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Emmylou Harris, Silken-Voiced Muse of a Summer Night

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There's not an ounce of rust on Emmylou Harris's soaring, silvery voice, four decades into a career that she's spent making it look easy to sound like an angel. At Wolf Trap on Sunday night, the voice of the newly minted Country Music Hall of Famer was as soothing as ever, gliding effortlessly through a two-hour survey of one of the most eclectic and rewarding catalogues in country/folk/bluegrass/rock (maybe we should just call it roots music).

She reached as far back as her first hit (the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love") and earlier, with the haunting, tremolo-drenched spiritual, "Bright Morning Stars." But much of the music hailed from Harris's fertile late period that began with 1995's "Wrecking Ball." This meant that the set was largely somber, but the sight of lightning strikes on the southeastern horizon conspired with Harris's otherworldly harmonies to lend the evening a dreamlike quality despite the darkness of the material. (Before "Red Dirt Girl," she wondered aloud how a song she wrote about her sunny childhood could have come out sounding so sad. "I thought I was from the functional family," she joked.)

With a hearty assist from her latest band, the Red Dirt Boys, Harris occasionally spiked the punch with barnburners like Bill Monroe's banjo-driven "Get Up, John" and Paul Kennerley's "Born to Run." (Yes, Kennerl e y's"Born to Run." Dude is one of Harris's ex-husbands.)

Sporting a pair of studded cowboy boots even whiter than her hair, she paid tribute to her years in the D.C. music scene of the early '70s, inviting her pal John Starling to sing duets on "Pancho & Lefty" and "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," musing that she waited until she hit 60 to perform the latter "so I'd have some cred." Later, she introduced "Shores of White Sand" as "an antique, just like me." Maybe so, but this antique is an honest-to-God treasure.

-- Chris Klimek

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