Los Angeles Times

An early Christmas gift

Emmylou Harris' haunting holiday concert at Disney Hall is actually more of a career overview.

By Randy Lewis, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2005

How about we just scrap the Grammys and replace them with the Emmylous?

There'd be a big advantage to taking the decision-making for the record industry's highest award out of the hands of a ragtag group of 13,000 voters with wildly varying tastes and giving it to Emmylou Harris, who has made consistently outstanding musical choices over her 35-plus-year career Think of the savings in ballot postage alone.

Harris' performance Monday at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a striking reminder of the exquisite taste she's displayed across the board: in selecting great songs by first-rate writers, in the top-drawer skills of the musicians she's surrounded herself with, and in the extraordinary attention to the quality of her vocals, from the phrasing and timbre of her own voice through the harmonies and instrumental arrangements accompanying them.

In a sense, the Emmylou Awards already exist in the honor she bestows on those she's invited to work with her, and to others whose projects she helps out on. That stretches back to her career-launching partnership with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons right on through her work with Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes' lauded album "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning."

Her remarkable artistic batting average was in full view at Disney Hall. With the holiday season in full swing, it might have been tempting for her to join the crowd and just toss off an easy Christmas sing-along program. In fact, fans might even have come with that expectation, given the "Light of the Stable" title attached to her appearance by Disney Hall officials. That's also the title of her groundbreaking 1979 album of seasonal music, one that broke Nashville tradition by doing away with the syrupy strings and chorus-laden treatments of holiday chestnuts in favor of stripped-down, back-to-acoustic folk and country basics.

While she did sing three songs from the "Light" album - two of which she said she hadn't performed since she recorded them - most of the show consisted of gems spanning her career. She started with the unadulterated country that dominated her early years (the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger" and Parsons and Thomas S. Brown's "Return of the Grievous Angel") and moved forward to her own songs, which suddenly seemed to burst forth with her 2000 album "Red Dirt Girl."

Most were intensely emotional explorations of the struggles of the human experience. Dressed head to boot in black for her set, she acknowledged the semi-circle of festive poinsettias and lights ringing her onstage, quipping midway through the 90-minute show: "It must be Christmas.... Well, there are depressed people at this time of year too, right?"

Dark her music often is, but never depressing because of the musical light she shines into life's blackest corners.

Much of that light came from her regular musical partner in recent years, Buddy Miller, whose evocative use of electric guitar and acoustic and electric mandolins gave instrumental voice to the haunting themes Harris was singing about. Bassist Byron House provided the trio's deeply resonant tonal foundation.

The purity of vocal tone that once was Harris' signature now gives way periodically to a gravelly edge that simply enhances the feeling of desperation and world-weariness that often surfaces in her most recent work.

Harris has been way ahead of Grammy voters in putting the spotlight on musicians whose work deserves the music world's utmost respect, from such titans as Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Neil Young to the younger generation of Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt and Gillian Welch.

What a treat it would be to hear more of that level of talent called to the stage each Grammy night. The envelope, please?