Emmylou Harris will surprise you. After giving due to producer James Austin, the label exec behind her expansive new Songbird box set for Rhino, the first names Harris drops into our conversation are not Gram Parsons or Linda Ronstadt, but Mike Hampton and Edgar Renteria, injured starting pitcher and shortstop, respectively, for the Atlanta Braves. Turns out the country songstress is a loyal Braves fan, and briefly laments a season’s lost potential. When her interviewer expresses love for the Red Sox, she promptly announces, “You’re preaching to the choir. If I was an American League girl, they would be my team. I love Fenway Park and have been to many games there. That series against the Yankees in ’04 was incredible!” Emmylou Harris, 12-time-Grammy winner, contemporary country legend—and closet Dirt Dawg?

The Birmingham, Alabama-born Harris has led a rich, often tumultuous life. She originally strove to become an actress, but after being swept up in the ‘60s folk music boom quickly realized that music was her true calling. She’s the first to admit that luck has often blessed her career, from her fateful days singing close harmony with Gram Parsons as he forcefully reshaped both country and rock influences into something far greater than the sum of their parts to her present status as one of the reigning queens of country music—even when that music’s establishment seemed indifferent.

While the CD/DVD Songbird box explores both the breadth of her rich catalog and many an eclectic collaboration, Harris admits her own musicianship is still largely limited to the three-chord foundations of her folkie roots—and still played on a Gibson guitar. “My first guitar was a K-50 that my grandfather bought me in a pawn shop,” she reminisces of her first instrument. “And I wish I still had that K-50! I actually traded it in on my Country & Western model that I still have. But that K-50 was a great little guitar.”

Harris is presently at work with longtime producer (and her former husband) Brian Ahern on a new project, gathering old songs, writing new ones, and recording with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “If people don’t take anything else from this box set, they can say I really don’t believe in vacations,” she says proudly of her work ethic. “I’ve spent almost 40 years making music, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I always think of that quote from Willie Nelson when someone asked him when he was going to retire. He said, ‘All I do is play golf and make music—which one do you want me to give up?’”

Emmylou Harris spoke with us by phone from her home outside Nashville.

It’s an interesting dichotomy: You don’t really have roots in country music; yet have become one of the paragons of country traditionalism.

When a person becomes a convert you sort of go completely off the deep end. I was thinking about this today, because someone has asked me to pick songs that were a great influence to me on my musical journey. And I think I’m going to devote a lot of time to my folk era. Because that’s what really brought me into music. When country came in it kind of set me off into warp-speed. But a lot of the things like Dylan, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen, they’re who brought me into loving music and loving lyrics. But with country, to discover this huge body of music—I wasn’t unaware of it because my brother was a huge country fan way before it was popular to be one.

But you weren’t someone who had 300 country albums at home.

In fact I didn’t have any. But my brother had Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, and he had that brilliant first Johnny Cash album which I heard so much on his record player. I think I knew every song by osmosis. It was when I discovered his Bitter Tears album that I said well he’s actually a folk singer, too. Where you can see all the connections, this beautiful map of music where one genre flows into another. I was a kind of tabula rasa, not really having any inclination to anything. Between folk music, and then discovering country, all roads were open to me. I could embrace each singer, each writer, each song. I never limited myself. Although, making records as a country artist, trying to be the keeper of the flame of Gram’s music, that really kept me on the path and inspired me. That was the thing that put one foot in front of the other.

But then country music’s pioneers often weren’t aware of the traditions they were supposedly laying down.

Everyone is influenced by what’s around them. So that a lot of the people that made that wonderful mountain music and what eventually evolved into bluegrass and then country music, a lot of the musicians who made that music were cut off from one valley to the next.

Seems the greatest music often comes from a point of complete ignorance, in a way.

