Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Just Before Dawn: The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris performing at the concert staged in her honour in Washington, D.C. in January 2015. (Photo: Paul Morigi)

As last Friday's presidential inauguration approached, I was planning on writing here about Paul Anka’s rumoured appearance and his performance of the song “My Way”  selected because it’s Donald Trump’s favourite song. (Anka and Trump have been friends for many years.) It was reported that Anka was even going to change the lyrics to reflect the new President and I was curious about which ones he would change. The song starts with “And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain”; I was keen to hear Anka steer himself around that significant line. But the singer cancelled at the last minute, citing family business. Clearly, though, Anka's decision was less about scheduling than about reputation  and I don't blame him. In my opinion, it’s not exactly a good career move for any artist to associate himself with the new President, although Toby Keith would probably disagree with me. Nevertheless, I needed an antidote to Friday's disheartening ceremony and the messy days that lay ahead for the United States and the rest of the world. I found the cure in a recent release about one of country music’s most creative and original voices, Emmylou Harris. Originally a tribute concert featuring an all-star cast whose love and affection for Harris runs as deep as her musical roots, the album is called The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris and it was released last fall by Rounder.

The performance took place on January 10, 2015 at the DAR Constitution Hall, about 45 minutes from the site of the inauguration in Washington, D.C. John Russell Pope designed the hall, which was completed in 1929, in the neo-classical style of the era. DAR stands for Daughters of the American Revolution, but this is not a political concert by any stretch. The recording features many of the finest singers and musicians in contemporary country and roots music today. And while the focus of the show was to pay tribute to Emmylou Harris, it is much more than that: it’s an affirmation of all that is good in the world, a spiritual reflection of humanity full of truth about the human condition.

Since Harris came on the scene some forty years ago when she sang backup in Gram Parsons's band, many young singers followed her lead not only by writing about their lives in song, but also by staying focused on the purity of the art form rather than any commercial or corporate definition of country music. These are not songs about excessive beer drinking, or heavy-duty trucks. This is the real deal: honest and heartfelt melodies that give you pause from experienced voices such as such as Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, and Chris Hillman. We also get to hear from the new generation of first-rate performers like Sara Watkins, Shovels & Rope, and The Milk Carton Kids. Everybody plays well, leaving space between the notes and raising the emotional bar to such a high level that it’s often breathtaking to hear.

The concert lineup leans towards the many women who have appeared in the past quarter-century, including Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin, singers and songwriters who have carved out their own careers without compromising their sound. And while many of the performers on this record have had great commercial success, none of them has sold out to Nashville or L.A. In fact, two singers who did have a shot at that Nashville/L.A. sound – Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack  are the surprises of the concert. McBride sings a killer version of “When I Stop Dreaming,” originally made famous by the Louvin Brothers. Lee Ann Womack sings “Born To Run” (not the Springsteen song) with such passion she almost steals the show. But this is one concert where egos have been firmly checked at the door and the notion of competition is simply not evident, which is part of the charm of the album and the accompanying DVD. It’s a concert of music where everyone is treated equally, fairly and in a non-judgmental way, ideas that were offensively absent from the new President's inaugural address, making it the perfect antidote to the poisonous rhetoric of the 45th POTUS.

Other highlights include Harris’s performance with Daniel Lanois of “Blackhawk,” originally on her high-risk, high-reward 1995 album, Wrecking Ball. Alison Krauss gets two songs that soar  “Till I Gain Control Again” and “Cash on the Barrelhead”  backed by a first-rate band led by music director Buddy Miller. And to cap it off, Mavis Staples gives a spirited performance of the classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

 John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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