After an extraordinary concert, it’s often tempting to call it the greatest performance one’s ever witnessed. There’s that feeling of afterglow that lingers awhile, maybe for even a week or two before it slowly dissipates and thoughts come back into focus. It’s hard to say if that will be the case with the concert performed by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell this past Saturday night at Maryville Tennessee’s magnificent Clayton Center for the Arts, but I’d willing to wager it will resonate for awhile, and perhaps even forever.
For starters, the setting was magnificent. Clayton Center offers superb acoustics, and its location on the idyllic tree-covered campus of Maryville College couldn’t have been better. At one point Emmylou commented that Rodney could have been in Nashville that night for the premier of the Hank Williams biopic he scored, but he chose to be in Maryville instead. Crowell acknowledged the hometown crowd by gamely attempting the twon’s correct pronunciation (“MUR-vuhl” as opposed to “Mary ville”), and he almost got it right (as well he should, since his daughter was in attendance), but it really mattered little how close he came. As soon as the duo walked out on stage, the sold out crowd was smitten.
Still, if they felt they had to work especially hard to charm their audience, they couldn’t have picked better songs to get the set started. From the emphatic opening notes of “Just Want To See You So Bad,” and then onwards through such archival classics as “Wheels,” “Poncho & Lefty,” “Ooh Las Vegas,” “Love Hurts” and “Till I Gain Control,” the show hit one resounding peak after another. Truth be told, they could have reprised “Poncho & Lefty” the entire evening and many of us would have probably been satisfied. Still, there was a wealth of other great songs yet to come — selections culled from their individual catalogues (Harris’ Gram Parsons-penned “Grievous Angel,” “Luxury Liner” and “Red Dirt Girl,” Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “Till I Gain Control”) and many songs shared between them, the title tracks of their two recent albums together (“Old Yellow Moon,” “The Travelling Kind”) and Crowell’s aforementioned compositions which Harris claimed she first heard on cassette in 1974 and immediately fell in love with. She marvelled at the fact that it took them 38 years to record their first duet album, the Grammy winning Old Yellow Moon, but also mentioned when it came time to do their second, the recently released The Traveling Kind, it took them barely a week to do it.
Still, 26 songs in just over two hours is a lot of ground to cover, but the fact they were able to mine so much material from careers spread well over four decades is a credit to both taste and tenacity. Credit also is due their band, one that includes Hot Band alumnus Steve Fishell on pedal steel, veteran bassist Byron House who subbed at the last minute and their tasteful guitarist Jedd Hughes, who, Harris noted, looks better in their tour cap than anyone else in the band. The band swung, shuffled, rocked and relaxed as the songs dictated, making the music seamless and absolutely transfixing, and whether swaying through a tender ballad like “”Back When We Were Beautiful” or lighting up a groove as on “Memphis,” they couldn’t have been tighter or more taut.
After the three song encore, Harris brought her rescue dog to the stage and gave an impassioned talk about why folks should go to their local shelter to find a pet. “They’ll give your life such joy,” she promised, and as if to prove the point she walked her four legged companion to the edge of the stage and then across to give those in the first row a chance to pet it. It was a touching and remarkably human — and humane — way to end such a glorious program, one that resonated well into the evening and will likely continue to do so for some time to come. Then again, when two legends join forces, what other results could there possibly be? Brilliant, breathless, and beautiful.