Emmylou Harris’ wisdom and talent for storytelling hooked audiences at Roots N Blues

With decades of musical experience, Harris knows exactly how to enchant an audience with her voice and stories.

By Jane Mather-Glass | Oct. 8, 2017

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Emmylou Harris’ set at the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival on Sunday was soulful, nostalgic and honest. Harris and her band seem to have spent the past few decades perfecting already amazing songs and incredible talent.

The set started off with “Hello Stranger,” which Harris mentioned she had missed playing. It was lively and got the crowd excited for the rest of the show. Following that, Harris told the crowd that the next song was about aging. Harris, who recently turned 70, said she felt like she had some authority to talk about that now.

“Folks, I have something to tell you,” she said. “You don’t get any wiser. So just enjoy the ride.” From there, the band swung into a commanding rendition of “O Evangeline.”

One of the highlights of the set was when Harris stopped to talk about the death of Emmett Till during her upbringing.

“I was a child of the ‘60s, so to speak; I was born in 1947.” Harris said. “Folk music and the civil rights movement kind of came hurling in at you all at once.”

She continued to say how the next song was about a young boy in the late 1950s and the band began to play “My Name is Emmett Till.” It was an emotional moment that displayed the parallels between society in the middle of the 20th century and now.

Before playing “Red Dirt Girl,” a song that drew on Harris’ childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris revealed some background information.

“I always had a fondness for my childhood back then and I sort of wrote a song about it,” she said. “And I had a really happy childhood, but no one really wants to write about the happy stuff. You just wanna go and be happy. So i made some stuff up.”

Right before the song began, she added, “The names have been changed.”

Harris also took a moment to discuss some of the great names in country music that passed away in the past year, like Don Williams, with whom she had recorded the song “If I Needed You.”

“He was a class act, folks,” she said of her former musical partner. She then performed their duet with the help of her guitarist Jon Randall.

Harris then paid tribute to Merle Haggard, who passed away last year, by playing his song “Kern River,” which she described as “almost excruciatingly sad.” The song, about the loss of a friend, was melancholy and full of genuine emotion.

Harris ended with “Abraham; Martin and John,” which remembers political figures and revolutionaries in our country’s history who were lost too soon.

“He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young,” Harris sang.

This song serves as a reminder of the injustices that people have faced for trying to stand up for what is right, commemorating their actions and their strength. The performance was moving and ended the show on a wistful note.

Harris still has an incredibly powerful voice and the band that backs her up is full of incredible musical talent. The narratives in her songs are compelling and personal and being able to witness them live made that experience feel even more personal. This brand of country music that tells honest stories and draws on specific details and experiences is moving and shouldn’t be missed.

Edited by Brooke Collier | bcollier@themaneater.com

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