Yes, complete ignorance. But now, I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or a curse that we have everything available to us. So, what is authentic and what is not? I don’t have any authenticity if you’re looking at it that way, because I didn’t sit around the living room and hear people play music. I was totally unaware until the folk revival of the ‘60s when I would hear everything from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Son House, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, and Bill Monroe because [American University radio station] WAMU would play all this music for five hours every night. And everything somehow flowed. If you listen to Sirius Disorder they play everything from Dizzy Gillespie to Bruce Springsteen and everything in between. It’s almost jarring, but I love it. Radio should be a surprise. Now with the Internet and satellite radio, and even with TV and movies, you have some incredible music coming out. I maybe wouldn’t have heard of R.L. Burnside if it hadn’t been for The Sopranos.

Country music has not only developed an establishment with a capital E, but become a political one in the bargain. What are your feelings about that?

Country music unfortunately always had that potential. In the ‘60s when we were so split politically and ideologically, Merle Haggard does “I’m Proud to Be an Okie From Muskogee,” which is just a great song talking about a lot of folks who were confused by what was going on, but were good people. And then it was, “We thought Merle Haggard was one of us because he wrote about being in prison and he’s an outsider,” so people overreact. To me, it’s like Steve Earle says, why isn’t every artist a protest singer? And now Merle is writing songs where he doesn’t understand what’s going on in the country right now, saying we should take care of America first. But I don’t think you’re going to hear that on country radio. You’re gonna hear “Lets kick ‘em in the ass” or whatever. And the whole thing with the Dixie Chicks. We get a little hysterical. Yet music can be so healing. My friend Jamie O’Hara wrote a song called “Fifty Thousand Names,” and it’s not an anti-war song, but talks about the Vietnam War memorial and honoring the people who sacrificed and the people left behind, the tragedy of it all, without making a political statement. It’s about the human condition. George Jones did eventually record that, but I don’t know if it changed any hearts or minds. I’d like to believe that it does, because music shouldn’t put us to sleep, it should wake us up. 

And hopefully the truth rises to the top somewhere along the way. 

What’s that line by Harlan Howard? “Three chords and the truth.”

Interesting to see you’ve finally gone back to your acting roots with a role on HBO’s Big Love. Is their a parallel between singing and acting?

There wasn’t for me. I thought I wanted to be an actress. I read screenplays and plays, did acting in high school, and then got a small scholarship to go to the University of North Carolina and took some serious acting classes at Boston University thinking I would transfer there. But in between I was working as a waitress in Virginia Beach trying to earn money to go to BU. I did a lot of work in little folk clubs there and got into a little music community. When I went and did some serious acting classes I realized that it was work of a kind that I didn’t have a natural instinct for compared to music. Those were my two loves, but I realized that music was my calling. I really didn’t have the ability to act; I was the best actress in my small high school (chuckles), you know? Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything there. I’m grateful that I found that out. Both professions are difficult in that it almost doesn’t matter how good you are. Luck, and being in the right place at the right time, plays a lot into it.

Yet both singer and actor seem to adopt a persona and relate a narrative.

Certainly you inhabit a song and a story, you’re a sort of narrator drawing upon your own emotions and experience. And I also think there’s a sort of primal pool in all of us in which we relate to the human condition, even if we haven’t experienced certain things for ourselves. But for me it didn’t translate into acting. It’s something I perhaps could’ve tried, but music has taken up so much of my time and creative energy. I literally don’t have the time to put into anything else. The other passion I’ve discovered in my life is animal rescue and animal rights. I have a little animal rescue center here at my house and I’m involved with other rescue organizations, especially Metro Animal Control, which is the last resort for a lot of these animals and where we take our animals from. The heartbreaking thing is all the ones you have to leave behind.

One last one: What would country music have been without the guitar?

I can’t imagine it! Getting back to the idea of where it came from, the mountain music. The mandolin, the banjo, and the guitar were portable instruments available to people in poor regions. The piano is a great instrument, but not exactly portable from one valley to the next, for people to get together and make music. It’s very hard for me to imagine country music without going back to the mountain and bluegrass music. What would we be without Maybelle [Carter]? Speaking as someone who’s never progressed beyond three chords, the ability to make music with very simple songs, focusing on very simple melodies with very heartfelt lyrics. This is where I live!

Check out Gibson's L-200 Emmylou Harris guitar here!