Saturday, August 25, 2012

Homecoming for the Queen of Country Rock

When Emmy Lou Harris comes to town, she brings all the traditional keys to a happy wedding…something old, something new, something borrowed and something bluesy.
On a recent summer night at Wolftrap Farm Park, Emmy Lou and John Prine filled the ampitheatre and lawns with fans who had grown up with the country music they helped define and popularize.

For Harris, the Washington area is a true homecoming as her father was stationed here while in the military and it is where she got her start in clubs and bars.
She told how her break came when some guy was looking for a singer to help him recreate the sound of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.

After hearing her sing at Clyde’s in Georgetown, he offered her a bus ticket and a spot playing rhythm guitar. That was how she met, “my dear friend Graham Parsons.”

The evening was a perfect blend of her own songs—both old and new—and country standards. Introducing “Making Believe,” she paid tribute to Kitty Wells who made it a hit two decades before that torch was passed to Harris. And she gave a nod to Billy Joe Shaver for “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” As she has done before with friends from The Seldom Scene, she brought out John Starling (“my favorite singer in the whole world”) to join her on “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”

What was new and impressive were Harris’ own compositions, from the mournful “Red Dirt Girl” (But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues/ When you got em/ You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom) to the moving “Ballad of Emmett Till” (I was just a black boy and never hurt no one) on her latest album, “Hard Bargain.” Unlike some of her contemporaries, Harris’ voice has lost none of its richness and when she soloes a chorus of “Aaaaahhh Aaaahhh Aaaahhh,” the sound in the night air is worth the price of admission.

Unlike the days when she traveled with Buddy Miller or had Daniel Lanois’ pulsating drumbeat sound, this year’s group of musicians is truly a backing band. For most of the evening, the spotlight was on Emmy Lou and her singing. One wonderful exception was when the Red Dirt Boys and the lady in charge put down their instruments and did an acapella version of “My Precious Children.” It gave you goose bumps.

The Queen can still bring it after all these years. Whether it was toasting “Two More Bottles of Wine,” rolling home on “Wheels” or steering “Luxury Liner” at warp speed, she proved she can rock whatever part of the country she’s playing.