Emmylou Harris and her Red Dirt Boys

I’ve been fond of Emmylou Harris‘s music since the early 1980’s. I started out a casual fan, but the intensity of my fandom grew along with the music she was making. When her 1995 masterpiece Wrecking Ball came out, I was a seriously hooked. Through all that time, I never had the oppotunity to hear Emmylou Harris perform live. But that finally changed last night, when I attended her outstanding show at Madison’s Overture Center.

Emmylou Harris’ set began somewhat subdued. Early on she played one of my favorites of the night, the hauntingly beautiful “Red Dirt Girl.” That tone continued with a cover of Lucinda Willams’ “Sweet Old World” and the somber waltz “I Miss the Mississippi and You.”

In addition to her talent for singing, she’s got an excellent ability to select backing musicians. Last night her band, the “Red Dirt Boys” shined and meshed perfectly with Emmylou’s sometimes hushed vocals, especially the fiddle, accordion, and backing vocals on “Sweet Old World.”

Throughout the show, Emmylou’s between-song banter was enjoyable without being too much. Whether she was joking about her “brunette days,” talking about how nice she thought Madison was, or watching the History Channel (or as she put it, “the I live alone channel”), it was all genuine. You get that same feeling when you listen to her music as well.

Later on Emmylou and the band seemed to loosen up a bit with “Two More Bottles of Wine,” and the country rocker “Born to Run.” The latter ended up being a great showcase for the band with each musician getting the chance to demonstrate their skills. Guitarist Buddy Miller (who also opened the show) was especially good. Another uptempo song was also one of my favorites of the night, the bluegrass gospel song “Get Up John.”

After a generous set of 21 songs, Emmylou introduced the band, thanked the audience very graciously and left the stage. They came back for a brief encore, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” It was a fitting encore to an excellent show.

Since I’ve been looking forward to seeing Emmylou Harris perform live for so long, I was a little afraid she wouldn’t be able to stand up to my expectations. My fears were unwarranted from the moment her set began. With an artist like Emmylou Harris, I should have known better.