If you’ve ever wondered what a breaking heart sounds like, wonder no more. It is strong and sweet, full of sorrow and grace. It is fragile and full of breath, warm and tender, sincere and soaring and as you might imagine, it literally breaks. As it moves steadily, mournfully towards a chord change it cracks on high, becoming so full of air it is almost silent. It is the voice of Emmylou Harris: country music legend, silver siren and purveyor of the saddest of sad songs.
If you were lucky enough to see her at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival last week, you will know that when I write “saddest of sad songs” I mean no embellishment. From her early days singing alongside Gram Parsons, to her biggest solo hit ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ and beyond, more than any other female country artist, Emmylou Harris has trademarked pain. It lingers large in every song, in every line, in every note and over two nights (yes, I went to both shows) she and her Red Dirt Boys showed us that pain can also be beautiful, uplifting and life-affirming.
Playing classic covers, a hint of gospel, a dash of bluegrass and some heart-stopping a cappella, Emmylou and the band showed us why country music (despite its many detractors) is so adored by those who to choose to embrace it. Crowd favourites like ‘Pancho & Lefty’ and ‘Making Believe’ were nestled comfortably alongside her more recent songs like ‘Bang the Drum’ and ‘Michelangelo’. There were moments of humour, such as when Emmylou noted the beauty of the State Theatre and observed that “if we had a theatre like this in the States, we’d have knocked it down by now and built a mini-mall.” There were moments of embarrassment, such as when Emmylou lost track of herself and the band during Red Dirt Girl and had to back track a verse or so. And there were moments of precious sadness so exquisite I am sure I was not the only person in the room wiping away tears. In particular, her tribute to the recently deceased Kate McGarrigle, ‘Darling Kate’ and her cover of Steve Earle’s post-rehab lament ‘Goodbye’ were especially moving.
As an indie geek who made the conversion to country more than a decade ago (via Ryan Adams Heartbreaker) it is no news to me that Emmylou Harris is great. But if I have learned anything in recent years, especially as a radio broadcaster, it’s that many remain resistant to the genre’s achy, breaky charms. I have spent countless hours trying to convert fans of Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago, Beach House’s Teen Dream and Tallest Man On Earth’s The Wild Hunt to country bands traversing similar themes of heartache and desire, albeit with a little more twang. Some people get it. Others get a cold chill at the mere mention of a banjo. As such, I understand all my crushing on Emmylou might be lost on FBi listeners, who are probably more inclined to be lining up for any number of more hip Sydney Festival shows over the next few weeks than reliving moments of Emmylou Harris magic in their mind.
However, if you have a feeling that this country music thing might not be so bad, get your hands on an Emmylou Harris record. Play it over and over again, let it tend to all your heartaches and keep your fingers crossed she comes back to Sydney soon. You won’t regret it.
n.b. This review was first published on FBi radio’s FLOG. You can check it out again here, same words different format.