Emmylou Harris wowed a sold-out room of her college hometown crowd at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Auditorium on Jan. 24. A decorated performer, with more accolades than her host could say in a mouth-full, Harris is a celebrated UNCG alumna. An unfettered star by any right, Harris exuded a down-to-earth presence, with unassuming entrances and exits alongside her band.
“It’s not every day I get to play my ol’ alma mah-der,” she said with a humble, accented drawl. The show started straightforwardly, with “Here I am” into “Orphan Girl.” Harris paused to muse on her preference for sad songs.
“I’ve got happy ones, too,” she said as an intro to “Love and Happiness.”
“They just don’t all say so in the title,” she added.
Reflection was a theme that rolled through the evening. On her life, her collegiate origins, and especially of her folks. Greensboro was her first city on her own—the place she learned “not everybody liked their parents.”
“I was lucky,” she continued, into “Red Dirt Girl,” with a nod to a childhood spent in North Carolina while her father was stationed at Cherry Point. Noting her expansion from folk to bluegrass with “Making Believe,” Harris acknowledged being known best as a great “interpreter of songs,” finding success in surrounding herself with talented artists with whom she enjoys sharing the stage. A concept made clear when she shuffled to the back with a smile for a guitar-fiddle showdown during “Get Up John.”
An NPR-story inspired her for “My Name is Emmet Till.” Polite and political, Harris upheld what she considered understandable sadness—a concept woven into discussion throughout her set. But especially on the somber track, which lined up in reverence for the murdered teen, and her idols, to be followed by, “Raise the Dead,” and sailing more uptempo through “Luxury Liner.”
Returning to reflections and the defense of melancholy, Harris recalled writing around songs during “some birthday” in her 40s. “It wasn’t one of those decades people make a big deal out of,” she said, remarking how strange it can be at 73 to look back with “A Prayer in Open D.”
Harris expressed a genuine fondness of her recollections, carried through stories of Tate Street and the Red Door— the place she was first “bit by the folk music bug.” An affliction that took her from Greensboro to the Greenwich Village.
Working as a waitress, opening for Townes Van Zandt, were the stories she wove into her rendition of “Pancho and Lefty.” Her banter turned toward the ambiguous meanings of songs into “Michelangelo,” and how that personal meaning extends and vary from the audience to the songwriter.
Harris recalled a time with Canadian sister-duo, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, where Harris inquired the inspiration to “Going Back to Harlan,” to which the McGarrigles replied, “Oh, that’s about Pete Seeger.” Harris shrugged with a “Well, OK” before beginning her take on the tune.
Relishing stories through song, Harris is fine with fudging a few details, adding a moment to explain that the “real Evangeline lived a long life and didn’t need no man,” before performing the song which shares a namesake.
People grow, and stories change; following “Green Pastures,” Harris reflected on that notion within herself, as well as her days of “insufferable folk music,” and the times she thought a drummer was the devil.
These days, she understands their value in keeping the beat—expressed with a big thumbs up to the audience as she kicked off “Born to Run.” Turning things down, Harris again shared memories of her father into “Bang the Drum Slowly.” “Guy Clark had to pull that out of me,” she explained, reinforcing her value of sad songs and natural melancholy.
Harris worked a protest song into the mix, “Abraham, Martin and John,” a cover she’s performed before, but seemed to be a last-minute addition to the set, inspired by the Q&A held earlier that afternoon. It was a refreshingly human performance: slightly unpolished, but still impactful.
A simple encore welcomed Harris back onstage for “The Pearl,” where she continued musing on themes of unapologetic sadness and separation. She always thinks of her parents when playing “Together Again,” which she followed by “Boulder to Birmingham,” to close the night.
Music’s most notorious manic-pixie-dream girl, Harris still shines all on her own with breakout harmonies and good nature ring through her songwriting craft and skillful picking. It’s no surprise, but at her being 73, no less wondrous to see one of the songbirds of our lifetime shine on our hometown stage.
Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd who hosts the Tuesday Tour Report on WUAG 103.1 FM.