Intimate setting showcases best of Emmylou

Music: Performance in Columbia a celebration of past and future for Harris and her longtime fans.

June 24, 2000|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Looking out at an audience filled with graying fans, Emmylou Harris offered a song Thursday night for the "people who remember when I was a brunette."

That surely was almost everyone at the James Rouse Theater at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, where Harris performed at the Columbia Festival of the Arts for a house packed with long-time devotees, including many members of her family.

Harris said she feels at home here, not far from where she grew up outside Washington and just down the road from her father's grave in Clarksville.

The announcement earlier that day of a scholarship for military dependents established in honor of her father, Walter R. Harris, a retired Marine pilot who died in 1993, helped bring her to the smaller venue.

The evening gave Harris, now 53, her chance to salute the fans whose support for a young singer on the Washington club scene -- and prolific album purchases -- raised her profile among record company executives and, as she put it, "gave me the license to do whatever I wanted to do for the last 25 years."

She was singing folk songs in Washington when friends convinced country rock pioneer Gram Parsons he had to hear a voice that melded perfectly with his emerging sound. Harris recorded with Parsons, once a member of the Byrds, and toured with him until his death by overdose in 1973.

After her mentor died, Harris perfected her trademark mix of bluegrass, honky-tonk and rock 'n' roll. Almost single-handedly, she popularized country music with her mid-'70s albums, "Pieces of the Sky"(1975), "Elite Hotel" (1975) and "Luxury Liner" (1976).

Now well into its third decade, her career is thriving -- not just on a silver-edged voice that carries both the ache and the beauty of country ballads, but also thanks to a musical sensibility that reaches out to broader audiences.

Not that Harris doesn't revere old favorites. Her repertoire continues to feature the standards. Not even the comfortable seats and relatively intimate setting of the Rouse Theater could keep those aging boomers from tapping their toes for two hours, as Harris and her current band, Spyboy, showed them once again just how cool good country can be.

With Buddy Miller on guitar, Daryl Johnson on bass guitar, djembe and bass pedals, Brady Blade on drums, and background vocals from all three, Harris offered up the songs and styles -- and, especially, the heart -- that has made her emblematic of the best country music.

Spyboy is a Mardi Gras term for the street entertainer, jester and mischief-maker who scouts out the parade route and warms up the crowd. Spyboy the band combined those talents and more to give a fresh intensity to Harris' combination of steely strength and piercing vulnerability.

That fresh appeal was on view in the band's rendition of Townes Van Zandt's haunting ballad, "Pancho and Lefty." If this version was less sorrowful and more rhythmic than Harris' earlier takes, soaring guitar solos and a driving percussion gave it new life.

But the best news for Harris fans was that, after a break of several years, she is writing songs again, with an album, "Red Dirt Girl," due out in September.

The title song is about a girl growing up in a red-clay Alabama town -- Harris was born in Birmingham -- in search of wider horizons, but the emotional heart of the album is likely to be a tribute to her father, a stalwart of what she describes as "the quintessential functional family."

Her musical homage to him, tinged with loss but brimming with love and gratitude, was a testament to fatherhood and family ties -- just as this comfortably middle-aged audience's enthusiastic reception was a testament to its abiding love of her art.

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