LOS ANGELES – Emmylou Harris never fit any mold. From the beginning of her recording career in country music four decades ago up until today, the singer and songwriter has chosen songs without regard to boundaries or convention.
That same open-minded, artistic drive is at work today as she talks about the inspiration for reissuing her watershed 1995 album, “Wrecking Ball.”
“This album’s obviously very special to me,” said Harris, 67, whose touring in support of the reissue with the record’s producer and collaborator, Daniel Lanois.
“Daniel and I have done shows together in the last few years – mainly benefits – and we just love playing those songs,” she said from her home in Nashville. “It shows our affection for this record that we’ll go to the trouble of doing the reissue and touring.”
“Wrecking Ball” is due out Tuesday in a deluxe three-disc set; the first is a remaster of the original album, the second a disc with bonus material including unreleased songs and alternate takes, and the third is a DVD containing a making-of documentary. Beyond that, Harris and Lanois are doing a limited tour in support of the reissue.
“We didn’t tour it a lot when it first came out in ’95, so a lot of people didn’t know about it then,” she said. “But one person would tell another person, and it’s nice when it happens that way on its own.”
In a sense, “Wrecking Ball” provided an ambitious and richly textured template for the coalescing Americana music movement before it took on that name. The music was rooted in country, folk, gospel and blues, but with Lanois’ sonic wizardry in the mix, it also had an experimental edge that took it well beyond musical archaeology.
Harris always has had a connoisseur’s ear for great, traditional country music. Her deep connection with the genre is evident on her 1975 major-label debut album, “Pieces of the Sky,” in covers of Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.”
But she interspersed those with left-field choices such as the Beatles’ “For No One,” the Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights,” a number called “Bluebird Wine” from a then-aspiring songwriter named Rodney Crowell, and her own stunning ballad “Boulder to Birmingham.”
For the next 20 years, she continued to reach far and wide for material – to Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Chuck Berry, Jesse Winchester, Willie Nelson and a virtual curator’s guide to many of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters.
But even with that history of boundary-stretching, “Wrecking Ball” was a bold departure from her country music base of operation – a sonic collaboration with producer, instrumentalist and songwriter Lanois, then best known for his work on U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” It felt and sounded like nothing that had ever come out of Nashville.
As a result, the country audience didn’t know what to make of it, and country radio programmers ignored it.
Upon release, it peaked at No. 94 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, and it spent just seven weeks on that listing. In the succeeding 19 years, however, it’s gone on to sell a respectable 365,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it Harris’ second-best seller (behind “Red Dirt Girl” in 2000) of the era since SoundScan began tracking retail sales in 1991.
For Harris, it arrived shortly after she’d left her two-decade home at Warner Bros. Records and signed with Asylum, which tried to reconnect her with the country mainstream with the 1993 predecessor to “Wrecking Ball,” “Cowgirl’s Prayer.”
“They really tried with ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer,’ and that was a good record,” she said. “But it was obvious after all their effort that country radio was not interested in me – I was too old, or whatever.”
At such a point in her career, Harris embraced the sense of liberation her record company bosses extended to her.
“They basically came back to me and said, ‘We’re going to back you no matter what you do. Do you have any ideas?’ I said, ‘I have some songs I’m liking, and I love the work of Daniel Lanois and think that could be interesting to work with him,’” she said. “They made one phone call and that’s how it happened.”