Emmylou Harris's Unending Circle of Friends

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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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