Emmylou Harris surveyed the sold-out balconies last night and exclaimed, "Whew, country music at the Kennedy Center! I can remember when the only place to hear country music around here was at high schools in Northern Virginia. We've come a long way." Harris has come a long way herself. She devoted the first half of her show to her considerable list of old hits and most of the second to her ambitious new song cycle, "The Ballad of Sally Rose."

Harris' singing has improved dramatically during her year-and-a-half layoff -- all her old frail tentativeness was gone, and she grabbed hold of her songs with perfectly placed accents and a rich, reedy tone that grew fuller and fuller until it enveloped each chorus.

She led an 11-piece band that delivered exquisite four-part scat harmonies on "Mr. Sandman"; Frank Reckard's feverish guitar carried the rockabilly rave-up "Driving Wheel"; and Wayne Goodwin's lonesome fiddle solo soared on the traditional country "Blue Kentucky Girl."

As Harris sang her "Ballad of Sally Rose" album in sequence, it became clear just what a breakthrough it represents. As her first major songwriting project, these songs have tapped into Harris' most intimate moments, bringing forth her finest singing. Her soprano was at its mesmerizing best on the ballads "Diamond in My Crown" and "Sweet Chariot," as her voice quivered and then swelled with memories.