It seems boldly declarative, yet long overdue, to affirm country music as the only musical genre that has always been open to both genders. Unlike rock or R&B, country has the same qualifications for men and women-you have to be able to sing and you have to be sad.
Yet, no matter how many innocent bras have been set aflame, it remains a man's world. The ladies have to fight to keep from being marginalized. That fight is often hurt in modern country music by the schmaltzy pop hybrid peddled by the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Yet for every new Nashville starlet, we have the Loretta Lynns and Patsy Clines to fall back on.
Emmylou Harris, while certainly legendary, has one thing going for her that those other ladies don't: men love her. Cher and Dolly Parton may be bigger in the gay scene, but Harris has ruled straight-male culture throughout the decades.
Sure, Harris has an amazing soprano and is absolutely gorgeous (even at nearly 60), but much of her success is due to perception. She seems every bit the man's woman, and much of her career has been tied to the opposite sex.
Harris started with a man, singing backup for Gram Parsons. On her own albums, she sang songs written by men and made them her biggest hits (Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty," The Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love"). She was everywhere in the '70s, performing with, and in some cases rumored to be involved with, countless troubadours-Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan among them. Throughout, she maintained an aura of ultimate sensuality. Adored and worshiped, never lusted after or pined for.
And it continues today. She performed with a young Ryan Adams back when Jack White was still Meg's brother, and his collaboration with Loretta Lynn was but a dream. She sang backup on Conor Oberst's newest Bright Eyes album, and her last release was a set of duets with Dire Straights' Mark Knopfler. There are literally hundreds of fan websites devoted to Harris-some devoted to her music, some devoted to her looks, and almost all owned and operated by men.
Straight males with no particularly perverse sexual hankerings have a shared subconscious understanding about what we want in our women and our music. Something simple, something timeless, and something that reminds us we're not alone. It's only in our head, but Emmylou Harris is probably the best relationship we'll ever have.
Emmylou Harris performs at Humphrey's by the Bay on Oct. 4. Doors open at 7 p.m. $40-$95. 619-224-3577.