night together, Bucky and Eugenia stayed at the Thomas Jefferson Hotel. The next morning they boarded a train for Miami, where Bucky would complete flight training. The two traveled to the West Coast together before Bucky shipped off to the Pacific in May 1943. There he would take part in one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Eugenia returned home to Birmingham and her parents to wait for him. By the time Bucky boarded his carrier in Long Beach, California, just nine months after they met and only five months since they married, Eugenia Harris was newly pregnant with their first child.
In the eyes of the Murchison’s, not only had their beloved Eugenia foolishly eloped with a soldier, a complete stranger – but the young man was “a Northerner” to boot!
“My daddy grieved, after I ran off with Bucky, I knew I was causing my family pain, but I just felt I was doing the right thing. It never dawned on me that I wasn’t. I just knew.”
The marriage produced two children, Walter Rutland, Jr., born in January 1944, and Emmylou, in April 1947. And after Bucky returned from the war, and the young couple settled down, the Murchison family eventually embraced him as one of their own.
Eugenia and Bucky Harris celebrated over fifty years of an idyllic marriage until Bucky Harris’s death, of a cerebral hemorrhage, at home, on September 17th, 1993. Emmylou was on tour, far from her parent’s home in Clarksville, Maryland and chartered a private plane to return to her mother and family. The loss was a cruel blow for both mother and daughter, indeed, for the entire vast and close knit extended family.
At the time of his death, Bucky had been retired for a number of years following a distinguished military career as a Marine pilot. He and Eugenia tended a peaceful “gentleman’s farm” in Clarksville, where Bucky, with Marine-like precision, kept duplicate set of farm tools, elegantly polished and in fine working order. From time to time, the couple took charge of raising Harris’s older daughter Hallie, when Harris felt that life on the road became too much of a strain for her child. For Harris, who had grown up the product of a military family, always on the move, home was wherever her parents were in those early days of her musical career.
Bucky had the sense and sensibility of warrior statesman. He flew the giant corsair jets during World War II; he was later detailed to the prestigious cadre of Marine helicopter pilots who ferry the president and vice president to and from the White House. And wretchedly, he spent eighteen months struggling to survive in a prisoner of war camp somewhere on the Korean Peninsula, during the Korean War, after being shot down and tortured by the enemy. The young wife and mother, Eugenia, not knowing the whereabouts or condition of her husband, went about her business, raising her children on her own, and if it those trials left a mark, it doesn’t show. When Bucky returned intact from Korea in 1953, their unique bond was strengthened.
Harris writes about their union in the evocative “Hour of Gold.”
Hour of Gold
I have seen your soul turn black
And then retreat
To that dark place where no one else may follow.
I waited here for your returning
To roll your cigarettes
And wash your bloodied feet.
You have heard the silent running
Of my dreams
Broke me from the grip of grief and fear
With the sound of your voice speaking my name
And a kiss
That I will feel forever.
In the hour of gold, the hour of lead
We did forge our wedding bed.
On a hard and holy road
We lay down our heads
In the hour of gold, the hour of lead.
— Emmylou Harris, from “Red Dirt Girl.”
As Harris tells it, her parents never fought. Only once does Eugenia recall their relationship rising to the level of discord that could be described as ire, and of all things, it was a contretemps over how to cook a steak. During the war, Bucky brought home a ration of highly prized beef to his newlywed bride. As a southerner, Eugenia knew that you pounded the hell out of a piece of meat, breaded and fried it within an inch of its life, so that when it landed on the plate, it was a distant relation of shoe leather and done through and through. Bucky, who liked his meat rare, had never seen anything like it, and declared that next time they managed a ration of beef, he’d be doing the cooking.
In perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful melody Harris has ever written, she penned, with an assist from music legend Guy Clark, an elegy for her dead father, taking measure, not just of the man, but the enormity of the loss for her and her family.
Bang the Drum Slowly
I meant to ask you how to fix that car
I always meant to ask you about the war
And what you saw across a bridge too far
Did it leave a scar?
Or how you navigated wings of fire and steel
Up where heaven had no more secrets to conceal
And still you found the ground beneath your wheels
How did it feel?
