Emmylou Harris was born April 4, 1947, in Birmingham, Ala., but grew up near Washington D.C. As a college student in the late '60s, she sang with a local folk duo, eventually moving to Greenwich Village in New York City to make a stab at a professional music career. With a distinctive soprano and a perpetual focus on lyrics, she played the clubs on the local folk scene, occasionally sharing the stage with legends like Jerry Jeff Walker. After a brief marriage, a new baby, a move to Nashville and a constant struggle to make ends meet, Harris packed it in and returned to D.C. to live with her parents.
Two members of the Flying Burrito Brothers heard her at a club in D.C., and they introduced her to Gram Parsons, a heralded pioneer in the burgeoning country-rock movement. One of the most celebrated musical pairings in country music history, Harris toured and recorded with Parsons until he died young in 1973. "After he was gone, I wanted to carry on with what I thought he would have wanted me to do, bringing certain elements of folk music, with its emphasis on the lyric, trying electric things, but always coming back to that electric country base," she has said.
Harris offered her major label solo debut, Pieces of the Sky, on Reprise Records in 1975 and reached the Top 5 that year covering the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love." In 1976, she took Buck Owens' "Together Again" to No. 1 and won her first Grammy for the album Elite Hotel. Her years on Reprise (and later on the sister label Warner Bros.) resulted in more than two dozen Top 10 appearances, including the No. 1 hits "Sweet Dreams," "Two More Bottles of Wine," "Beneath Still Waters" and "Lost His Love (On Our Last Date)." She won the CMA female vocalist award in 1980, partly on the strength of her bluegrass album Roses in the Snow. She married her producer Brian Ahern in 1977. They divorced in 1984.
A constant collaborator, Harris teamed with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for the 1987 landmark Trio album, winning a Grammy and a CMA award and scoring the No. 1 hit, "To Know Him Is to Love Him." Over the years, her touring band has included Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell, James Burton, Jon Randall, Buddy Miller, Tony Brown, Emory Gordy Jr. and Hank DeVito.
In 1992, she was rewarded for her traditional-minded music with an induction into the Grand Ole Opry. That same year, she released an acclaimed live album At the Ryman, which won a Grammy. However, with a new crop of country stars, radio had stopped playing her records. In 1993, she divorced her third husband (producer Paul Kennerly) and made a commercially insignificant debut on Asylum Records.
But in 1995, she surprised everybody with the album Wrecking Ball, which leaned heavily toward the alternative music that was then popular on rock radio. The project, which was produced by Daniel Lanois, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. A duet album with Ronstadt also appeared in the coming years, as did a second Trio volume.
Harris won her 10th Grammy in 2000 for Red Dirt Girl, which found Harris concentrating on her songwriting. Her profile was also raised due to the overwhelming success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which won a Grammy for album of the year, in all genres, as well as the CMA's album of the year. In 2003, she offered Stumble Into Grace, also a showcase for her songwriting. Harris has also been a vocal opponent to landmines, organizing concerts with well-known singer-songwriters to raise awareness of the issue.