Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images – Americanfest Pre-Grammy Salute To Emmylou Harris
For generations, Emmylou Harris has served as the Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Whether the folkie/country queen of Laurel Canyon, the leader of Nashville’s traditionalist and bluegrass revivals or following Daniel Lanois’ ethereal path beyond genres to become a leading edge of Americana, the silver’n’crystaline voiced songstress set a standard that inspired all who heard her.
To understand the power of transcendence Harris inspires, one only had to listen to Valerie June’s genre-melting read of “Til I Gain Control Again” – at the fifth annual Americanafest Tribute show, the night before the Grammy Awards – to understand the depths of what lies in Harris’ catalogue. Complex emotions, deep wounds, haunted longing and enough grit to give roots music’s Erykah Badu room to express a Zora Neal Hurtson-like angst and white knuckle resolve to survive.
For the dozen artists on hand at City Winery for the Salute to Emmylou Harris, which was presented by the Americana Music Association and Vector Management, the evening was as much a festival of thank you – for music, inspiration and a template to blaze one’s own hybrid oeuvre – as it was the opportunity to reach into one of American roots music’s greatest catalogues. Whether it was Sugarland/Broadway vet Jennifer Nettles laying a rich Southern gospel twang on Robbie Robertson’s “Evangeline,” Texas rocker Jack Ingram putting a roadhouse thump on Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” or LA’s Sam Outlaw and Molly Jenson’s California desert ache tempering Gram Parson’s bottomed-out/saved-by-love “Juanita,” Harris’ songs triggered decidedly regional and utterly true performances.
Because her ear is so profound, Harris has championed Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Susanna Clark, Patty Griffin, Shel Silverstein, as well as resurrected hard country jewels from Hank Snow, Buck Owens, the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams. But her greatest, often unrecognized gift is her own songwriting.
Brandi Carlile mined the Dust Bowl starkness of “Red Dirt Girl,” the hard scrabble tale of two young friends, told by the one who didn’t live to run, and watches the other end up dead at 27 with five little kids. Rendering a Darkness on the Edge of Town emptiness that recalls Springsteen’s most devastating portraits of the working poor, Carlile’s take spoke volumes about the ways the blue collar underclass falls into drugs and destitution.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, too, embraced Harris’ melancholy. Applying her smoky alto to “Prayer in Open D,” which she joked to the audience would “now be Prayer in Open F,” the multiple Grammy winner took a song of ruminating on life’s bad decisions and their weight and created a lullabye that finds redemption in surrender.
The night’s biggest jaw drop was Keb Mo’s solemn “My Name Is Emmett Till.” At a time when hate and racism are hurled without real understanding, Harris’ song paints a literal picture, a mother’s view and a final verse of what might have been had the 14-year old black boy not been slaughtered. In times of #BlackLivesMatter, her harrowing series of details over an elegiac melody makes concrete what the harvests of these attitudes is without stridence.
By the time Steve Earle took the stage, Harris’ impact was documented. For the blue collar post-country stalwart, it was his telling of the woman in New York to receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award who sang on Train A-Comin’, his first post-prison record, that illuminated the grace Harris’ imbues in others. Not only did she sing on Earle’s album, she requested one of the songs for her own project – and Earle spent his 40th birthday in the studio playing on her version of “GoodBye.”
Halfway through the blurry song of regret and not remembering, Harris – silver hair, clad in black – emerged from the wings to join her friend. Together the gravitas of their careers reflected off the other, but as importantly, their shared love of music encapsulated the reason for the night.
Long an activist and builder of communities, they offered Earle’s “I Am A Pilgrim” as a benediction. Before the song found its final verse, the assembled cast returned to share the chorus, pledging their own journey of song, cause and making the world a better place.