I meant to ask you how when everything seemed lost
And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed
There was till that line that you would never cross
At any cost.
I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed.
With nothing but your heart up your sleeve
And if you ever really were deceived
By the likes of me.
Bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly
To dust be returning, from dust we begin
Bang the drum slowly, I’ll speak of things holy
Above and below me, world without end.
Gone now is the day and gone the sun
There is peace tonight all over Arlington
But the song of my life will still be sung
By the light of the moon you hung.
Emmylou Harris, “Red Dirt Girl”
* * *
There is a peculiar talent in knowing when to choose the less obvious path to success, the path that to the uninitiated seems fraught with liability and peril. At some point in her early life, Emmylou Harris channeled her mother’s certitude and determination, throwing caution to the wind to follow her singular passion: music.
” I’d been singing with a guy named Mike Williams in college, and over a winter holiday break I was home [in Woodbridge, VA]. I had developed a really painful cyst on my tailbone, but I was supposed to go down to Virginia Beach for this gig. Well, my parents, they ‘forbad’ me; they said ‘you’re sick, and you can’t go,’ and I said, ‘Oh, o.k.,’ and I went to bed. Then I packed a bag and I wrote a note. About one or two in the morning I walked down to U.S. 1, headed to the Trailways Bus Station. A highway patrolman stopped and I guess I convinced him that I was old enough … I mean, I was nineteen … so I wasn’t a runaway …and I had my guitar, and I waited. I’d figured out the bus schedule – and I caught the 4:00 a.m. bus from Triangle, Virginia and I rode the bus all night down to Norfolk and then caught another bus to Virginia, Beach.
All I remember thinking is I knew I had to do it. I knew I had to do this gig. It was more important to me than — than obeying my parents. ”
The next morning, Bucky and Eugenia awoke to find Emmy’s note and without a moment’s hesitation the two frantic parents got in the car and drove to Virginia Beach to locate their missing daughter. Eugenia had spoken with the doctor treating Emmylou who told them that if the cyst burst it could be disastrous for Harris’s health. But equally disturbing was the notion that for the first time in her life, their daughter had done something outrageously out of character.
Harris was a serious overachiever in a close-knit military family. She was beloved, beautiful, and bright. She admits to being “kinda dorky”; she played alto saxophone in the Woodbridge High school marching band and graduated valedictorian of her senior class. And for fear of alienating her Marine father, she did not fall in lock-step with the anti-war movement of the times. Given the turbulent mindset from mid-to-late sixties, Harris was a throwback; not the kind of teen to cause her parents heartache. But that night in the early 1967 marked a turning point: Emmylou hadn’t run off and eloped with a stranger; nor had she dropped out of school to join a commune. Instead she left her parents’ home in the middle of the night to pursue something more alluring and inaccessible than romance or alternative lifestyle.
Eugenia Harris reflected on how she felt about her daughter’s decision to pursue a career in music:
“When you’re trying to raise your children there’s this dance you do … when you are struggling to see a child accomplish something, on the one hand you know this is a gift or a talent and on the other hand you’re terrified for them. Emmy is so dear to me … and there were several things … and I didn’t know whether something good would happen for her or not, but and I decided that it was her life and that we would always be there for her … no matter what …. And that’s the way we had to deal with it. She never, never said,’“I’m gonna do this regardless, she just said, ‘Mother, I have to give myself some time….I think I know what I want to do and I know that you would like for me to have a little white house with a white picket fence around it but that’s just not for me. There’s a fire burning inside me to sing and I’ve just got to do it.’”
Despite their fears, Bucky and Eugenia gave Emmylou what she needed to pursue her dream– the secure backing of their love. It’s a testament to their capacity to trust – and perhaps something extracted in the nature of their own relationship allowed them to trust that their daughter would find happiness without being tethered to their expectations for her.
