Red Dirt Girl
Emmylou Harris on the fringe
By Jim Caligiuri,
11:47AM, Thu. Jun. 23, 2011
When I walked into the Moody Theater Tuesday night, my ears were still ringing. Twenty-four hours earlier, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears put on the show of their career with a taping for Austin City Limits, nearly two hours of unremitting energy that left everyone gasping for breath. I wonder how they’ll distill such a beast to 25 minutes.
Tuesday night was something else entirely. Instead of sweaty and raw, it was beauty and twang. Michael Fracasso opened the show and the local singer-songwriter won the audience over immediately with a lovely rendering of Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” a splendid match for his distinctive tenor. The rest of the set was devoted largely to his latest, St. Monday. While a decided rock record, Fracasso proved his latest batch of songs can withstand transcription to just acoustic guitar, with the meditative title track particularly effective.
Emmylou Harris literally danced her way onstage, shaking the fringe on her boots and obviously thrilled to be in Austin. She then launched into a nearly two-hour performance, alternating between austere singer-songwriter fare and traditional country styles. A great deal of her latest, Hard Bargain, was featured, songs she mostly composed herself.
Still, one couldn’t help but marvel at the range of writers that popped up, a mirror of those she’s chosen to cover across her more than 40-year career. Townes Van Zandt, Gillian Welch, Buck Owens, A.P. Carter, Billy Joe Shaver, and Ron Sexsmith were all given a spotlight, or in the case of Townes, two. Even Terry Allen was credited as the inspiration for a new tune, “The Ship On His Arm.” But Harris was equally generous with her current band the Red Dirt Boys, especially guitarist Will Kimbrough and fiddler/mandolin player Rickie Simpkins, who added vocals throughout.
As on the new disc, two songs stood apart, both dealing with lost companions. With “The Road,” Harris openly talks about missing Gram Parsons and introduced the tune by reminiscing about playing the Armadillo with him in 1973. She also spoke endearingly about her friend Kate McGarrigle, who passed away from cancer early in 2010, before performing the heartrending tribute “Darlin’ Kate.”
“I always felt weird singing this song before I turned 60,” Harris chuckled before ending the show with Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” No matter, she remains an ageless songbird with the ability to consistently enthrall.