How vibrant is Emmylou Harris’ creative streak?
Among the numerous displays she gave Thursday during her performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall none was more illustrative than the introduction she offered for her exquisitely heartbreaking 1975 song “Boulder to Birmingham,” which she wrote of her short-lived partnership with Gram Parsons, in the wake of his drug overdose death that also tragically ended their professional and personal relationship.
“I remember standing on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1973 and watching Laurel Canyon burn,” she said, an experience she alluded to as she subsequently sang, “I don’t want to hear a sad story / Full of heartbreak and desire / The last time I felt like this / I was in the wilderness / and the canyon was on fire.”
It takes a special perspective to look at Santa Monica Boulevard and envision it as “the wilderness,” even in 1973.
But Harris has always had that special gift, a big reason that her life and music are the subject of a new exhibit, “Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight,” opening Oct. 5 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville — while she’s a couple thousand miles away launching a new tour.
At UCLA she said half-apologized on a couple of occasions for a little shaking off of the dust during her first performance in nearly a month, en route to her appearance Oct. 7 at the 18th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. (She also performs Oct. 5 in Carmel, Calif.)
Yes, she missed a high note or two as she put her vocal cords through the paces for two hours on Thursday, one noticeably being the pinnacle of the arching “lie-la-lie” refrain of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” during her nevertheless beauteous rendition of a song she described as “part of the soundtrack to so many of our lives.”
Otherwise it was a characteristically inspired and inspiring guided tour through some of the greatest country, rock, folk, pop and gospel songs from the past century by such esteemed writers as Simon, Townes Van Zandt (“Pancho and Lefty”), Billy Joe Shaver (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”), Bill Monroe (“Get Up John”), Kate and Anna McGarrigle (“Going Back to Harlan”) and, of course, Parsons and some of his collaborators (“Ooh Las Vegas” with Rich Grech, “Wheels” and “Sin City,” both written with his Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Harris’ musical journey has been the way she’s proved the exception to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “There are no second acts in American lives.”
After establishing herself as one of the premier interpreters of other writers’ work over a quarter century in a series of critically acclaimed albums that placed her at the forefront of the progressive wing of country music, she suddenly burst forth with a flood of songs of her own.
That new chapter began in earnest with her 2000 album “Red Dirt Girl.” In that work, and others that followed, Harris showed that she’s fully absorbed the observational and expressive skills of the writers — sung and undersung — whose songs she has long championed.
She also continues to be a magnet for superb musical accompanists, as evidenced by the empathetic and instinctive support she received from her current five-piece band consisting of lead guitarist Will Kimbrough, pianist-accordionist-guitarist Phil Madeira, fiddler-mandolinist Eamon McLoughlin, electric and upright bassist Chris Donahue and drummer Bryan Owings.
She included the title track on Thursday, along with “The Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” from the outlier 1985 album, “The Ballad of Sally Rose,” a loosely autobiographical song cycle for which she wrote or co-wrote most of the songs with her then-husband, producer-songwriter Paul Kennerly.
Among the highlights of her own material that she sang for the nearly packed Royce Hall audience was “My Name Is Emmett Till,” which she wrote about the African American teenager from Chicago whose brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 was a flashpoint for the emerging Civil Rights movement. She conjured a world of emotion in the space of a few compact lines as she sang, “The harm they put upon me / Was too hard for what I done / For I was just a black boy / I never hurt no one.”
At 71, Harris demonstrated that the angelic purity of her voice is largely intact, colored in recent years with a bit more grit than she had in the ’70s and ’80s when she was a regular presence on the country music sales charts.
But as country radio moved away from the kind of authentically deep songs to which she is drawn, Harris organically helped spawn the alt-country movement in the ’90s by expanding her palette musically and sonically, particularly in her work with producers Daniel Lanois (“Wrecking Ball”) and Malcom Burn (“Red Dirt Girl”).
These days, she seems almost a genre unto herself: an artist to whom listeners can turn without knowing how to classify her music, but secure in knowing their time won’t be wasted on frivolity.
It’s a credo she outed by quoting Van Zandt’s great observation that “There are two kinds of music: the blues and ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ ” Harris unflinchingly favors the former, even though she certainly makes space for upbeat moments as well, but which register with the same emotional authenticity as the many songs with which she plumbs the deepest reaches of human experience.