This sunlit corner of the Childe Harold: Emmylou Harris knows it well. Even if the stage is gone, the sound system dismantled and the rowdy nightspot transformed forever into a restaurant.
She sits at a table, looking out at the swirl of traffic on Connecticut Avenue, and if eyes could see as a crow flies, Emmylou Harris could spot her old apartment at 18th and T.
It was funky, the whole scene, back in the days of the Angel Band, when Danny Pendleton's steel guitar couldn't fit on the tiny stage and he'd have to position himself as part of the audience.
When there was an audience. In her many nights at the Childe Harold, Emmylou Harris had some slow ones.
Of course, that was before she became one of country music's brightest stars.
"I don't know what my perspective on it is, really," Harris says, in town to prepare for tonight's Kennedy Center concert. She has walked into the Childe and been greeted by Leroy and Billy and Ali, who were working there way back when she was Emmywho. Now she's 37, and her hair is a little grayer, her austere beauty harder, her clothes sharper.
"Sometimes it seems like yesterday, and sometimes it seems like it was in another lifetime," Harris says, softly. "Driving around today, I was thinking, oh God, I lived in that apartment building . . . that's where Tom's amp got stolen . . . that's where we did a Christmas party with the Angel Band . . . all kinds of things which I hadn't thought about for years.
"I have really good memories of this place. I wish I had a clearer memory. It really bothers me that time and age make things a bit unclear. I expected all these memories to come roaring back, almost like a flashback . . ."
She doesn't remember how to get to the bathroom at the Childe Harold. She has to ask.
Tonight, she'll be in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. The centerpiece of her sold-out show is "The Ballad of Sally Rose," which is also the title of her new album and the song cycle Harris wrote with Paul Kennerley. It's the story of a young singer whose career is heading nowhere slowly until she meets The Singer, who takes her into his band as rhythm guitarist and backup singer. Things turn: harmony to love and bad luck to good. After The Singer dies tragically, Sally Rose extends his legacy by singing his songs wherever she goes. And becomes a star in her own right.
As it happens, in 1972 Emmylou Harris was a local singer going nowhere slowly when she met up with Gram Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who played with the Byrds and helped found the Flying Burrito Brothers. She was prominently featured on his two solo albums and toured with him. Parsons died of a suspected drug overdose in southern California in 1973. Harris has continued singing his songs, and became a star in her own right.
So perhaps "Sally Rose" is autobiographical? "I'm not denying that," Harris says. "I'm guilty."
But there is more. "These are songs I'd been wanting to write for a long time. Now that's done and let's move on. But it isn't my life story. There are similarities, and it obviously started from the inspiration of Gram and the loss of Gram. I gave Sally that experience, but there were a lot of variations that are truly her own.
"The last 10 years of my life have definitely been influenced by Gram," she adds, "and probably as long as I'm singing, I'll have to look at that as the turning point.
Harris says "Sally Rose" was born in 1978 in South Dakota, where she was touring with her Hot Band. "We had a couple of days off and we were in a bar one night and this person who had had a lot to drink thought he recognized me and wanted to engage in serious conversation. Our manager, being very protective and diplomatic, said, 'That isn't Emmylou, actually. That's Sally Rose. She sings with the band.'
"And so Sally Rose became a spirit in the band. I felt she was intriguing and I got the idea to use her as the central character in this story. It was nice to talk about and tell people I was going to do it. And that's what I did, for years."
The breakthrough came when Harris met English songwriter Paul Kennerley, who had already written two country operas, "White Mansions" and "The Ballad of Jesse James." Harris had sung on the latter and used a song left on the editing room floor, "Born to Run," on her 1980 "Cimarron" album.
Last year, her marriage to Brian Ahern, who had produced all 11 of her albums, was in the process of dissolving, and Harris found herself taking a second look at her approach to records.
"I was starting to feel redundant," she says. "I would rather retire and not make any more records than constantly repeat myself, even if it was with quality."
Of course, that wasn't really the case. In 1979, she did a hard-core country collection, "Blue Kentucky Girl." A year later she followed it with an all-acoustic bluegrass album, "Roses in the Snow," which broke the longstanding barrier of limited air play for that genre and forced the singer to reassure her fans that she was not abandoning country. Last year, Harris fulfilled a longtime dream with "White Shoes," her paean to rock 'n' roll. And now there is "Sally Rose."
Harris and Kennerley share the credits on "Sally Rose," and with her divorce from Ahern now final, Harris has been romantically linked to Kennerley.
"As far as having any other drastic goals, I just want to continue from here," she says, "doing more writing, a lot of singing, less touring, having more time with my family, making records, being inspired to come up with ideas for albums. It will always be pretty much of a country framework, but the variations will probably come from an ethnic place. I'm listening to Celtic music and Cajun music, and that's sort of my next creative step, trying to absorb those musical forms and see what I come up with.
"Roses in the Snow" presaged and inspired country music's current fascination with the bluegrass and old-time country forms that Harris has always loved. Which was her intent all along.
"When country music got more and more homogenized a few years ago, I got very pessimistic. Now I'm very optimistic again. All the record companies are hiring what one person called 'the token hillbilly.' And I said that's okay. Even if they're doing it for the wrong reasons, the listener -- and music in general -- is going to benefit because the record companies are going to realize there's an audience for it. It's great that Keith Whitley has been signed, and Carl Jackson, and that we're going to be hearing more ethnic-oriented artists."
After living in Los Angeles during her marriage to Ahern, Harris has now moved to Nashville.
She was there once before, briefly, during her first marriage in the late '60s. She always swore she'd never go back, insisting she could never fit in. But, Harris says, "I lied.
"I don't feel like I'm in the center of an industry," she adds. "The thing about Nashville is you sort of go your own way. It's a nice place to live and it just so happens there are a lot of studios, so you can drive to work. It remains, I think, a pretty unaffected town. If you don't choose to be involved a lot, you don't have to be."
With two daughters, Holly, 15, and Megan, 5, there are other compelling reasons for Harris to choose Nashville. "It's a good town to be a parent in," she says. "It's a lot closer to this area, where my parents are, than Los Angeles."
She still does some session work, recently lending her crystalline voice to projects by Terri Gibbs, Carl Jackson and bluegrass legends Jim and Jesse. "I was going to do Tammy Wynette but I had to go out of town," Harris says with a trace of regret. "It is a bit hard to say no in Nashville, and there's always something going on. If you're alive, you still need to do it."
One thing you'll probably be seeing less of is Harris on tour. Her voice, she says, is "stronger than ever. I just want to be home during the school year. Holly's 15 and Megan is about to start first grade and there's just no substitute for being there. Even when I was doing 'Sally Rose,' I was getting up at 7 in the morning, fixing breakfast, taking Holly to school; I would have somebody pick her up at school and stay with her for a couple of hours and I would come home and fix dinner."
What will be most clear tonight is Emmylou Harris' confidence. It's obvious that the experience of "Sally Rose" has been a catharsis and, she admits, "I feel renewed. Even my old material has taken on a new life. I'm enjoying it again."