Fall Arts Preview - Emmylou Harris

by Joel Smith & r & You're forgiven if you can't keep Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch straight in your head. After all, there's a chance that you'd never heard any of those names before the surprise success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, and the resulting surge in folkie, old-timey music since then. Now, names like theirs are common.

And, truth be told, they all kind of sound the same. A little twangy, a little forlorn. But they're not all the same person; there are differences. To unravel some of the confusion, we've compiled a list of frequently asked Emmylou questions. Because the last thing we'd want is for you to embarrass yourself in front of an Opera House crowd next month when you stand up with your lighter and scream out a request for "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

Emmylou Harris, eh? Isn't she kind of country?

Well, yes and no. Of the four women mentioned above, Emmylou's probably the twangiest and country-est (Alison Krauss is closer to bluegrass and Bill Monroe than country and Patsy Cline). But it sort of depends which of her stuff you listen to. She started out as a straight folk singer at the tail end of the Greenwich Village days. Then she met the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons in the '70s and adopted what the latter called "cosmic American music" -- a new fusion of country and rock. She's been all over the map since then.

But didn't she sing with Dolly Parton or somebody?

Yeah. One of her most popular albums was 1987's Trio, which she recorded with Dolly and Linda Ronstadt. That's where "to know know know him is to love love love him" came from, or at least that's when that song became a hit.

So she is country?

Fine, yes, she's pretty country. Elite Hotel (1976), Blue Kentucky Girl (1979), Trio -- they've produced more tears in more beers than Norah Jones could ever hope for, if that's what you mean. But again, her stuff is fairly diverse. In fact, besides her incredible pipes -- a loud, pleasantly nasal soprano -- it's her choice of material that's won her most of her fans. Luxury Liner (1977) might seem quaint to today's Bloc Party fans, but 1995's Wrecking Ball had all the grit and rocky atmosphere of U2 at their best. And Stumble Into Grace, released two years ago, has left fans of Peter Gabriel and Luscious Jackson alike breathless. Emmylou doesn't just dabble in genres; she reinvents them.

Didn't she sing "Orphan Girl"?

Ah, a trick question. Yes, she did, on Wrecking Ball. But it's Gillian Welch's song, originally. Emmylou's a decent guitar player and has written some good songs ("Boulder to Birmingham," say), but she's more a song-interpreter than a songwriter.

Isn't she some kind of activist, too?

Yup. PETA, the Humane Society, Campaign for a Landmine-Free World, the Country Music Foundation. You name the cause.

Wait -- is Emmylou Harris the one that looks kind of like a female version of Tom Petty?

Yikes. No, that's Lucinda Williams. Emmylou's actually got that hot Mrs. Robinson thing going on. She's a cross between, like, say, Mary Verner and Morgan Fairchild.

Oh, OK. So if I drop $50 for front-row seats, what should I expect?

Good question. Emmylou broke her hand last month, forcing her to cancel a number of her shows. Word is her fretting fingers are up and running again, though we still don't expect any Kiss-style guitar solos. Fans of her mid '90s collaboration with Buddy Miller should be pleased that he's opening the show. If you're lucky, he'll come out and play "Tulsa Queen" or "Boulder to Birmingham" with her. Older fans should cross their fingers for "Pancho & amp; Lefty" or "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again."

Emmylou Harris plays with Buddy Miller at the Spokane Opera House on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 8 pm. Tickets: $19.50-$47.50.

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