Like her musical hero Neil Young, Emmylou Harris stands for more than just great music. As an artist effortlessly switching between genres and selling countless albums in pop, folk, country and alternative, her music simply breathes integrity. From Washington D.C. folkie in the late ’60s to country- rock pioneer with Gram Parsons to major label star, she has been, as Billboard so aptly stated, “a truly venturesome, genre-transcending pathfinder.”

The Nashville-based singer also is a dedicated social campaigner, lending her voice to many causes, from the Country Music Foundation to the Campaign for a Land Mine Free World to her own home-based animal shelter, Bonaparte’s Retreat. Getting ready for a new album, Emmylou was gracious enough to talk to about her musical legacy, her causes, her new projects and, of course, the fascinating story behind her beautiful signature Gibson guitar.

First off, congratulations on a beautiful website – you are embracing the Internet age!

Well, thank you. The girl that runs my website pretty much runs my dog rescue as well, and we devote most of our time to the dog rescue. It’s like having a second job for me.

Now I heard it was actually at your house. Is it really in your own home?

I have a big backyard. It’s a small, very small, operation. Right now we just have four dogs and we really can’t handle more than six or maybe seven. We are getting more and more people who will agree to foster in their homes which allows us to rescue more dogs. We try to rescue dogs from the dog pound, Nashville’s Metro Animal Control, that are in danger of being put down. There is such an overwhelming number that come in and they put down. It’s about a thousand animals a month. It’s staggering because they give them only a certain amount of time and then... you know.

Do you use your music network to try and spread the word and raise money?

I’ve done several benefits in town, I did one for The Rover, which is a spay and neuter clinic that goes around to neighborhoods. It was at the Ryman [Auditorium] and we had Paula Cole and Patty Griffin and Mindy Smith and we raised about a $100,000 for that. And then there are other organizations that I have been involved with to try to raise money. On stage and in different cities I usually just say, “You know, if you’re thinking about getting a pet, please consider your local animal control in your local animal shelters.” Sometimes people think they don’t want to go to the dog pound because it’s such a depressing place. Well, it’s not as depressing as it is for the animals. Actually our Metro Control is a nice facility; it’s just unfortunate what goes on there because the uncontrollable numbers of animals that are either captured off the street or owner-surrendered. That is another thing I don’t understand is owner surrender to Metro because, don’t they know what will probably happen?

Well, part of what we are trying to do is just make people aware. Sometimes I think they just don’t think about it and education is a big part of it. The act of actually rescuing a dog and then finding it a home is that we research it to make sure it’s a good match. When we take our currently available dogs to an outing, we invite others to bring the dog that they have adopted so we can all see them. So it’s incredibly satisfying, even though you become aware of the problem when you start doing this, there is a certain heartbreaking side to it. You just can’t let that shut you down. You can’t stop trying to save one at a time.

Do you think its good to use your celebrity status to help?

Yes, I think that when you find an opportunity, I mean, I have kind of gotten involved in using that celebrity status in a concentrated way with the land mine issue. I felt like I was able to help in that way. I have always, since I was a child, been drawn to animals and so this becomes even more personal than almost any other thing. Whether it’s Second Harvest or the Campaign for a Land Mine Free World, this issue for me has become very, very personal. Because I am hands-on, I get to know these dogs and eyeball these dogs. I have actually stopped myself from going to Metro. I let the people there and the people that work with my rescue kind of make the decisions because that part has become too hard. I mean, I am still haunted by the faces of some of them that I found out did not make it. We just didn’t have room. That’s been difficult but, once again, it is sad but there are things people can do even if they can’t have a pet. It’s important that people go to these shelters and walk the dogs and pet the cats and give them some human contact. There are a lot of things people can do that don’t really require a lot of time. I just believe in putting kindness into the universe, and that certainly can’t hurt.

Do you think more artists are getting involved and giving back now as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago?

Well, I don’t know. Certainly when I got involved in music, when I became that seed or whatever it was, it was because of artists like Joan Baez and civil rights. When you look back at Woody Guthrie and others, I think there has been a long tradition of making people aware of what’s going on besides just stories of the heart, to which we can all relate. Music is a powerful communicator. You just have to pick your projects because, let’s face it, there is so much work to be done and so much need in the world; we can’t do it all unless we are Vince Gill. God bless him, what an extraordinary human being he is and how generous he is with his time.

So to your other job – what are you doing musically at the moment? Do you have something that you are working on?

Oh yeah, I have been writing over this last year and I think I have enough material, almost enough material, between songs that I have written and songs that come my way. Sometime this month but no later than August I will put aside the whole month to start recording. I actually was able to write some songs, so that felt really good. You never know where these things come from. I find with records, they kind of become what they’re going to become. They take on a power and a direction of their own. Part of making records is to honor that and not try to force it.

So putting the team together for the record, is that part of that?

I’m going to work with a guy named Jay Joyce who produced one of Patty Griffin’s records and that’s where I met him years ago on Flaming Red. I sang on that song “Mary,” which is one of my favorite songs. Then we have done a couple of one-off projects over the last couple of years and so he’s going to produce the record. I’m kind of leaving how we’re going to do it to him, which is probably going to be at his house and use whoever he wants to use. That’s why they call them producers.

