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EMMYLOU LOVEFEST:
THE OTHER GRAMMY-EVE PARTY

Emmylou Harris has served as the heart of the Americana movement since a bunch of “field hippies”—as Harris quoted compadre Rodney Crowell upon taking the stage—grew their own kind of sound out of the Laurel Canyon country-rock scene. There was no name for it; just a more Texas/Louisiana/Appalachia blues and hard-country tinge to the Eagles Southern California “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” emphasizing a different kind of singer/songwriter aesthetic.

Without a name, this movement put down roots and sent shoots rising to the sky via Steve Earle, The Lumineers, The Knitters, Jason Isbell, Mumford & Sons, the late, great Townes Van Zandt, Rhiannon Giddens, Robbie Fulks, Hayes Carll, Kacey Chambers, Shawn Colvin, Los Lobos, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Julie Miller. So as Clive Davis threw his annual glittering dinner for the boldest-faced music names, it’s fitting on the eve of Harris’ Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy organization, Jed Hilley and The Americana Music Association would devote their fifth annual “Tribute” show to the Alabama-born icon.

Vector’s Ken Levitan, legendary “Road Mangler” Phil Kaufman in stiff white coveralls, Nonesuch leader David Bither, Rounder prexy John Strohm, First Amendment Center/MTSU Dean Ken Paulson and MTSU President Dr. Sidney McFee, Change The Conversation co-founder Beverly Keel, WFUV’s Rita Houston, SiriusXM’s Outlaw macher Jeremy Tepper, Grand Ole Opry chief/”Nashville” co-creator Steve Buchanan and SESAC’s fearless leader Dennis Lorde all descended on a pushing fire-code City Winery for the celebration.

Genre-defying Valerie June, looking like the roots Erykah Badu, brought an otherworldly spirituality to the trying-to-navigate-heartbreak’s devastation “’Til I Gain Control Again.” Eviscerating labels, June’s early showstopper offered witness to Harris’ absolute musical ecumenism.

Living history was served as Earle, who closed the night, recounted seeing Harris in ’73 at Houston’s Liberty Hall with Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels. He also spoke of Harris coming to sing on Train a Comin’ when he’d emerged from prison, only to ask if she could record one of the songs, offering, “She invited me over to play on this song, and I spent my 40th birthday playing on ‘Goodbye’,” as introduction.

Harris’ generosity of humanity shimmered throughout a night that saw first time Grammy nominees The Secret Sisters melting “Too Far Gone,” Jack Ingram putting a serious roadhouse thump to Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” California outlier Sam Outlaw and wife Molly Jenson reprising Parsons and Chris Hillman’s Burritos classic “Juanita” for raw redemption, and Jennifer Nettles giving a hard gospel crush to Robbie Robertson’s swampy elegy “Evangeline.” Each artist offered a personal interpretation across signature moments in Harris’ career.

Brandi Carlile, whose daughter is named Evangeline and who and has shared countless benefit stages and Cayamo Cruises with Harris, offered a soul-baring take on the Harris-penned “Red Dirt Girl.” The Steinbeckian capture of two hardscrabble girls—told in three acts— is a harrowing song of how life erodes and smothers, leaving a 27-year-old mother of five dead.

The night offered a deeper appreciation of Harris’ impact as songwriter. Widely she’s regarded as a world-class curator, people miss the real-life details Harris strings across some of the most evocative melodies in contemporary music. Mary Chapin Carpenter talked of buying Harris’ debut Pieces of the Sky as an 18-year-old in D.C. when it came out, spoke of its impact on her own blur of singer/songwriter-country, then offered a dusky meditation on the meditative reckoning ballad “Prayer in Open D.”

The tour de force of Harris-penned songs came from Keb’ Mo’. Seated with a metallic stringed instrument (mandocello, as Jon Pareles suggested?), he proffered a somber but dignified “My Name Is Emmett Till.” Harris’ original quakes with ache and shame for the victimizers; Keb’ Mo’ offered the confusion, the disbelief and a sense of humanity that flies in the face of so much current hate and racism. With a second verse marking his mother’s decision to leave the casket open so the world could see her child’s mutilation, Harris’ song turns to what the loss of this life means. It ends with a hopeful notion of a world, “Where no child would be murdered for the color of his skin/And love would be the only thing inside the hearts of men.”

An aggressive animal activist who houses the Bonaparte’s Retreat dog rescue behind her suburban Nashville home, Harris has anchored the Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees and Campaign for a Landmine-Free World tours over the years, making consciousness a thread throughout the evening. Exhorting the attendees, “Remember to Vote,” she didn’t preach so much as encourage.

Earle’s “I Am a Pilgrim,” a hymn/protest song about trying and trying some more, closed the show, ideals and art merging without one overwhelming the other. After the pair finished the final verse, the entire cast returned for two more choruses—underscoring the sense that every small action matters through the accumulation of light, love and intention.

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