Swapping Songs With 3 Girls and Their Buddy

Tour Features Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Buddy Miller

LEXINGTON, Ky. — If you buy tickets to the 3 Girls and Their Buddy Tour expecting to hear all your favorite songs, well, you might get a different show than you bargained for. The music is still really powerful, but the four singer-songwriters — Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller — spend as much time singing songs written by somebody else as they do performing their music.

The saving grace is that all of these musicians are deeply in love with the songs. Their show in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday night (Jan. 20) at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts wasn’t a concert as much as a guitar pull where each songwriter took a turn at the microphone. The others sang along, played improvised percussion on whatever’s nearby or just tucked their head and listened. At casual get-togethers like guitar pulls, you can sing one of your own songs, toss in an old country song or just play something that’s been rolling around in your head lately.

I have a general inclination to skip in-the-round performances unless I like all the songwriters involved, and this group certainly qualifies. I’ve seen them all perform numerous times, but this show was special to me because I was often surprised by the songs they chose to cover. The night began with Harris singing Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel.” For her next turn, she sang Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” which she said she hasn’t sung in a long while, and she praised Parton as an extraordinary songwriter.

One curious turn of events came when they offered four love songs in a row, in honor of the 50th anniversary of a friend’s parents who were in the crowd. Love songs aren’t exactly what this group is known for, but they each rose to the occasion. Griffin and Miller sang Lefty Frizzell’s “I Want to Be With You Always.” At the end of that lovely performance, Harris suddenly pumped her fists and cheered. Colvin followed that with another Frizzell classic, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” trailed by Miller and Colvin harmonizing on the Everly Brothers classic, “Let It Be Me.” Hearing these two musicians sing together is a revelation. They have known each other for 30 years, Colvin said, and their camaraderie is clear. Ideally, their collaborations will continue well beyond the tour because they are very much in-step musically. Harris concluded the romantic streak with “When We’re Gone, Long Gone,” written by Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara, and recorded by Harris, Parton and Linda Ronstadt for their Trio II album.

Love songs are nice and all, but Griffin departed from the theme to sing Bessie Smith’s “Blackwater Blues.” Because there was no set list, she essentially picked the song out of thin air. Colvin wiped away tears when Griffin later sang “Nobody’s Cryin’,” one of the most breathtaking songs from her catalog, about loving someone who’s in a very dark place and wishing them the best as you let them go. Heavy stuff. Colvin matched that, and raised the ante, by digging out B.W. Stevenson’s “On My Own.” Personally, I had never heard this song, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking of it since the show. It captures the essence of wanting to be alone after a breakup, knowing that you’re better off, yet realizing that you’re back to square one. Already a well-established songwriter, Colvin’s voice remains strong and supple, and she has a brilliant way of tackling other people’s songs and making you believe she’s lived every word of it.

The group offered a few more originals, like Griffin’s “Chief” and Harris’ “The Pearl,” as well as covers like Miller’s “Keep Your Distance” (by Richard Thompson) and Colvin’s “It Makes No Difference” (by The Band). You can tell these folks are friends by the easygoing stage banter, occasional off-color jokes and utmost respect they offer when the other person is playing. They closed the show with the Stanley Brothers’ “Green Pastures,” with encores of Parsons’ “Sin City,” Griffin’s “Mary” (one of her signature songs, which Harris referred to as “a benediction”) and the final song of the night, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby.”

There are a ton of songs I wish I could have heard: “Pancho & Lefty,” “Rain,” “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” “Wide River to Cross” and so on. But you can’t argue with good taste, and all four of these artists were generous enough to share their passion for music, whether they wrote the song or simply love it. If anybody knows a song that’s worth singing, it’s these three women and their Buddy.