- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Emmylou Harris cast some light into the darkest corners of alternative country music in her Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue tour at Wolf Trap Tuesday.

“I have such a history in this area, and so much of it revolves around music,” Miss Harris said early in the program. California country-rocker Gram Parsons tapped Miss Harris as a singing partner in the early 1970s after hearing her perform in a small Washington club.

“I’ve got a lot of family and really old friends here tonight,” she told the capacity crowd.

Touring with guitarist Buddy Miller, vocalist Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — all well-established songwriters — Miss Harris also re-established her own roots. She brought original Seldom Scene member John Starling to the stage to sing the Alan O’Bryant bluegrass standard “The Other Side of Life.”

The music sounded old, for the most part, because it was supposed to. Miss Harris brought out the entire ensemble to kick off the show with “Hello Stranger” from her 1977 “Luxury Liner” recording. She sang with Miss Griffin and Miss Welch on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” not unlike the “Trio” recording she made with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. She also reprised Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts” from her 1990 “Duets” disc, with Mr. Miller singing harmony.

She performed songs from her 2000 “Red Dirt Girl” as well as her 2003 “Stumble Into Grace” recordings, too. She wrote “Strong Hand,” from the latter album, as a remembrance of June Carter Cash. Alone with just her voice and guitar, Miss Harris brought to it the kind of presence that only an 11-time Grammy-winning vocalist can muster.

The program, encompassing 31 songs, including an encore, lasted for more than 2 hours with no intermission. The 14-city tour just started Saturday, and the program still has that electric, rough edge to it that enhances this kind of music.

With Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings, for example, Miss Harris performed “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” a song she said they had worked up that afternoon. She kept Miss Welch onstage while she covered Miss Welch’s “Orphan Girl.”

“We like to work without a net. I guess that’s what it is,” Miss Harris said.

Mr. Miller debuted three songs from his forthcoming CD, “Universal United House of Prayer” — “Wide River to Cross,” “Shelter Me” and the Louvin Bros. song “There’s a Higher Power” — but he also performed two of his songs covered by mainstream country singer Lee Ann Womack: “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” and “Don’t Tell Me.”

He also brought his thick, swampy guitar to a cover of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “Dark End of the Street” and the 1962 Willie Dixon rocker “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”

The three women came out to follow that with an a cappella “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” which Miss Harris and Miss Welch sang with Alison Krauss on the Grammy-winning “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

It was a good introduction to the next segment of the program.

Mr. Rawlings’ guitar style is percussive, stream-of-consciousness — suited perfectly to Miss Welch’s traditional-sounding songs. The couple harmoniously performed four of their songs — including the spiritual “By the Mark” — leading to Miss Welch’s haunting solo version of “There’s Got to Be a Song Left to Sing.”

But it was “Revelator” and Mr. Rawlings’ expansive guitar solo that brought the crowd to its feet. The couple followed with “I’ll Fly Away.”

Miss Griffin brought her band to the stage and burst into three songs from her April disc, “Impossible Dream.” Whatever she said from the stage by way of introductions was muffled, and her vocals were too far down in the mix to be understood until the quieter “When It Don’t Come Easy,” a true showcase for her voice.

She and Miss Harris joined voices on “Long Ride Home,” one of Miss Griffin’s crowd-pleasers, and she ended with an impromptu cover of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” and “Mary,” a song inspired by her grandmother.

A finale of “The Weight” finally brought some smiles to the performers’ faces as they traded off verses, backed my Miss Griffin’s band.

After a long ovation, the ensemble returned with an encore, Gram Parsons’ “In My Hour of Darkness.”

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