"This is obviously an incredibly special night for me," Emmylou Harris announced after finally emerging halfway through her very own tribute concert at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Saturday night. Sitting with Kris Kristofferson in box seats to the side of the stage, the iconic singer-songwriter spent most of the evening watching dozens of her friends and longtime collaborators sing her music, and by the time she took the stage, Harris was already clearly moved.
The show, titled The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert Celebration, was anchored by an impeccable house band that included country music luminaries Buddy Miller, Don Was and Sam Bush, who played alongside a list of artists ranging from Mavis Staples and Martina McBride to Conor Oberst and Trampled by Turtles. The breadth and variety of the evening's lineup — scrappy and elegant, mainstream and indie, legendary and freshman — reflected the many artistic dividing lines that Harris has straddled throughout her entire career.
Filmed for an upcoming TV and DVD release, the three-plus hour event was held in the nation's capital as a nod to Harris' musical start; she played coffee shops and local dives in D.C. in the early Seventies. Her younger counterparts just getting their own country-folk sea legs provided some of the highlights of the evening. The Milk Carton Kids and Shovels & Rope represented the best of the genre's new guard with show-stopping versions of "Michaelangelo" and "Leaving Lousiana in the Broad Daylight," respectively. "One of the best things about Emmylou is that she has an impressive and important way of staying current," said Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids before the duo's stark, unaccompanied duet. "We're here, I figure," he joked, "because [Harris] wants you to know that she's heard about some bands you've never heard of before."
The rest of the evening's most stunning performances came from some of Harris' most reliable cohorts. Early on, Shawn Colvin made the strongest case for Harris' own consistently underrated songwriting, performing a meditative version of "Red Dirt Girl." Shortly after, Lucinda Williams tackled a note-perfect, longing take on "Hickory Wind." But the concert's emotional climax came late, with Alison Krauss' devastating, piano-driven rendition of Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again," a song Harris first recorded for her 1975 breakthrough album, Elite Hotel.
In paying tribute to Harris, the show was also in part a de-facto tribute to the songwriting of Gram Parsons and Rodney Crowell, whose deep influence on Harris' own career were consistently felt throughout the night. In turn, the star-studded event included a host of Harris' countless female singing-songwriting disciples: Sheryl Crow, Holly Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Watkins and Patty Griffin, who all showed their deep gratitude to the woman who has for decades been a model of artistry and dignity for up-and-coming female artists in Nashville.
"[Emmylou's] been the most amazing teacher in showing us where this music came from," said Vince Gill of his friend, who has interpreted, reinvigorated and popularized some of the most memorable country and folk music of the last four decades. Songs composed by Buck Owens, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Mark Knopfler and Kris Kristofferson (singing his own "Loving Her Was Easier") were all performed, proof that, as Steve Earle put it, "if you're a songwriter, you always wanted [Harris] to record one of your songs."
The night ended with Harris taking the stage one last time to a standing ovation, as she joined the entire cast to sing her signature "From Boulder to Birmingham." "Thank you everyone," she said, basking in gratitude from the sold-out crowd. "This is a night I'll never forget."
The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris Set list:
"One of These Days" — Buddy Miller
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" — Mavis Staples
"Darkest Hour is Just Before the Dawn" — Sara Watkins
"Red Dirt Girl" — Shawn Colvin
"Michaelangelo"— The Milk Carton Kids
"Wheels" — Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen
"Orphan Girl" — Holly Williams and Chris Coleman
"Sin City" — Steve Earle
"Bluebird Wine" — Trampled by Turtles
"Hickory Wind" — Lucinda Williams
"You're Still on my Mind" — Rodney Crowell
"Born to Run" — Lee Ann Womack
"When We're Gone, Long Gone" — Emmylou Harris with John Starling
"Blackhawk" — Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois
"Wrecking Ball" — Iron & Wine with Daniel Lanois
"Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" — Shovels & Rope
"All the Roadrunning" — Mary Chapin Carpenter with Vince Gil
"The Pearl" — Conor Oberst with Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin
"When I Stop Dreaming" — Martina McBride
"Prayer in Open D" — Patty Griffin with Buddy Miller
"Pancho and Lefty" — Steve Earle and Lee Ann Womack
"Together Again" — Vince Gil
"Two More Bottles of Wine" — Sheryl Crow
"Ooh, Las Vegas" — Sheryl Crow with Vince Gil
"Chase the Feeling" — Kris Kristofferson and Rodney Crowell
"Loving Her Was Easier" — Kris Kristofferson
"'Till I Gain Control Again" — Alison Krauss
"Cash on the Barrelhead" — Alison Krauss
"Boulder to Birmingham" — Emmylou Harris & Friends