Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Richard Thompson: Peace, Love and Songwriters

In the end, the guest appearance of Bella the dog on stage with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Richard Thompson summed up the whole vibe of the rightly ballyhooed tour co-headlined by these three revered songwriters.

You know Bella. She’s the lab mix rescue dog that was adopted by Harris and inspired her to write “Big Black Dog,” not to mention establish Bonaparte’s Retreat, a Nashville haven for unadoptable dogs. On this night Harris, her co-headliners, and various band mates closed their 3-plus hour Washington, D.C.-area show with a plea by Harris for the capacity audience to consider adopting rescue dogs or support the cause. Although the concert was held in an elegant, urban venue, the appeal and the generosity of the players would have fit right into Woodstock.

“Rodney has always stayed enthusiastic and positive, always coming up with new things,” said Harris prior to the March 29 show at The Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., of the positive influence the Grammy Award winner imparts to others. “We have seen each other through marriages, divorces, deaths of parents, deaths of very close friends. We have been through all of these things and there is a connection, I think, that you just don’t find that often in life.”

Scoff if you will, but the connection was as obvious as Bella’s dark fur when Harris and Crowell sang. And though they’ve known each other for 40-plus years, their musical kinship was fresh and inclusive as evidenced by the ease with which they interacted and collaborated with Thompson including on the Crowell penned tune ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This.’

“There is a lot of innocence in what Emmylou and I do,” said Crowell prior to the concert as he talked about how their mutual love of music brought them together in the ‘70s. For this tour “we are limiting ourselves to the blues, conversational songs, each telling a story and then coming together to sing. We aren’t limiting ourselves at all, though. We aren’t trying to fit into a mold. We let any song tell its story.”

That was arguably most obvious on their version of Matraca Berg’s  “Back When We Were Beautiful.” Harris took the lead as the two presented the song as the musings of long-time friends that looked back at how their lives have intersected. Such an intersection was what prompted Harris and Crowell to record their first duets album, the recently released Old Yellow Moon, and launch this tour in support of it.

In introducing Crowell’s song “Bluebird Wine,” Harris spoke about how she first heard Rodney sing it by way of a cassette tape that he sent her as a demo. The song was on Harris’ 1975 major label debut Pieces of the Sky and helped launch her career and the duo’s friendship.

Although the set list was, understandably, filled with tunes from the duo’s catalog, they also took dips into other songwriters’ works. One standout was “Spanish Dancer” penned by Patti Scialfa for her 1993 album Rumble Doll.

“I have been longing to do this,” Harris told the capacity crowd of almost 2,000 people at the concert. “Her album was overshadowed by her role in the E Street Band and her marriage to the leader of it [Bruce Springsteen].It’s a beautiful record.”

Indeed, all three headliners seemed intent to weave lesser-known songs through their sets, which set off ripples of excitement often prompting audience members to shout out requests or words of affection to the performers. If anything, the crowd’s devotion had to feel like sweet justification to the three that have always followed their own muses rather than paths that might win them more commercial success.

“There is a great lie in music,” said the 12-time Grammy Award-winner Harris. “If you do something that will lead to commercial success, you can then go back and make the music you want. That isn’t true. It’s like making a deal with the devil. You are compromising. Only the Congress should compromise.”

– Nancy Dunham