* * *
” [In 1971] Washington’s Georgetown District was peppered with rock and folk clubs; it was a subculture all its own and in early 1971 Harris found herself with a reasonably steady gig. The trio played six nights a week, up and down the strip, but mostly at a joint called Clyde’s, the back room of a singles club, where she could sing her so–called ‘weird and obscure’ songs to an audience that by and large had nothing better to do than listen. ”
– Bill DeYoung, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” Goldmine Magazine, 1996.
I was 20 years old in 1971, the summer I first heard Emmylou. I was working two jobs and taking summer classes at a local university, rooming with a close friend from college. Most nights, at 9:30 p.m. after my evening class ended, I drove up to the Hot Shoppes on Wisconsin Avenue in our landlady’s borrowed Ford Mustang to pick up my roommate when she finished her shift at 10:00 p.m., and the two of us headed for Georgetown to split a bottle of Sebastiani Chablis. I was a member of that small audience in Clyde’s backroom that “had nothing better to do than listen.”
At the time, Harris was playing an eclectic set of folk and pop which meandered from Van Morrison to Steven Stills, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan at Clyde’s and other understated D.C. bars, such as Tammany Hall and the Childe Harold the summer of 1971. She had yet to uncover her trademark niche of classic Americana country/folk, and her musical selection was hard to chart: she sang Buck Owens and Hank Williams along side of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. But if her style ambled, her voice, her voice, was … well, simply incomparable.
For the next few years I dragged everyone I knew to hear her. Those of us who had dreamed of becoming girl singers, founded upon nothing more than allure and a love of music, let those dreams float off to the Land of Foolish Ambitions. Harris had the same effect on every young woman – and even some young men with musical aspirations, so evident and masterful was her talent early on.
Maybe we were naive but we assumed that anyone with Harris’s vibrant talent would leapfrog tall odds and we banked on her ability to find the magic to overcome the formidable obstacles to break into the music business. Magic, or perhaps just serendipity, happened and her brief affiliation with her mentor, the short-lived, hyper-talented Gram Parsons, worked like a musical talisman. By 1976, Harris was playing Wembly Stadium outside of London, The Greek Theater in Berkeley, filling huge auditoriums across the country and in Europe. She had seen the last of Clyde’s back room.
But nothing comes without a price. Forging a conventional personal life, replete with the trappings of the “white picket fence” that her mother may have wished for her, was to prove elusive. Tongue in cheek, Harris owns up, “I firmly believe in the institution of marriage. I’ve been there three times.” But in typical Harris fashion, she remains friends with her former husbands and takes enormous pride in the accomplishments of her two grown daughters. If there are regrets, they deserve to be banished by virtue of her outsized talent and her undisputed contribution to contemporary American music.
Harris’s album “Red Dirt Girl,” released in 2000, was heralded as a significant milestone in her over thirty year career and represented a significant departure for an artist heretofore known first and foremost as a musician with a keen ability to find and render inspired interpretations of other people’s work. On “Red Dirt Girl,” Harris penned eleven out of twelve songs either by herself or in collaboration with other singer/songwriters of note. The album won her a Grammy in the “best contemporary folk” category.
Subsequently Harris would go on to write more original material on her next two, and preeminent Washington Post music critique, Richard Harrington, writing about her 2003 album “Stumble into Grace,” paid tribute to her success of her launch as a songwriter, saying: “Who would have guessed that, having lent her glorious interpretive skills to so many fine songwriters over a career now in its fourth decade, Harris had one more important voice to discover — her own?”
* * *
About the time she was venturing into songwriting, Harris was also exploring the capacity of celebrity to make a difference. No naïf, content to remain tethered to the comfortable life success had brought her, Harris began to take a leading role in humanitarian causes. Her reticence as an adolescent and young adult to get involved in the counter culture politics of the 1960s and 70s was borne of a sincere reluctance to offend her soldier-father, albeit a life-long democrat. By the mid-to late 1990s, however, Harris, was well established as a musical icon, free to voice her support for whatever cause to better humanity moved her.
An avid reader and student of history, she followed the internecine struggles of the last half of the 20th century and was moved by the indiscriminate nature of warfare, which inflicted disproportionate casualties on innocent civilians. She became involved in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, drawing well-known celebrities, musicians, and actors to the campaign. She lobbied members of congress, wrote op/eds and launched a series of high profile concerts which toured through the U.S., Canada and Europe to raise awareness and funds for the cause.
