Message from the Center: Emmylou Harris

Existentialist philosophers argue that a truly authentic life requires awareness of our finitude and mortality, what Martin Heidegger famously called “being-towards-death.” Perhaps this is why the best country music feels so authentic: it is infused with an awareness of death, with the hard-earned knowledge of the pain that life dishes out. What else would you expect from an artform that evolved from the experiences of the working-class rural poor, from the stories of people who live close to the earth, where the cycles of nature and the storms they bring are a part of everyday life?

Emmylou Harris knows about weathering storms. Her solo career began with the tragic death of her original duet partner, Gram Parsons, a loss that haunts much of her subsequent work. There’s an inescapable ache at the heart of great country music: the bottle that lets you down, the sweet dreams that can never come true. As Harris sang on the title track of her 2000 album Red Dirt Girl, “One thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom.”

Los Angeles may seem like an odd venue for such authentic, American music. After all, we are constantly told that we aren’t the “real America,” that we are a city of fakes and frauds. But beyond the superficial glitz of Hollywood, we have our share of the blues, too. The L.A. transplant Harris sings of in “Two More Bottles of Wine” works hard, suffers heartbreak and drinks her sorrows away, just like that southern “Red Dirt Girl” who “never got any farther across the line than Meridian.”

These songs remind us that the struggles of downtrodden working folks aren’t so different, whether they are Angelenos or Alabamians. Maybe that’s why country music has fans in east Africa as well as east Texas: it reminds us that we all suffer from loss, that our pain is never just ours, that we’re all heading to the same place regardless of what patch of dirt we call home, and that our ability to live with that knowledge, to weather the storm together, is what makes us truly human.

—Andrew Hartwell