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UPDATED 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

>Emmylou Harris

While driving with her dog from her Nashville home to New Orleans, where she was completing her new album, singer Emmylou Harris, who has written an album's worth of original material only once before (for her 1985 landmark country opera, The Ballad of Sally Rose), found inspiration along the interstate. "When I saw the sign for Meridian, Miss.," says Alabama-born Harris, "I kept thinking of this song."

That song, about a poor girl from the South, turned out to be the title track of Harris's latest effort, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch), which continues the nine-time Grammy Award winner's tradition of eclectic country music. "I never wanted to sing what other people thought were country songs," says the thrice-divorced Harris.

She never has. Like her late friend and collaborator, country rocker Gram Parsons, Harris, 53, who executive produced last year's Return of the Grievous Angel, a tribute to Parsons, has been a pioneer her entire career. "After Gram's death, I was a woman with a mission," says Harris, who will kick off a coast-to-coast tour this month. "I wanted to carry his music forward."

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