As a spokesperson for the campaign, Harris commented:
“It’s just bad manners. Landmines are just litter we leave behind after the wars are over …. We need to clean up after ourselves – like good neighbors — for the sake of the innocent victims whose lives are destroyed because of this weapon.” Classic Emmylou. Good neighbors and good manners.
In September 1997, Harris and her mother toured the rehabilitation clinics in Vietnam and Cambodia and were instructed first-hand in the mechanics of fitting amputees with prosthetics. She performed concerts in Hanoi and Phnom Penh. At seventy-six years old, Eugenia cheerfully withstood the grueling ten day trip, tromping through fields recently de-mined and visiting village families whose children suffered disabilities as a result of Agent Orange, remnants of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. It was a far cry from her roots for the sheltered Alabama beauty.
Harris’s contribution to the landmine cause was weighty; it made a difference in the degree to which the campaign garnered public attention. And when, in December 1997, the campaign to ban landmines received the Nobel Peace Prize, Harris was invited to perform at the award ceremony in Norway. Eugenia watched her daughter from her perch in the Grand Hall in Oslo.
“I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it. ”
Today, if you log onto the official website Emmylou Harris website, you can find a public service announcement featuring mother and daughter, side by side on a comfortable divan, advocating on behalf of the Tennessee Animal Resource Center:
“Hi, I’m Eugenia Harris,” the mother intones in a voice as smooth as Karo Syrup, while her beloved dog Ernie, perches on her lap and stares intently into the camera.
“And I’m Emmylou Harris.”
“Did you know that over 15,000 perfectly healthy pets are put to sleep every day because they’re homeless? With your help and the support of the Tennessee Resource Center we can drastically reduce that number….”
Once again, the Harris women have wrapped their colossal grace and compassion around something that they care deeply about. Harris has developed a website featuring the half-dozen or so adoptable rescue dogs that grace her backyard at any one time. Longing onto “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” you find pictures of the current roster of pets available for adoption, and video of Emmylou extolling their individual virtues, as though each had received the Emmylou Harris Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. “I’m willing to pimp myself for pets,” she jokes. But if there is anything Harris cares about more deeply than her family, her music, and a few close friends, it’s preventing cruelty to animals; it is her religion.
Looking out the kitchen window to the back of the yard, beyond the dog run at Harris’s home, there is a lush little cluster of miniature tombstones marking the burial plots of the family pets. Bonaparte, Emmylou’s faithful, rambunctious standard poodle, who traveled the road with her for nearly a decade, anchors the plot, next to the crepe myrtle bush at the back of the yard, just like Lillian’s dog Gideon in Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl.” Today, over cups of tea, mother and daughter are debating installing a row of peonies along the path leading to the small pet cemetery. Here, in the quiet of the kitchen, on a sodden, cool Nashville spring morning, the two women appear to lead lives of extraordinary ordinariness.
Still, in Harris’s public life, on more than one occasion, a fan has been overly intrusive or demanding, or a stranger has tried to override her studied politeness. Harris deflects those episodes with routine courtesy. When asked how she puts up with the intrusions, Harris responds matter-of-factly: “How could I cop an attitude with a mother like mine? She’s my role model.”
If these qualities of grace and quiet fortitude (over bravado and indifference) put the Harris women over the finish line so spectacularly, then perhaps they can impart some of their virtues by example, as muses and role models, to the rest of us. After all, it is the hallmark of their success and a testament to lives well-lived.
Cup of Kindness
You gave yourself up to the mystery
And sailed the oceans looking for
The secret of the key
To unlock a truth that you may never find
For it was in a cup of kindness
All the time.
And the emptiness
You can’t seem to fill
Beauty fades and pleasures cannot
Take away the chill
And the glamour lures you down
Into a lie
Oh, but the cup of kindness
Never will run dry.
— Emmylou Harris, from “Stumble into Grace”
Author: Gail Griffith©, February 2009