“People keep asking me, ‘What is country music?’” remarked Emmylou Harris late into a supremely spirited 1 ¾ hour performance with her Red Dirt Boys band last night at the Opera House.“And so I tell them,” lowering her voice to a barely discernible whisper, “This is.”
With that, she sailed into a sterling cover of Old Five and Dimers Like Me, a sagely bit of honky tonk wisdom by the great Texas songsmith Billy Joe Shaver. It’s a masterful bit of writing, but unless the artist singing it has the requisite years of hard learning under his (or, in this case, her) belt, the song simply misses its mark.
“I spent a lifetime making up my mind to be more than the measure of what I thought others could see,” Harris sang with a voice that has only grown more worldly with the years. And while her band maintained a sound slightly more cosmopolitan than the Lone Star swagger the song grew up with, the very obvious sentiments of dance hall merriment nicely balanced the lyrics’ aged contentment.
It was a beautiful moment, but also a curious one. Harris can still run crop circles around most country stylists, even though she long ago abandoned – or simply outgrew – country convention years ago.
Sure, she still delivered classics like Hello Stranger, Making Believe and the regal Townes Van Zandt nugget Pancho & Lefty (which Harris helped introduce to the country and pop mainstream over 35 years ago) with a satisfying Americana flair. But a sizeable portion of the show was devoted to music from the singer’s last two albums, 2008’s All I Intended to Be and 2011’s Hard Bargain. Much that material flirted with loss and mortality, themes that typically scare the daylights out of country radio.
Some of these selections were country by default, such as Merle Haggard’s Kern River (from All I Intended to Be). This was no barroom serenade, but a devastating chronicle of a drowning and the mourning that comes in its wake. “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” Harris sang against a stark arrangement that grew out of a haunting drone designed on fiddle, accordion and bowed bass.
More affirmative was Harris’s placement of two Hard Bargain requiems (both Harris originals) next to tunes penned by their subjects. Harris’ The Road, a meditative recollection of country renegade Gram Parsons, prefaced the giddy Parsons classic Luxury Liner, which left serious instrumental space for fiddler Rickie Simpkins and guitarist Will Kimbrough to unwind in. Later, a lovely trio arrangement of Darlin’ Kate, Harris’ tribute to Canadian songstress Kate McGarrigle, led into the show’s highlight, a reading of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Talk to Me of Mendocino that seemed to dance with a ballet-like elegance.
The show had its lighter segments, too. Big Black Dog, which Harris used a jingle of sorts to promote animal rescue, sported a playful, child-like bounce. The singer even brought Bella, the canine that inspired the tune, onstage at show’s end. The wag factor was high.
Oddly enough, the performance kicked off with its most appealing spiritual postscript, a modestly rocking Hard Bargain self-eulogy called Six White Cadillacs – a tune that outlined Harris’ preferred means of transport into the hereafter.
How appropriate. Harris is setting herself up to be the same class act in the great beyond that she has always been here with us.