Various Artists: The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris — CD/DVD

$_57

Various Artists
The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris-CD/DVD
(Rounder)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When you have been a respected and acclaimed roots artist for as long as Emmylou Harris (her solo major label debut was in 1975 but she was working with Gram Parsons in 1972, she’s won 13 Grammy awards, sold about 15 million albums), it’s likely you’ve made a few friends along the way. So when it came time for a show focusing on her extensive influence, it probably wasn’t hard for band leader Don Was (who else?) to find a few dozen musicians eager to jump at the invitation.

While some may bemoan yet another of these tributes, especially since both Dr. John and Jerry Garcia ones have appeared in the past month alone, it’s impossible to dismiss the accumulation of talent for this performance, recorded back on Jan. 10, 2015. Even with star power such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Mavis Staples, Allison Krauss, Sheryl Crow and others, there are another few dozen names who Harris has worked with, especially as a harmony vocalist over the decades, who could have attended. A few, like Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs are conspicuous in their absence. Regardless, there is plenty on this CD/DVD package to satisfy the most demanding country/folk/singer-songwriter fan.

The presentation is as classy and tasteful as Harris has remained through her nearly 40 albums and endless road work over the decades. There are no flowery introductions and few artists say much about Harris or their association to her. Rather, they just play the songs — most not composed by Harris — that have defined the singer’s extensive if largely hit-free career.

From Gram Parsons’ gems like “Wheels” (done by original Flying Burrito Brothers member Chris Hillman), “Hickory Wind” (Williams) and “Sin City” (Earle), to Daniel Lanois’ “Blackhawk” (from the magnificent Wrecking Ball which he produced) and lesser known obscurities such as “The Pearl” (Conor Oberst, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin) and “Prayer in Open D” (Griffin), there aren’t’ many weak moments here. And except for a grizzled Kris Kristofferson, who can barely grind his way through a cringe-worthy rendition of his own “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” (the only selection that should have been left on the cutting room floor), this 19 song CD/DVD (27 on the DVD) set is a consistently exhilarating experience.

The star of the show only appears occasionally, with Lanois, John Starling (the Seldom Scene), and an all-in “Boulder to Birmingham” closer, yet oddly not with Rodney Crowell who accompanied her on their recent Grammy winning collaboration. But with a superb multi-talented backing band that includes the ubiquitous Buddy Miller, lap/pedal steel master Greg Leisz, keyboardist Matt Rollings and Sam Bush (mandolin/banjo/fiddle) among others, this is an exemplary assemblage of country based artists from various generations playing classic material with the taste and sophistication you would expect from Harris.

With these pros on stage, little can go wrong, and despite Kristofferson’s well-meaning but disappointing inclusion, nothing does. The arrangements are true to Harris’ versions, sparse when needed, plush if necessary and always highlight the singer. While the selections are generally ballad based, a few rockers like the Vince Gill/Sheryl Crow showcase on Delbert McClinton’s rollicking “Two More Bottles of Wine” are essential to the mix of an artist who had no issues covering Chuck Berry. 

Anyone reading this far is probably already an Emmylou fan, making this consistently enjoyable, wonderfully performed and heartfelt concert an essential addition to their existing collection from one of roots music’s most eclectic, gifted and rightly acclaimed veterans.