Harris: Mainstream Is What the Lady Does Best

Emmylou Harris began the first of her two shows Saturday night at the Ventura Theatre with a lively toast to the recent career resurgence of fellow country star Buck Owens.

While the spunky version of Owens’ old “Love’s Gonna Live Here” was a nice gesture, it would have been just as fitting for Harris to have opened with one of the tunes from her own mid-'70s albums--works that established her as arguably the most evocative female singer ever in country music. Harris, too, seems on the edge of a career resurgence.

Unlike Owens, Harris hasn’t fallen from the charts, but she lost some momentum on record in recent years as she moved from her once inspiring mix of mainstream country material (drawn from classic country songwriters like Don Gibson and contemporary ones such as Rodney Crowell) to specialized projects of narrower thematic focus.


There was considerable daring in the occasional sidesteps into bluegrass and concept albums, but Harris--unlike the countless artists who dilute their strengths when reaching for a wider audience--actually gains in character and impact as she moves to the mainstream. She is blessed with such strong artistic vision and vocal purity that she becomes more affecting as her themes become more universal and her melodies more accessible.

Harris returns to the earlier strengths in her just-released “Bluebird” album--her most convincing mainstream effort in years. “Heaven Only Knows,” a richly melodic fool-in-love lament, and two other songs from the album sounded like vintage Harris when slipped alongside her more familiar tunes in Saturday’s hour-plus set.

The only disappointment, in fact, was that she didn’t do more songs from the new album at the Ventura, a former movie theater that has been converted to a club, complete with tables and chairs. Harris and the seven-piece Hot Band continue their Southern California tour with shows tonight and Tuesday at the Crazy Horse in Santa Ana.