One of country music’s most visible activists, Emmylou Harris wrapped up the third annual Concerts for a Landmine Free World in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday (Nov. 11).
“Since this is my hometown, I get to start,” Harris joked after introducing her counterparts for the evening: Canadian star Bruce Cockburn, powerful singer-songwriter Patty Griffin and charming newcomer Garrison Starr.
Harris led the in-the-round session with “Red Dirt Girl,” with Cockburn, Griffin and Starr each taking a turn afterwards. All four artists performed without a band and donated their services. Proceeds benefit the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation which assists survivors of landmines and other war victims.
To raise additional money, scarves woven by Cambodian women injured by landmines were sold at the merchandise table. Proceeds helped these women — some of them without arms, legs or eyes — remain self-sufficient. Winners of a silent auction also won the scarves Harris and Griffin wore during the show, raising a total of more than $1100.
After Cockburn’s half-sung, half-spoken “Postcard From Cambodia,” VVAF president and Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller spoke eloquently to the audience about the Campaign for Landmine Free World. His brief remarks helped place the devastation of landmines in perspective, stating that nearly all landmine-related injuries affect civilians, especially women and children. He noted that an international treaty outlawing landmines as a war weapon has been signed by more than 140 countries.
Following the intermission, Griffin performed “Mad Mission” from her acoustic debut album Living With Ghosts. (Griffin’s current video, “Chief,” is currently in rotation on CMT.) The youngest performer in the lineup, Starr followed with “Serves Me Right.” Meanwhile, Harris closed her eyes as she listened intently. After the songs, Harris told the audience, “I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am. It’s like you have a great seat at a great show, and once in a while you have to sing, but that’s OK.”
The highlight of the show came when Griffin and Starr harmonized on Harris’ heavenly song “The Pearl.” Someone in the audience shouted, “Sing more together!” Not so easy to do when the next song was an instrumental, Cockburn’s astonishingly complex “Down From the Delta.” After Griffin’s pristine reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car,” Starr offered Mary Chapin Carpenter ’s 1990 hit “You Win Again.”
In fact, Carpenter had to cancel her appearances on the tour, due to a back injury. Starr filled in at the shows in Atlanta; Knoxville, Tenn., and Birmingham. Tift Merritt subbed for Carpenter at the shows in Raleigh, N.C. and Asheville, N.C.
To begin the final trip down the line of songwriters, Harris said, “I’ve been at this show business thing a long time, so I thought I’d do a song from back when I was a brunette.” The opening bars of Harris’ early hit “From Boulder to Birmingham” brought about an outburst of excitement in a predominantly somber night.
With her pitch-perfect notes hanging heavily in the magnificent Alabama Theatre, Griffin captivated the crowd with a stunning rendition of “Mary,” balanced by Starr’s hilarious story about her strong-willed grandmother. As Starr rambled on, even Harris threw her head back in laughter at the outlandish characterization. The tales were a fitting introduction to Starr’s song “The Hardest Part of Living.” As a quick encore, all four performing songwriters returned for Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are.”
On a related note, Harris will be honored with the Patrick J. Leahy Humanitarian Award on Tuesday (Nov. 12) in Washington, D.C., by the VVAF. Those scheduled to honor her efforts and her music include Carpenter, Griffin, Guy Clark , Rodney Crowell , Steve Earle , Nanci Griffith , Buddy & Julie Miller, Jamie O’Hara and John Prine.