On Tuesday evening, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum offered a sneak preview of its newest exhibition, Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight. A lovingly crafted and curated display of personal artifacts, instruments and heart-touching photos chronicling the life and career of the Hall of Fame legend, the unveiling was celebrated with an invitation-only event attended by Harris’s family and friends, fellow musicians and songwriters and more, with special performances by Harris’s friends, Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin.
Miller, who performed Harris’s 1976 Top Five country hit, “One of These Days,” spoke of the way Harris has always championed the underdog, musing that today she is just as well-known and respected for the work she does for actual dogs through her Bonaparte’s Retreat dog-rescue organization.
Griffin then performed the deeply affecting “Prayer in Open D,” from Harris’s 1993 LP, Cowgirl’s Prayer. The tune – and Griffin’s tender rendition of it – shone a spotlight Harris’s masterful gift for songwriting, which would fully flower on recent albums including Red Dirt Girl and Hard Bargain.
In his introductory remarks, museum CEO Kyle Young summarized Harris’s inauspicious 1970 arrival in Nashville, a time when she worked at a Polynesian restaurant and survived on fortune cookies and food stamps. Nearly five decades later, he noted, she is treasured as an impeccable interpreter of song, a pivotal force in discovering and nurturing new talent, and a pioneering artist in the Americana movement. He also remarked on her role as a compassionate community organizer and activist who has been largely responsible not only for preserving, protecting and enlivening the mission of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum but was also integral in saving Nashville’s Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium.
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“She was, and is, a force on rhythm guitar, and one of America’s most badass bandleaders,” Young said. “She writes remarkable songs, such as ‘Boulder to Birmingham,’ “Prayer in Open D,’ and ‘Red Dirt Girl,’ and she has the song finder’s equivalent of a jeweler’s eye.”
Addressing the crowd, Harris recalled her early experiences as a Warner Bros. artist, and her surprise at finding out her debut LP for the label, Pieces of the Sky, had entered the charts. She also confessed her early disdain for country music, having come from a folk-singing background. Eventual teaming with her musical mentor, Gram Parsons, who introduced her to the songs of the Louvin Brothers, George Jones and the like, would, of course, help forge her new identity as one of country music’s all-time greats.
Harris, a baseball fan, also noted that she has been with the same record company, in one division or another, since 1974, “just like Chipper Jones with the Atlanta Braves. I think that’s something to be proud of.”
Among the most poignant items on display are early photos, including one from the 1950s in which a preschool-aged Harris is decked out in cowgirl attire and brandishing a toy pistol. Several of her guitars are also featured, including her first – a Kay 1160 Deco Note model circa 1965, a Christmas gift from her grandfather – as well as eight of the medals awarded to her father, a Marine Corps officer who spent ten months as a prisoner of war in Korea. Eye-catching, custom-made stage outfits, including the rose-embroidered Manuel jacket she can be seen wearing on the cover of the 1986 Trio album, are also on display throughout, along with the owner’s manual of the 1970 Ford Pinto Harris was driving when she first met Parsons.
Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight officially opens to the public Friday, October 5th and will run through August 4th, 2019.