If someone had to identify a reigning queen of “Americana” – that homespun genre of music encompassing folk, bluegrass, blues and all its countrified cousins – it would undoubtedly be Emmylou Harris.
From her early days singing with country-rock icon Graham Parsons to her genre-hopping solo work and collaborations with friends like Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Harris is a country icon in her own right.
Her latest collaboration, “Old Yellow Moon,” finds her reunited with one of country’s finest songwriters – Rodney Crowell – as well as her ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced the pair back when Crowell was in Harris’ Hot Band during the late ’70s.
Harris, who plays Belk Theater with Crowell Monday, spoke to the Observer about the album, her unique career, the state of folk, and her North Carolina roots.
Q. What’s it like singing with Rodney?
From the get-go (in the ’70s) when we’d sing on stage or before shows, we just had a common sensibility. We never had to work on it.
Q. You can both sing some sad songs, but “Old Yellow Moon” as a whole is very joyful. Is that indicative of the experience you had making it?
I think that’s what was revealed. You don’t go in with the idea of we’re going to make a sad record or a joyful record. It was pieced together from the songs that we liked. It’s like a baby being born. You know what the genes are. I really hear the friendship and the years Rodney and I paralleled in our lives. I think people get that sense.
Q. Richard Thompson is opening the shows. Is he also going to play with you two?
We’re hoping to entice him to sit in on something. We’re huge fans of Richard Thompson, he and his former wife Linda Thompson.
Q. You were able to attract multiple generations, not just with music you made early in your career, but new music. You honed in on the rock and alternative crowd starting with 1995’s “Wrecking Ball.” That’s pretty rare.
I was very lucky to collaborate with someone like (“Wrecking Ball” producer) Daniel Lanois. I heard the “Oh Mercy” record he did with Bob Dylan. For the last few years, that (experience) has really infused my creativity and where I’ve been at musically.
You never really lose any part of it. Your whole creative body is made up of the roads you take, and hopefully you blend them together and keep coming up with something that’s new and fresh for yourself. You have to be energized, or there’s no point in making a record.
There wasn’t really pressure from the record labels, but you get in a kind of routine. I was working with the same producer and that framework of Hot Band through the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, I made a change and put a bluegrass band together and went back to my roots. I rode that pony for a while.
Q. Given that you were at the starting point of what’s now considered “Americana,” what do you think of the big folk-rock revival with Mumford & Sons, for instance, winning the Grammy?
I love those guys. They were jazz guys. They told me they got turned on to the banjo and roots music from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Down from the Mountain” (which Harris sang on). It can spark something to go down a creative road you haven’t thought about. That’s a wonderful sign music is quite healthy and creative.
Music is always going to seem like it’s going downhill and it’s mediocre. Then someone will come up with something (new).
Q. You actually grew up partly in North Carolina, right?
My father was in the Marine Corps. We spent three years at Cherry Point when I was 6, 7, and 8, and a year at Camp Lejeune. Then my father was transferred to Quantico. I got a scholarship at (UNC) Greensboro and was there for three semesters, and I got the folk music bug. I headed off into the sunset.
I love North Carolina. I have a niece there. Her husband is going to architecture school in Raleigh. We still have connections there, good friends, and of course, Merlefest.