Emmylou Harris's Unending Circle of Friends
Friday, October 20, 2006
When the Louvin Brothers' "Satan's Jewel Crown" appeared on Emmylou Harris's "Elite Hotel" in 1975, its classic country harmonies were provided by singer-songwriter John Starling and dobro virtuoso Mike Auldridge of the Seldom Scene. It would be the first public testament to a musical friendship begun a few years earlier when Harris would hang out with the bluegrass modernists at Bethesda's Red Fox Inn before heading to Starling's home for what Harris once described as "bluegrass school." It would be night school, with vigorous song sessions that chased Thursdays -- the Scene's regular gig at the Red Fox -- well into Friday mornings.
"There's so much that comes from that period of time and those people," Harris said recently, calling from Philadelphia on an off-day. "Those were pretty amazing evenings. Everyone would play all night long. I just learned so much, . . . and it's been a continuing relationship."
That has been true on records -- both hers and theirs -- and whenever Harris has come back to the town where she found her voice and began a career that has made her possibly the most revered artist in Nashville, Starling and Auldridge have usually come out for a song or two.
But it has been a long time since Harris has performed a full concert with Starling, Auldridge and bassist Tom Gray -- three-fifths of the original Seldom Scene, recently reborn as Carolina Star. The three will be at the Birchmere on Monday and Tuesday, but not at Friday's concert at Strathmore. That one will feature what Harris calls her "girl band," with Nashville singer-songwriters guitarist Pam Rose, mandolinist Mary Ann Kennedy and bassist Chris Donohue.
"It's a really tight little group," Harris says, "but completely different material from what I'm doing at the Birchmere," where the only possible comedown might be the scale of the event. After all, the most recent Emmylou Harris/Carolina Star appearance was two weeks ago at the sixth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, a free, three-day event that drew a half-million people to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
It's put on by claw hammer banjo player, bluegrass fanatic and billionaire Warren Hellman, an investment banker. The festival name is an homage: In its first year, it was called Strictly Bluegrass, but since Harris was touring then with her electric/eclectic Spyboy, Hellman simply changed the name to accommodate her.
Harris and one of her inspirations, Hazel Dickens, the legendary working-class protest singer who has lived in Washington for decades, have been there every year -- Hellman has called them "the heart and soul of the festival, [though] I don't know which is which." The festival marked the first time these longtime friends had performed together, delivering U. Utah Phillips's "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" during Harris's traditional festival-closing set.
"It's an amazing thing this man has put together," Harris says, "and it's all for an absolute passionate love of the music."
That's not a bad way to describe Harris's own career, which began in earnest when country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons discovered her working Washington's folk circuit in the early '70s, recording two classic albums with Harris before his death in 1973.
"When I met John, Gram had died and I was really trying to learn about country music, and there was so much left to my education," Harris says. "I loved the Louvin Brothers, and I learned so much more then -- John is the one who taught me 'Satan's Jewel Crown' in his living room."
Auldridge recalls Harris coming to the Red Fox Inn and sitting in, "doing a little mini-set on our break. It was a fun thing for all of us, for her to do it and for us to hear it. And it was obvious right away she had something unusual in her vocal sound. And she had such a great appreciation of the material -- all of us clicked right away."
Founded in 1971, the Seldom Scene seemed intent on living up to its name. Mandolinist John Duffey had been with the Country Gentlemen for a decade but, tired of touring, organized a band with musicians whose day jobs precluded that. Starling was an Army surgeon, Auldridge a graphic artist at the Washington Star, Gray a cartographer with National Geographic and banjoist Ben Eldridge a mathematician.