“The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris” by Various Artists

Various Artists
The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris
Rounder Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

What can one add to the story of Emmylou Harris?

How about this—In my more exuberant years, I startled the dickens out of the poor lady as she exited a port-a-potty at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. With more humor and grace than the situation or I warranted, she signed my proffered CD cover, thanking me for my interest in her music.

Or, in 1983, during months of musical discovery working at Climax Records in Leduc, her album Last Date was the first country album I listened to all the way through. I was immediately hooked.

It is a fact that among the finest concerts I have ever attended was an acoustic evening she performed in early 2007 with Carolina Star featuring John Starling, Tom Gray, Rickie Simpkins, and Mike Auldridge.

Admittedly, I never much cared for the production values of Wrecking Ball or the Spyboy alignment.

Finally, the level of respect I have for Emmylou Harris matches the esteem in which I hold Hazel Dickens, Chaim Potok, Janis Ian, and Cynthia Voigt.

In 2015, a cavalcade of friends and admirers gathered in Washington, DC to celebrate the career of Emmylou Harris. Many of those who appeared were names one would naturally associate with Harris: Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Daniel Lanois, and Starling. As many performing would be considered artists influenced by Harris who became peers, the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and Vince Gill, while Kris Kristofferson and Chris Hillman undoubtedly influenced Harris’ approach to the folk-edged country music that has become known as Americana. And there were members of another generation ably demonstrating that Harris has continued to have an impact, with relative youngsters including Holly Williams, the Milk Carton Kids, Trampled By Turtles, Sara Watkins, and Shovels & Rope featured.

All of whom are captured on this warmly recorded and pleasingly filmed eighty-minute CD/two hour DVD concert recording. While there is an abundance of guest performers, the house band providing consistency is equally impressive: Sam Bush (mandolin), Watkins (fiddle), Matt Rollings (keys), Greg Leisz (pedal and lap steel), Audley Freed (guitar), and Fred Eltringham (drums), with musical directors Don Was (bass), and Miller (guitar.)

Some have forgotten, or never knew, that forty years before this night of tribute, Emmylou Harris was near the top of the country chart with her major label debut Pieces of the Sky, and would top that chart with her next two releases, with gold album accreditation and numerous #1 and hit singles to follow.

The 1970s are well-represented in this package, with Trampled By Turtles taking Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” for a lively spin and Krauss destroying his “Till I Gain Control Again.” Shovels & Rope perform an unconventional “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Other early Harris recordings revisited include “Together Again” (Gill), “Two More Bottles of Wine” (Sheryl Crow and Gill), and “One of These Days” (Miller).

Hillman and Pedersen (founding fathers of Americana) bridge the Gram Parsons years with “Wheels,” and Earle performs “Sin City,” with Pedersen also appearing with Earle and Lee Ann Womack on “Pancho and Lefty.”  Parsons is also recalled on Lucinda Williams’ “Hickory Wind.”

While material from essential mid-career albums Evangeline, White Shoes, Bluebird, Ballad of Sally Rose, and others is sadly overlooked, Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl are well-represented. Shawn Colvin performs a faithful, gentle “Red Dirt Girl,” Lanois joins Harris on “Blackhawk,” and Conor Oberst, Colvin, and Griffin team up on “The Pearl.”

“Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” is capably performed by Holly Williams and Chris Coleman, and the Milk Carton Kids bring their Simon & Garfunkel harmonies to “Michelangelo.” “All the Roadrunning” is masterly delivered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Gill. Fittingly, Harris performs a beautiful closing rendition of “Boulder to Birmingham,” joined by the ensemble on the final chorus.

I don’t recall Harris having recorded “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” but maybe she did and I imagine Kristofferson can sing any damn song he likes. What’s missing? Interviews with the participants, some of whom are only heard briefly praising Harris over the opening credits.

Outside the totality of the performances, there are little moments from the DVD that stand out: Bush and Watkins twin-fiddling their way through “You’re Still On My Mind” with Crowell; Harris’ brief, but significant introduction to “When We’re Gone, Long Gone,” sung with Starling; Pedersen accompanying Harris in places; Hillman’s smile heading into “Wheels,” not for the first time; Harris’ final spoken words of humility—”I must have done something really good in a past life…”

For fans, The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris is essential and well-worth purchase. As any quality tribute is want to do, its lasting impact will be as a testament to the quality of Emmylou Harris’ recorded legacy; should all deserving artists be celebrated in similar manner.

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