The life and work of Emmylou Harris was celebrated in grand style on Saturday at a tribute concert in Washington featuring a galaxy of folk and country stars alongside the iconic American singer-songwriter herself.
Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle, Martina McBride and Mary Chapin Carpenter were just a few of nearly two dozen recording artists who took turns at the 3,700-seat Constitution Hall to salute Harris, who watched from a side balcony when she wasn’t on stage herself.
“Those of you who are of my generation may remember that show, This is Your Life,” said the 67-year-old winner of 13 Grammy awards as she joined her fellow entertainers for the closing number, her signature tune Boulder to Birmingham.
“Well, this has been a big chunk of my life... I’m blessed to have so many friends. I must have been somebody good in a past life.”
Filmed and recorded for future broadcast and DVD release, the three-and-a-half-hour show — featuring 29 songs — spanned Harris’s four decades in music, during which she recorded some 40 albums.
Rodney Crowell, with whom Harris recorded last year’s Grammy-winning album Old Yellow Moon, delivered what he remembered to be the first song he ever heard her sing live, in a Washington folk club in 1974 — the George Jones ballad You’re Still on My Mind.
Earle, whose two numbers included a duet with Lee Ann Womack, said it was every songwriter’s dream to have Harris record one of their songs — “and I’ve had two.”
Fittingly for an artist famous for enduring vocal collaborations, songs in harmony featured prominently throughout the evening, no more so than when Conor Oberst, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin came together for a Dylanesque rendition of The Pearl.
Gospel legend Mavis Staples’ performance of Will the Circle be Unbroken acknowledged Harris’s rich background in American roots music, but some of the most impressive songs of the night came for a new generation of Americana artists.
California indie folk duo Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who as the Milk Carton Kids got together just three years ago, received a robust standing ovation with their cover of Michelangelo off Harris’s 2000 hit country album Red Dirt Girl.
“I guess she wanted you to know that she knows of some bands that you haven’t heard of before,” said Ryan, who praised the ability of the silver-haired Harris to stay relevant in the midst of radical change in the music business.