Emmylou Harris has been covering Kitty Wells’s “Making Believe” for decades. When she played the melancholy ballad at Wolf Trap on Wednesday night, it was one country legend’s tribute to another: Wells, 92, died in July. Introducing the song, Harris said she’d begun singing country songs “ironically” during her long-ago days as a folkie.
Youthful insouciance aside, there wasn’t a molecule of too-cool-for-school remove in Harris’s performance. Leading a shambling five-piece ensemble known as the Red Dirt Boys, Harris wove a set as representative of her 40-something-year career as could be imagined in 90 minutes. Among classics from the songbook of her seminal partner Gram Parsons (“Wheels,” “Luxury Liner”) and contemporary masters like Gillian Welch (“Orphan Girl”), Harris showcased her own late-blooming gifts as a songwriter. Of four songs from her most recent album, last year’s “Hard Bargain,” the most arresting was “My Name Is Emmet Till,” about the 14-year-old victim of a racially motivated killing in Mississippi in 1955.