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From animal rights to experimental music, Emmylou Harris does things her way

Pet Sounds

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It's gratifying that a country-pop super-interpreter of Emmylou Harris' stature has a soft spot for the unwanted of our society — in fact, the singer does something about her well-known advocacy for shelter dogs. At her canine-rescue refuge Bonaparte's Retreat, the Nashville musician runs a foster program, and she's hosting her annual Miracle on Music Row charity benefit for the refuge. With her immaculate taste in material and musicians, Harris has always been a class act, and these days she is a passionate advocate for her cause.

"We started in July 2004, and it's based out of my house, my yard," Harris says. "We have five dogs on the property that are in our foster programs, and we have a total of about a dozen dogs in foster homes around the community." Harris adopts dogs whose time at Metro Animal Control shelters has run out — animals who face a grim fate.

"By law, they can only keep dogs for a short time before they're euthanized, and it's a sad situation," Harris says. "But when you think about all the problems in the world, the killing of perfectly healthy animals is a problem that can be solved, and has been solved in other communities."

The Miracle on Music Row event features longtime Harris associate Buddy Miller — a fine guitarist and producer as well as a man who has benefited from Bonaparte's Retreat. "Buddy adopted a dog from us," Harris says. "Julie [Miller] named it — she's the dog-namer in the family." Also appearing is Nashville singer Mike Farris, a devotee of soul music whose wife is a dog trainer herself.

Emmylou couldn't remember the name of Buddy Miller's dog — she's currently in the studio working on a new project, for one thing. And we didn't discuss what kind of pets, if any, The Civil Wars have. They'll also be appearing at Miracle on Music Row, which features a dog parade and, of course, opportunities to adopt a needy dog.

As for Harris, she has four cats and four dogs. Apart from her good work for animal rights, she has released some fine music in the past few years: 2008's All I Intended To Be is one of her most straightforward and satisfying records, while this year's Hard Bargain finds her experimenting with texture and rhythm, aided by producer Jay Joyce. Harris' legacy is vast — imagine Gram Parsons' early-'70s albums GP and Grievous Angel without Harris' unflappable harmonies.

Harris has paid tribute to Parsons throughout a career that has been marked by experimental impulses and an instinct for finding great players. Such '70s full-lengths as Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner stand tall as examples of the interpreter's art — Harris' versions of Parsons' "Luxury Liner" and "She" take his sly narratives into new areas of technical expertise.

Along the way, Harris moved from the kind of expert records that she and such singers as Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt perfected in the '70s — the LA-to-Nashville synthesis of country and pop that embraced the innovations of The Beatles but stuck to folk-rock basics — to more experimental music. Wrecking Ball and Spyboy appeared in the '90s, and Harris took chances in the decade of Beck and Shania Twain.

Working on a new project with another longtime associate, Rodney Crowell, Harris continues to explore. "We met in 1974, and we've been talking about a duet record since then," she says of Crowell. "We're coloring a little bit outside the lines — it's not quite the straight George-and-Tammy duet stuff, which I love."

Coloring outside the lines has been one of Harris' specialties, from her days with the inventor of country rock all the way up to Hard Bargain. But her career hasn't been free from the pressures of commercial calculation. As she says, "When I was planning to do [1980 album] Roses in the Snow, there was some concern at the record company that I should do what we used to call 'Son of Elite Hotel.' They thought, who would do a bluegrass record? I had Ricky Skaggs in the band at that point. You have to follow what seems to be coming into your sphere of music."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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