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Pauline Lerner

Less Is More: Part 1. Emmylou Harris

October 23, 2006 at 8:39 AM

This weekend I heard two great concerts, Emmylou Harris singing all kinds of things and Andras Schiff playing and conducting Mozart. These two very different musicians had something in common in their styles: less is more.

I started listening to Emmylou Harris about 10 years ago when a friend lent me some tapes and CDs. I copied my favorite songs onto two 90 minute tapes and listened to them often. The tapes were in my car at the time of my near-fatal accident five years ago, and I haven’t listened to much of Emmylou’s music since then. I was excited when I had the opportunity to hear her perform live, near my home, at a reasonable price. By chance, at the concert hall I met the friend who had lent me the recordings long ago, and I thought, Will the circle be unbroken? After the concert, I went to amazon.com and read what critics and others had to say about Emmylou’s recordings. I found that her music can not be categorized easily. It is “alternative rock, folk, country, and bluegrass.” Many people noted that she went her own way instead of following popular trends and blessed her for it. They praised her music with words like “pure” and “pristine.” I would say “no fol de rol, no musical clutter, just get to the heart of the matter.”

Emmylou is now 59 years old and has some trouble hitting the high notes, but her musicianship was fantastic. She was even better than her recordings. She came across as a completely “real” person with total conviction in everything she sang and played. Her backup band consisted of only three musicians, and there was never a lot of fuss in her music. They sang a few songs a capella in three-part harmony. It went straight from her heart to mine. She sang all kinds of songs, including gospel and traditional songs and songs by the Beatles, Ian and Sylvia, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, and, of course, Emmylou herself. She sang corny teenage love songs and transformed them into beautiful love songs for teenagers of all ages. Some of my favorites among the songs she sang were Save the Last Dance for Me, To Know Him Is To Love Him, Bright Morning Star, Spanish Is a Loving Tongue, Just One Miracle, and To Daddy. To Daddy, written by Dolly Parton and recorded by the trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, is about a problem common to many married women. It is quiet, understated, and very strong, and that’s just how Emmylou sang and played it. I’ve heard it before, but never with such impact. Emmylou had was just one embellishment in Spanish Is A Loving Tongue, a brief mandolin solo near the end, and it sounded so Spanish. She spoke of Johnny and June Cash before she played Just One Miracle (Strong Hand), a very moving song and very well suited to that couple. Emmylou Harris, like her music, is very strong, deceptively simple, and utterly true.

To be continued

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