Emmylou Harris is one of the most important artists in country and American roots music. Beyond her stunning voice, which always soars but has evolved with age, Harris has pointed many musicians and fans (including me) in many soul-satisfying directions in both traditional country and bold new contemporary Americana.
For Harris’ show at Atlanta’s Symphony Hall on Nov. 11, 2019, she often looked back on her musical past and influences. I cherish Harris--she’s my favorite artist--as do many of her fans, for helping me find my way into the Louvin Brothers (I met Charlie Louvin once), Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, David Olney, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Julie Miller, Patty Griffin, John Starling and the Seldom Scene, and countless others. I’ll write more about her impact on my musical discoveries in a separate piece.
Harris’ voice has aged more even in recent years, and she may have even been suffering from a cold on the night of this show. Still, her enchanting voice and storytelling hit many sweet spots during the evening.
She opened with her 1978 hit, “Easy From Now On,” by Carlene Carter and the late Susanna Clark, whose painting was the cover for Harris’ album, the title of which is taken from a line in the song “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.”
Harris followed with Earl Montgomery’s hard-country lament, “One of These Days,” from her spectacular 1975 debut, Pieces of the Sky, and newer classics such as the semi-autobiographical “Red Dirt Girl.”
Her band, known as the Red Dirt Boys, was delicate and measured, although fiddle and mandolinist Eamon McLaughlin set many a tune ablaze. He joined the wonderful pianist Phil Madeira, who shifted into barrelhouse-style on several songs, veteran drummer Bryan Owings, bassist Chris Donohue, and guitarist-singer Will Kimbrough (more on him below).
Harris told the audience she remembered stopping at the nearby Varsity Drive-In on family trips as a girl from Virginia to visit her mother’s family in Alabama. Introducing Buck Owens’ country classic, “Together Again,” which recorded on 1975’s Elite Hotel, she said the song reminds her of her parents and her father’s year-and-a-half as a prisoner of war in Korea.
The band hit its stride on the Gram Parsons’ rocker, “Ooh, Las Vegas,” which must be a blast to play. And the concert began to peak when Emmylou sang her gorgeous version of Townes Van Zandt’s graceful “If I Needed You,” a hit for her and the beautifully restrained country singer Don Williams in 1981.
“Pancho and Lefty,” also by Van Zandt--Harris' original performance from 1977’s Luxury Liner is one of my favorite interpretations of all time--didn’t suit Harris’ voice as well on this night, but always is a thrill to hear. Harris' version is featured prominently in the recent Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns documentary.
Harris adapted well to a lower register on her somber, powerful version of Merle Haggard’s somber, powerful “Kern River” (see video below). The Harris original, “Home Sweet Home," worked nicely as a bluegrass-based tune more akin to Harris’ 1992 Live at the Ryman album than the more pop-oriented version on her 2011 album Hard Bargain.
I preferred this night's folk-rock-leaning performance of the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Goin’ Back to Harlan” than the beautiful but especially atmospheric and eerie version on the album Wrecking Ball, Harris’ comeback of sorts, made in New Orleans with producer Daniel Lanois in 1995. That record helped Harris adjust to her slightly older voice at the time and helped set the stage for Americana music scene we know today.
The show's most poignant moment was Harris’ performance of her gutsy original, “My Name is Emmett Till,” about the Mississippi murder of the Chicago teen in 1955 (see video below). This song helped inspire Nashville singer-songwriter Will Kimbrough to write his own lament to the people killed and harmed by a lack of civil or basic rights in the South, “Alabama (for Michael Donald).” (See my in-depth story on Kimbrough here at SoulCountry.)
Kimbrough plays lead guitar in Harris’ band and was blessed to be Harris’ duet partner in Atlanta, taking the late John Starling’s part on Billy Joe Shaver’s clever and beautiful “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and Don Williams’ part on "If I Needed You."
Harris finished her main set with a flourish, singing three rollicking classics: her and Rodney Crowell’s mournful train song “Tulsa Queen,” early mentor and friend’s Gram Parsons' (and Chris Hillman’s) swashbuckling motorcycle hymn “Wheels,” and her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s “Born to Run.” (Check out Harris’ live performance of the latter on her 1998 live album, Spyboy, with Buddy Miller’s fiery guitar solos. See video below.)
Her ensemble then turned Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” into an upbeat country-rocker with great harmonies, countering the weight of all those sad songs. Still looking ahead and pointing us forward on our journey, building on the traditions that have shaped her music from the beginning.
The encore was her and Bill Danoff’s signature tribute to Gram Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham,” from Pieces of the Sky:
Well, you really got me this time And the hardest part is knowing I'll survive I ‘ve come to listen for the sound Of the trucks as they move down Out on 95 And pretend that it's the ocean Coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean Baby do you know what I mean?