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Emmylou Harris's Unending Circle of Friends

Emmylou Harris has learned much from her old friends John Starling and Mike Auldridge.
Emmylou Harris has learned much from her old friends John Starling and Mike Auldridge. (By Stephen Chernin -- Associated Press)

Even now, Harris can gush about "how unique the Seldom Scene were. Obviously there was incredible musicianship, Mike being the first to take the dobro into whole other worlds. But you had two incredibly distinct voices that you'd never think would go together: Duffey, one the great classic bluegrass tenors, and John, who is one of the most subtle, soulful singers, almost like a pop voice. John is probably my favorite singer in the world as far as restraint, intensity of emotion; I just love to hear him sing. Their voices are so different, but then you've got that cement of Mike's voice, which has a beautiful tone to it but a certain invisible quality that ties it all together with just enough texture -- it's just like no other sound. They really gave bluegrass another texture, another gear."

Starling was no more eager for roadwork than Duffey was and says deciding whether to do music or medicine "didn't take me very long."

Starling left the Seldom Scene in 1977, moving to Alabama to practice medicine and recording the Lowell George-produced "Long Time Gone," with Harris on five of its 11 cuts. But albums would be a long time apart (1979's "Waitin' on a Southern Train," 1991's "Spring Training" with Carl Jackson), and Starling was never willing to take time away from his practice to support the releases. He moved to Fredericksburg in 1991 and rejoined the Scene for a two-year stint, but that ended after conflict with his job as a surgeon.

All through the years, Harris says, Starling offered good counsel, musical prescriptions, as it were. When she cut another Louvin Brothers song, "If I Could Only Win Your Love," on her major label debut, Starling "was one of the first people I played it for, and he's the one who said, 'That's good, but it would be great if you had this old tiny mandolin solo on there' -- which I don't think I would have thought of, and nobody was putting mandolin on country records at that point." Byron Berline's mandolin helped make it Harris's first country hit.

It was in Starling's living room that Harris met a very young Ricky Skaggs, who had played with Ralph Stanley at 16 and later joined Harris's Hot Band; many credit country's neo-traditionalist movement to their work in the late '70s and early '80s. In 1991, when bronchitis and road weariness forced Harris to unplug her Hot Band, it was Starling who persuaded Harris to put together the all-acoustic Nash Ramblers and add a new chapter to her success story.

Harris says that a few months ago she was thinking about Starling's voice, and "a light bulb went off: You know, I really want to sing with John some more. Not just the couple of songs we've worked up when I play the Birchmere or Wolf Trap where he comes out and sings."

So they recorded a version of Billy Joe Shaver's "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" for her upcoming album. "When John sings his verse, it will absolutely break your heart. So I just thought, let's just work up enough material so we can actually go out and do this festival and do little runs once in a while."

As it happened, Carolina Star was coming together with Starling, Auldridge (who left the Seldom Scene in 1994), Gray (who left in 1987), mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau and fiddler Rickie Simpkins (both former members of the Tony Rice Unit). Auldridge describes the sound as "very reminiscent of the early Seldom Scene but without a banjo," focusing on "the fact that John Starling's vocals are back on the scene."

Starling recently retired from his practice, and an album billed as John Starling and Carolina Star will be released in early 2007 on Rebel (with a guest appearance by Harris, of course).

Touring with Carolina Star is allowing Harris to do vintage material, such as "Calling My Children Home" and "Satan's Jewel Crown."

"I never really performed that song unless John was going to be around; to me it's so joined at the hip with him," she says. "And now we're taking it out to the world. We're still working on material -- this is a work in progress. Obviously John and I are always looking for up-tempo material. I'll say, 'You guys play an up-tempo instrumental, and then we'll go back to the sad songs!' "

One you can count on hearing: "Pancho & Lefty," Townes Van Zandt's paean to aging outlaws, which proved an inspiration at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

"It really jelled, and it was sublime," Harris says. "I've been doing that song for 30-plus years, and it's always been a staple for me, but it got that Seldom Scene thing happening with Tom's bass playing and the beauty of Mike's dobro and that floating thing that they get. Every band of musicians has a certain dynamic, and we're just figuring it out now with me being in the mix with these guys, but at that moment I just went, 'Wow!' I felt like we had just lifted right up off the stage and the song became new to me. That's something that money can't buy."

Harris's first and most recent partnerships are on display on the recent three-CD set "Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions" and "Real Live Roadrunning," an upcoming DVD/CD concert of her recent collaboration with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. The Parsons set includes remastered versions of 1973's "GP" and 1974's posthumous "Grievous Angel," along with a third disc of alternate takes without overdubs, leaving their luminously telepathic vocals more prominent.

Emmylou Harris and Carolina Star Appearing Monday and Tuesday at the Birchmere; Harris also performs Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore Sounds like: Old times, with Harris and her tradition-conscious soul mates revisiting the material, and ambiance, that helped shape her sound in the '70s.

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