Music News & Reviews

No matter where her art takes her, Emmylou Harris' music always in style

Emmylou Harris, appearing Sunday at the Opera House, could win a Grammy next month for best Americana album for Hard Bargain.
Emmylou Harris, appearing Sunday at the Opera House, could win a Grammy next month for best Americana album for Hard Bargain. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A chance meeting with a friend last weekend triggered a conversation about a performance we both had attended 35 winters earlier.

It took place in the Grand Ballroom of the University of Kentucky Student Center, then one of the more active concert havens in town. John Prine and David Bromberg played there the same academic year.

But the star of that February evening in 1977 was Emmylou Harris. At the time, she was amassing a commercial audience to match the devout fan base that had followed her since introductions were made via Gram Parsons' ground-breaking albums GP and Grievous Angels four years earlier.

In many instances, Harris, 29 at the time, was already a star. The concert at UK had sold out weeks earlier, and songs from the singer's then-current album, Luxury Liner — especially a swing-savvy version of the Chuck Berry nugget (You Never Can Tell) C'est La Vie and the Parsons-written title tune — were getting more airplay from Lexington rock stations than from country radio.

We recalled the players who made up Harris' famed Hot Band at the '77 performance. There was the great steel guitarist Hank DeVito, who underscored Harris' gorgeously plaintive singing on Making Believe. The show also was one of the last regional outings to feature Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band. He would leave to start a solo career a few months later; Kentucky-born Ricky Skaggs took his place. Nearly stealing the show was famed British-born fingerpicker Albert Lee, one of the sleekest roots-conscious guitarists on the planet.

Then there was Harris, the heir apparent to the so-called "cosmic country" sound pioneered by Parsons. But she was clearly gravitating toward more traditional inspirations. Luxury Liner, in fact, was a testament to Harris' Americana reach, taking on songs by A.P. Carter, Townes Van Zandt, The Louvin Brothers, plus Berry, Crowell and Parsons.

With a folkish country soprano, a keen performance intuition and the country spirit of a true honky-tonk angel — albeit it one schooled well outside Nashville's city limits — Alabama native Harris forged a sound and a repertoire that redefined country for a college audience that was far more enamored of the then-fertile singer-songwriter climate than anything resembling the Nashville norm.

"Sometimes you feel like it's a different person (on those songs) because my voice sounds so different," Harris said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last year. "But it is me. And I pretty much loved every song that I did."

Wrecking crew

Harris' musical voice didn't shift nearly as much in the ensuing years as other voices did around her. A look at her many regional performances from the past 3½ decades reveals a lot about the revolving door of company she kept.

In Lexington alone, there were concerts at Rupp Arena alongside George Strait, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell, which led to her grand 2002 set at the opening night of the T Bone Burnett-produced Down from the Mountain Tour.

There was the 2008 acoustic set at the Singletary Center for the Arts with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller, and performances in surrounding cities that placed Harris in the company of Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler and the famed bluegrass ensemble she dubbed the Nash Ramblers.

But stylistic change came in a huge way with Wrecking Ball. The 1995 album took the country sensibilities of her earlier music and stuffed them into a blender. As a result, the designs of Harris' singing became more sagely, atmospheric and, at times, ghostly.

Supporting her was an electric ambience produced and performed by Daniel Lanois, who helped reinvent the careers of, among others, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and the Neville Brothers. And, as usual, there was a catalogue of 12 songs that spanned generations and genres. Among the composers: Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and cohorts Lanois and Crowell.

Subsequent tours that swapped Lanois for Buddy Miller moved Harris even further from country terrain. The Grammys rewarded Wrecking Ball with a trophy in the "contemporary folk" category. Call it what you will. Her music from the mid-'90s, while full of country spirit, had a brave electric orchestration that distinguished it from anything in or out of Nashville.

"I don't worry about maintaining my past success, because my success has always been so modest," Harris told me in an interview before a sold-out show at The Kentucky Theatre in 1996. "But it's been enough to give me a constituency where the only demand that they make of me is to keep surprising them."

Bargain hunter

To say that Harris' most recent album, 2011's Grammy-nominated Hard Bargain, is something of a full-circle project is an oversimplification. With Cage the Elephant/Patty Griffin producer Jay Joyce at the helm, the music could not be more removed from country. Yet, inspirations from her past enlighten the 11 songs Harris wrote for the project.

She recalls mentor Parsons in the album-opening The Road, eulogizes longtime friend and frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle in Darlin' Kate and fashions a love story about the wartime courtship of her parents in The Ship on His Arm.

Perhaps in keeping with a career that is more than four decades long, there are songs of mortality. Harris, 64, seeks inspiration from a newborn to wade through sadness on Goodnight Old World but drapes in solitude a civilization where "days are growing shorter" in Lonely Girl.

This is the mature and beautifully uncategorizable music that brings Harris back to Lexington on Sunday.

"You get to a certain age when the life that has preceded you is going to be longer than what is ahead of you," Harris told Jon Parales of The New York Times shortly before the release of Hard Bargain. "You just accept it. This is where you are at this point in your life. It wasn't like there was a theme in my head when I sat down to write. The ideas came out of what was happening in my world."

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