Throughout her career, Emmylou Harris has always been a true friend and champion to songwriters, but on Tuesday night (Sept. 19) in Nashville, it was the songwriters who honored her with a tribute concert at the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville.
The guest list included Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Dave Matthews, Allison Moorer and Gillian Welch — all of whom performed at least one song that was connected to Harris’ career. As a result, words seemed almost unnecessary to convey her sterling reputation in the music world.
Harris attended the event, sitting in the middle of the room, listening intently to the songs and moving her head along in rhythm. At the end of the evening, she accepted the Dale Franklin Award from Leadership Music, an educational non-profit organization of music professionals. The award recognizes “a music industry leader who exemplifies the highest quality of leadership and leading by example.”
But, oh, the music that came before it. Reflecting on Harris’ career, it’s hard to choose just one song that’s instantly recognizable as her musical signature. Instead, she has accrued a catalog of exceptional material that still holds up decades later.
Costello began the evening with an eloquent speech, then led the first-rate band — Brady Blade, Sam Bush, Chris Donohue, Steve Fishell, Phil Madeira and Buddy Miller — into “Sweet Dreams,” which Harris took to No. 1 on the country charts in 1976. After that, Bush and Miller stepped forward for the Louvin Brothers’ classic duet, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” which Harris brought back to the country Top 10 in 1975.
With Moorer at his side, Earle approached the microphone and reminisced about how Harris recorded “Guitar Town” for her 1992 album Live at the Ryman when his life was in ruins from a heroin addiction. He also noted she also sang with him on one of his most heartbreaking compositions, “Goodbye,” for his comeback album, Train a Comin’. She later covered the song on her 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced rock album, Wrecking Ball.
In a spirit of camaraderie that Harris is known for, Earle and Moorer traded verses on “Goodbye” and then turned over the stage to Rodney Crowell. Harris and Crowell have been friends for more than 30 years, ever since she gave him a job in her Hot Band. With a big grin, Crowell told the audience about his former wife once bailing him out of a Los Angeles jail with the money he made from singing with Harris. Then he teamed with new artist Chris Janson to perform the barnburner he partially wrote during that brief stint behind bars — “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” And for a moment, it seemed that the sparkling new symphony hall, which has been open for less than two weeks, was the most luxurious honky-tonk you’ve ever seen.
The music turned more introspective as Griffin delivered a pristine version of “Boulder to Birmingham,” one of Harris’ earliest solo offerings and writing credits. (Harris’ admirers can breathe a sigh of relief that she ultimately had a change of heart after penning the lyric, “I don’t want to hear a sad story.”) After the band exited the stage, Welch and partner David Rawlings praised Harris as “our friend and inspiration” and then offered a haunting rendition of “Hickory Wind.” Afterward, Costello returned for a lively roll through “Mystery Train” with the couple.
Curiously, the affable Matthews chose to sing one of his own hits, “Grave Digger,” and then invited Griffin to harmonize with him on “O Sister,” a song from Bob Dylan’s 1976 album, Desire. (Harris served as the primary harmony vocalist on the project. As her astonished houseguests will tell you, she has a gold plaque from Dylan’s album hanging in her bathroom.) Finally, Costello joined Griffin at the microphone for the first time ever to sing the timeless “Love Hurts,” which Harris initially recorded with her mentor, Gram Parsons.
Of course, the star of the show was indisputably Emmylou Harris herself. Joined by longtime friends Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose, she chose to cover Neil Young’s enigmatic “After the Gold Rush,” then spoke highly of everyone involved with the memorable evening and her illustrious career. She also personally thanked her mother, daughters, aunts, cousins and her brother — noting that he had finally forgiven her for losing his entire Buck Owens record collection when she lived in New York City before becoming a star.
“I love this town. I came here not really planning on staying,” she said, noting that she had somewhat of a gypsy tendency. “The reason I stayed is because of the people. This is an extraordinary community, and I’m thankful to be a part of it.”
She also recalled when she was touring with Willie Nelson and introduced her excited aunt to him. “She pinched his cheek and said, ’Well, she couldn’t be with a better bunch!’ And that’s how I feel tonight,” Harris said.
Earlier in the evening, Griffin remarked that Harris has a way of deflecting compliments by turning the praise back to the other person. Anyone who has seen her perform can attest that it’s true. On this September evening, rather than simply accepting the award and bidding goodnight, she brought everyone back on stage for a finale of Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim.”
And if anyone can relate to the importance of the journey, surely it would be Emmylou Harris.