Circle round

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell pay homage to Gram Parsons, other dear departed for rousing Laxson performance

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (center) flanked by members of the Glory Band on the Laxson stage—guitarist Jedd Hughes and keyboardist Chris Tuttle.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (center) flanked by members of the Glory Band on the Laxson stage—guitarist Jedd Hughes and keyboardist Chris Tuttle.

Photo By melanie mactavish

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Wednesday, Oct. 2, Laxson Auditorium, Chico State.

In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pulled together some of the best-known country and bluegrass musicians of all time (Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson and many more) to record a two-album collection of country standards called Will the Circle Be Unbroken. They repeated the effort with a Grammy-winning second volume in 1989, this time including some surviving old-timers plus a later generation of traditionalists, like John Prine and Emmylou Harris.

Harris can be heard on Volume Two praising the album’s loose approach of getting a bunch of people together for a jam session, saying it took her back to the days of playing with friends in the living room—a “spiritual experience” that spurred her to chase a life in music.

“The living room has gone out of the music,” she said, “but today I feel like we got it back.”

Those who saw Harris and Rodney Crowell last Wednesday (Oct. 2) caught a little bit of that living-room feeling at Laxson Auditorium as the duo led the crack five-piece Glory Band through a two-hour set of their own and others’ classic songs, highlighted by harmonies honed through a nearly 40-year intermittent working relationship.

Harris, Crowell and company wasted no time kick-starting the work-weary collective heart of a mid-week audience by opening with “Return of the Grievous Angel,” the lead track from the Gram Parsons 1974 magnum opus, Grievous Angel, which also featured the songstress on vocals.

Like many people, my strongest connection with Harris is through my love of Parsons. This tribute continued with the second song on Wednesday, the Parsons (with fellow Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman)-penned “Wheels.”

Harris and her cohorts continued to pay homage to Parsons throughout the night. Prefacing the heartbreaking “Love Hurts,” she shared her philosophy on sad songs: “The sadder the song, the better it makes us feel.”

She also acknowledged Parsons’ impact on her life and career, saying he ignited her love of country music, teaching her The Louvin Brothers and George Jones songs when she’d been, as a strong-headed young woman, convinced that she was a folk singer who didn’t like country music. “He taught me it was OK to love Bob Dylan and Buck Owens,” she said.

Today, Harris remains one of the genre’s longest- and brightest-burning stars. She and Crowell have managed to stay true to the form, always innovating but never chasing crass trends.

Crowell-penned songs visited at Laxson included “’Til I Gain Control Again” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Harris’ latter-day work included “Red Dirt Girl,” and the last song before a rousing three-song encore was “Old Yellow Moon,” the title track of the duo’s latest collaborative recording.

A component of the “living room” ethic is the tradition—still strongest in country music—of sharing others’ songs. The duo did plenty of that at Laxson. In addition to the Parsons songs already mentioned, the set was peppered with other covers, many of which Harris has personal connections to as she’s sung harmonies with many of the greats. Highlights included a pair of songs written by the late great Townes Van Zandt, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You,” as well as The Louvin Brothers’ “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

All told, Harris and Crowell put on a spectacular show. My only gripe is a small one, and not aimed at the performers. About three songs in I had an intense craving for a beer, which is pretty much just a simple Pavlovian response to Harris’ still-sterling voice and the weeping-then-soaring sounds of a pedal steel. Considering the median age of the crowd was past the half-century mark, and was made up of what seemed like pretty responsible adults (standard at most Chico Performances shows), this is something the university should, in my opinion, explore.