By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(Rocky Mountain News, Aug. 27, 2004) During a 30-year music career spanning her discovery by Gram Parsons to gold-selling solo CDs to shining moments on the O Brother soundtrack, Emmylou Harris has happily basked in the spotlight as a bona fide star.
The thing is, she’d really rather be simply harmonizing.
At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June, she asked to be billed as a “special guest,” not as a headliner. She popped onstage repeatedly through the weekend to wrap her signature soprano around the voices of Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien and others.
“It was great because I didn’t have to do my show. I could just sing with my friends. It was a vacation with my daughter. We had a girl’s week,” Harris said, calling from her home in Nashville.
The singer returns to Colorado to harmonize again on Saturday at the Fillmore Auditorium as part of the three-week-long Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue tour.
Joining her are stellar singers, songwriters and musicians Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Buddy Miller and David Rawlings.
“It’s an idea we’ve had for a long time. We first talked about it during the Lilith Fair tour. It would be simple – not everybody taking out a band, just sitting in with each other for the night’s fare,” Harris said.
The show is not a country music concert, unless your country music definition is awfully wide and high, but it’s bound to include some country, rock, folk and bluegrass sounds. “It’s great that it’s not prepackaged. The only thing we’ll know for sure is the opening and ending songs.”
Harris is happy to serve as a cheerleader for her friends and Sweet Harmony cohorts, starting with contemporary folkie Patty Griffin.
“Patty writes these extraordinary songs that strip you bare. Then there’s that beautiful voice unlike anyone else’s. I saw her when she was completely unknown. It wasn’t like ‘she’s got potential’; she was there already, complete and intact. There was a kind of stunned silence and a gasp when audiences heard her the first time. It was the shock of discovery,” Harris said.
Harris and Welch (along with Alison Krauss) teamed up for Grammy-winning harmonies on Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. “I love singing with Gillian. Her songs sound like they were written 100 years ago – they sound traditional,” she said.
The musicians in the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue will also function as the band for each other.
Harris touts the guitar prowess of David Rawlings and notes that Welch is looking forward to playing the drums. She saves her most effusive praise for Buddy Miller, her longtime accompanist and a member of Spyboy, her sometime band.
“Buddy is just a monster on guitar but he is the most unassuming person. He plays mandolin, he sings great harmonies and he’s a fine songwriter,” Harris said.
“I get inspired just being around these people. I get pulled back into the music.”
At Saturday’s show, Harris expects to play tunes from all parts of her storied career including some she refers to as “brunette songs.” These included Love Hurts and Boulder to Birmingham, which she recorded when her silver locks were dark brown.
“I still love the brunette songs but I’m trying to accept the fact that I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m happy I have new ones to do, too,” she said.
The “new ones” are largely genre-blurring songs that Harris – best known as an interpreter – wrote herself for recent CDs including Wrecking Ball, Stumble into Grace and Red Dirt Girl.
“Writing songs is very, very hard work. It’s not something I look forward to at all,” Harris said. A rare exception, she said, is Strong Hand (For June), a song featuring harmonies from Linda Ronstadt from Stumble Into Grace.
“I wasn’t planning on writing a song about June (Carter Cash). I heard about her death and the song came to me out of nowhere. It pushed its way into my psyche. I think it was dropped into my life by June,” she said.
In Denver and elsewhere a new generation of honky-tonk and alt-country bands is attracting fans.
Talk to these musicians and they almost always point to Harris and her mentor, late singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, as seminal influences.
Harris sounds pleased, but hasn’t been tuning into her musical progeny.
“I’m not too up on alt-country. I basically just listen to satellite radio. I like the old country station on the network because they play Hank (Williams), Merle (Haggard) and Loretta (Lynn). There’s a mightiness to it,” she said.
Harris, who started out as a coffee house folk singer, finds aural happiness on a satellite folk music station. “They play everyone from Neil Young to the Kingston Trio. You want to be surprised. I’m looking for the left field stuff,” Harris said.