Can’t categorize captivating Harris
February 16, 2004
There was a time when hanging the tag “country singer” on Emmylou Harris would have brought no argument, perhaps least of all from Harris herself.
That time, though, has slipped away. In recent years Harris, with the assistance of various producers, bandmates and co-writers, has moved closer toward that elusive ideal of transcending categorization.
Harris’ concert at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday night, the beginning of a two-night stand presented by the Wheeler Associates, brought home the point. Performing with just Buddy Miller, a singer and string player who is also part of her touring band, Harris made music that was a one-of-a-kind creation. Not that it was radical or inaccessible, far from that. The music comes out of the familiar sounds of folk, rock and yes, country.
But in the hands of Harris ” and Miller, whose role was beyond that of mere accompanist ” each song was a thing of its own. And with Harris’ voice, as gorgeous and unique as any in the pop music business, those songs were routinely captivating.
Much of this has to do with Harris recent history. Her 1995 album “Wrecking Ball,” produced by Daniel Lanois, was a massive stride away from country, in the direction of Lanois’ typical atmospheric rock. Harris’ two most recent albums, “Red Dirt Girl” and last year’s “Stumble Into Grace,” focused as never before on Harris as a songwriter.
Harris, 56, has embraced this recent emergence, as a large chunk of the concert repertoire was taken from those two recent albums. Perhaps the best song of the night was the title track from “Red Dirt Girl,” a near-epic story-song about growing up in and getting out of a small Southern town, but being unable to shake the hard life. Another highlight was “Strong Hand,” written for June Carter Cash, preceded by a memorable introduction about the late country queen.
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Though the focus was on her songwriting abilities, Harris found plenty of time in her two-hour show to shed light on some of her writing heroes. From “Wrecking Ball,” Harris played Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Old World” and Lanois’ “Blackhawk”; she also sang Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” and a tune from the Louvins Brothers’ catalogue. From her early years with Gram Parson, she offered up the signature “Love Hurts.”
It is easy to see why Harris has such nice things to say about her partner for the evening. Like Harris’ voice, Miller’s tones on a series of uncommon instruments ” baritone guitar, mandoguitar ” had just a touch of twang mixed with rock and folk. His playing, like his earthy voice, complemented Harris ideally.
Harris, radiant with her silver hair, cowboy boots and occasional hip shakes, continually offered near-apologies for the dark and depressing themes that predominate in her repertoire. She needn’t have. She knows by now that sad songs don’t make you feel sad. They make you feel ” which is good. Especially when they are done this beautifully.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org