Do you like that these days it’s easier to make a record than it was back in the ’70s and ’80s?

Well, I think it is. A wonderful studio is a joy, but I’ve had great experiences working in houses like the records I did with Malcolm Burn. He pretty much recorded at his house, although we did some work in the studio; you kind of do both. Like in the last record, we did a lot of it in Brian’s (Ahern) house. At one point he said, “I think we need to gather up some songs and get a band together rather than just put down the tracks of vocals and guitar and overdub.” So we kind of did both. And so we will see what happens. If I’m comfortable with the people I’m working with and the sound in my headphones, and I like the songs, then I don’t want to have anything to do with production. I just want to sing.

What about the musicians? You’ve always been associated with great players since The Hot Band.

Yeah, I kind of leave that to the producer, although I might make a suggestion, especially if it’s an overdub. I might say, “Oh, let’s try so and so.” But once again, I don’t ever set things in stone in the beginning, or haven’t so far.

Do people that come to work for you think they know what you want because of what you have done already?

Well, I think it’s all determined by the song really. All the musicians I have worked with are just very creative and it’s a thing that happens in the studio at that moment of recording. And also it’s not like this is a country record. Over the years, we have done a few things that were very specific. I think the best example of that was Roses in the Snow where we consciously set out to get that bluegrass feel and that acoustic feel; so no one is going to confuse that with anything. But also, I’m very happy in that eclectic world. I’m happiest when I can mix and match. Once in a while I think it’s good to say, “Alright, let’s work in this form.” I think bluegrass has a very, very strict musical form. I think once you start to dilute it, it disappears. It doesn’t mean that what you get can’t be good. But I think it is a restrictive form in a good way. This isn’t going to be a bluegrass record.

Talking of musicians, I got the feeling that you really had a good time working with Mark Knopfler?

Oh God, it was so great because there was no heavy lifting. He brought the material and then was generous enough to say, “Now you need to bring some songs.” And I, fortunately, had a couple of songs that he really liked and so I was able to participate in that way. I just love his writing and I love how we sound together. He is so easy to sing with.

He’s not a bad guitar player either, is he?

Yeah, he’s pretty good! We did all of it here in Nashville over a period of years working with musicians that I know very well like Richard Bennett, and it was really nice to go on the road with those guys.

You have worked with some great people over the years. Are you appreciative to get to work with these people over the years?

Oh, yes. That has just been a bonus that you can’t imagine when you first start. First of all, when you start out you can’t really even imagine being successful. It’s just like all of a sudden someone calls you up to tell you you’re No. 107 on the charts. And you go, “Wow!” I never thought I would be on the charts. Then to work with people that inspired me early on like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, they are so dear to me as musicians and also as people. To be able to call them friends and be a part of so many projects of theirs as well as bringing them on mine. And then to just hang out and write and be a part of that extraordinary world that is theirs.

It must be pretty cool to be able to pick up the phone and call Neil Young.

Well, I don’t do that very often! I have every record he has ever made. He was a huge influence. I think there is something about Neil, I’m not leaving somebody out, but Neil and the way he has dealt with his career and his life and the way he gives back that he has managed to create the perfect musician life. And then also Kate McGarrigle [of The McGarrigles] you know, they didn’t really make that many records, but every one of them is just a jewel. And they raised wonderful families. When I first heard them in 1975, I remember thinking that I want some of that. I want whatever it is that they are plugged into. I want that.

Did they know how good they were or was that part of their charm that they did it naturally?

I think they knew, but I think that it was all in balance somehow. I’m not sure how important fame was to them. I think they were successful enough to have a good life and, of course, that’s the most important thing. I live in Nashville with wonderful friends and I have my mother that lives with me. I have a daughter that lives in Nashville. And I’m able to have the means to do something that is so dear to me which is the animal rescue thing that has become so important to me. But it is a juggling act sometimes.

Well you had a child when you were young didn’t you, when you were first coming through as an artist. There must have been some juggling back then as well?

Oh yes, my first daughter, the daughter that lives here, who turned 40 this year. Well, yeah, I made a record and a forgettable record, and once I had her and the marriage broke up, I moved back to my parents. I really thought my career that was non-existent, or at least the possibility of a career was over. But there was a really lovely music scene in D.C. where you could play your own material and kind of create like it was a little laboratory with an audience. So I continued my vocal work, but then I met Gram [Parsons] and that took me into a completely different place.

Gram was the missing ingredient that made everything come together and gave me my real sense as a singer and a direction. So when he died, I knew I had to put a band together. I couldn’t go back to just playing folk songs. I needed, God forgive, a drummer. I was able to go back to those folk clubs where I had built up a local audience and I was able to experiment without being squashed by too many people paying attention. It was rather protected rather than going off to L.A. or going to New York. I was able to be where I had family. I had my parents there to help me with my daughter. I had musical friends like John Starling and Bill and Taffy Danoff, who wrote “Take Me Home Country Roads,” who were there and there was a lot of great local music. It was a music scene that had a real heart and a lot of great stuff going on, but it wasn’t a music business town.

