Emmylou Harris: a wistful, powerful presence

Emmylou Harris in performance at the Alberta Bair Theater Nov. 17, 2009.
Emmylou Harris in performance at the Alberta Bair Theater Nov. 17, 2009.

With wispy blonde hair shining against the bright lights of the Alberta Bair Theater stage, face sharply defined by years of singing, a soft-spoken 62-year-old Emmylou Harris took the stage Tuesday night to a packed house.

Without pretention, Harris launched into song, appearing humble despite her considerable musical background and extensive list of musicians she has performed, recorded and/or worked with. The brilliant country/folk singer and songwriter was a genteel force amongst an intoxicating group of musicians she tours with known as the Red Dirt Boys.

Harris strummed a parade of robust acoustic guitars, shining golden in the stage light, her thin, long fingers nimbly plucking the guitar strings. She smiled sweetly at pockets of the audience as they cheered during the opening bars of their favorite songs.

Electric guitar, upright bass, mandolin/violin, accordion/keyboardist, and drums accompanied Harris. Graceful and artful, her familiar voice ascended throughout each song, sometimes underneath the music, ebbing against the sound, other times harmonizing with the masculine backup vocals of the Red Dirt Boys.

Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys in performance.
Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys in performance.

Two of the Red Dirt Boys, guitarist Buddy Miller and bassist Chris Donohue, took the stage to warm the crowd before the full band appeared.

True to form, Harris appeared onstage to perform a couple of duets with Miller, including “Wide River to Cross” and “Don’t Tell Me.”

When the time came for Harris to fully take the stage, she and the five backing musicians opened with the country tune, “Easy From Now On” from her 1978 album, “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town,” and launched into a nearly two-hour performance.

In total, Harris performed 21 songs before her encore.

The country genre has never fully defined Harris, but she was a defining figure in country music. A recording artist for nearly 40 years, she’s got one of the largest discographies around.

At Tuesday’s concert, she performed plenty of vintage swinging country tunes, including 1979’s “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” and “Born to Run,” from Harris’s 1981 release “Cimarron.”

The band packed such tunes with fiddle-swinging, electric guitar-swaying alt twang, but Harris ensured that she balanced the set list with her lighter fare and songs from her latest release, 2008’s “All I Intended To Be.”

Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller (left)
Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller (left)

Harris brought personal tales to several songs, including “Strong Hand (for June),” which Harris described as a song she wrote after hearing of June Carter Cash’s illness.

“She spent the last 10 years pulling John back from these terrible illnesses,” Harris lamented. “I think she decided, ‘I’m going first.’”

When she played “Going Back to Harlan,” Harris showed her brooding, deliciously dark side. The soulful song hung dense over the auditorium as she rolled her words together.

Harris and the Red Dirt Boys also played plenty of covers, including Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty” and the poignant “If I Needed You” (which made its appearance during the encore), Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” “Making Believe” (originally recorded by Kitty Wells in the 1950s), Tracy Chatman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul,” and the vintage yet hugely popular “Save the Last Dance For Me,” a tune the band broke out unexpectedly for the final song of the encore.

As the band prepped for the song, Harris told the audience she’d been drawn to sad songs all her life.

“I don’t know why I love them so much,” Harris said. “I had a really happy childhood. Of course, a lot has happened since then.”

Two-stepping along with the catchy tune, Harris emanated genuine love for her craft, and looking out to the audience, she asked, “Save the last dance for me.”

Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys bid the crowd a farewell.
Emmylou Harris and Her Red Dirt Boys bid the crowd a farewell.

(Originally published in the Billings Outpost).

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