Do you think family gave you that stability, because someone your age could have easily had a less healthy lifestyle?

Yeah I guess I could have, but fortunately I was too busy trying to front a band and I had a child. There are certain things that keep you from going down that path that could be self-destructive. And the music requires that you focus and pay attention to the music. You know we would do a show and then all go back to John’s house and stay up all night but we were drinking coffee.

Gram Parsons has become a legend. Was he a good man, a decent person?

He was a good man. He was such a good man. You know, the only harm he ever did was to himself. If you read about his life, it reads like a Faulkner novel, especially in his early life. But he was a good, kind and generous person. I was surprised when he died. I don’t think I realized what a dangerous situation he was in even though he had stopped doing drugs, he was still drinking. But the music and the work, once again when we were singing together and when we were working, he was focused. It was something that I think could have saved him.

Well you two singing together is still one of the best musical moments I can think of. Wonderful stuff.

Well, thank you. It was a very special time. I was still in that vortex when I made my first record [Pieces of the Sky]. I was fortunate enough to get a producer [Brian Ahern] who knew I didn’t have any idea what I was doing but I had something real going on. But I needed some guidance and he respected that about me and didn’t try to force anything on me. He created a situation with great musicians – James Burton, Bernie Leadon, Ricky Skaggs, Byron Berline, Ben Keith. Also, I think Rodney Crowell was a part of that, [Crowell played a major role on Emmylou’s follow-up, Elite Hotel] because he brought that great material and he and I were young hippy types who were learning. He had credibility in his writing and because he was kind of from the rock world. He was very experienced and he had played drums in his father’s country band so he had certain credibility while I was still learning the way. I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do but I knew when something wasn’t right. The people that were around me when we were making that record respected and honored that. I think if I had found myself in a different situation, where people would have just railroaded me, I don’t think I could have stood up for myself. I really don’t. I feel like someone was watching over me and that it was supposed to be. I look back at that time and wonder how it all happened, but I’m grateful for it.

When you got a call to work with Bob Dylan on Desire, I read that he didn’t actually know who you were. Is that true?

There was a fellow at Columbia that was a fan, who was like an executive producer, and I think Dylan told him “I need a girl singer.” Don DeVito was his name and I got a call that Dylan wants you to sing, but that wasn’t true because he just wanted a girl singer. I mean we basically shook hands and started recording. I didn’t know the songs, the lyrics were in front of me, and the band would start playing and he would kind of poke me when he wanted me to jump in. Somehow I watched his mouth with one eye and the lyrics with the other. You couldn’t fix anything. What happened in a moment was on the record.

I guess he was happy with it.

Yeah, I guess so. He didn't take me off the record. Well, he couldn’t have because everything blended into everything else.

Well that’s still a good story to tell all these years later. That was a great record, I think. To be on any of his records ...

Actually there was so much fire; it was wonderful. How great that he is still out there on a bus just making great music. It’s amazing.

It seems like that whole notion that you have to retire at a certain point in pop music is gone. Now people are accepting that artists just carry on.

Oh yes. Well I think if you reach an audience that when you really touch them, then it’s not a matter of hits on the charts but you touch people. I think most of the things I did were very eclectic, a real mixed bag, although the country-rock experience and traditional country were very important to me but I think Wrecking Ball really disturbed a few people, some fans. I think I lost them. But I think I brought in a whole new world of people who were probably curious in the beginning.

But even when you were a mainstream Nashville country artist, you still had a kind of crossover/VH1 rock following didn’t you?

Yes. I think my manager told me that there are people that watch those things and looking at what people buy, and we couldn’t figure out why the people that bought my first record also bought Talking Heads. They were trying to figure out what was the formula. Well, I don’t think there is a formula, I just think its music that comes from the heart.

How did the Emmylou Harris acoustic guitar come about?

When Gibson came to me and asked me about doing a guitar, I thought that what I want is a full-size guitar that is small enough to go through security. A guitar you could carry and put in a soft case so you can take it on a bus or put it in your hotel room, so you always have a guitar with you. I love the J-200 but they travel in these huge, heavy cases with the equipment. I would love to have a guitar with me, especially when I write. It’s nice to have backstage in your room because the Gibsons I play are on stage, so they can be tuned and wired up and all of that. So I have been absolutely delighted with my model and have been pleased to see that people actually buy them. They have been pretty successful. They are wonderful guitars. For all the guitars I have, the last record, All Intended to Be, I pretty much played one of my little guitars the whole time. It stays in tune, it capos well, it chords really well.

How do you regard yourself as a guitarist these days?

Well, I think I have a distinctive rhythm style. I think I do very well with three chords. Occasionally you might have to throw in minors or two minors. You know Neil Young can write a song with four different minors. How does he do that? And he still sounds so simple and beautiful.

One last thing, everyone knows I’m a fan of Gibson, but they just do extraordinary work around the world. I didn’t even realize that until I started befriending the director of [the Gibson Foundation] and then realizing how much they do. You know, we talked earlier about how much that needs to be done in the world.

Well, with people like you and Bono…

Well it takes a lot more people than just us. It’s part of a musician’s nature to want to just roll up your sleeves and help.