Culture vulture

The hour of gold
It is far too easy to take the human voice for granted. For most of us the act of forcing air through our larynx and across our tongue and lips to form audible words is an act that we are barely conscious of if we think of it at all. And yet the ability to speak is surely one of the greatest miracles in the universe, for by shaping the self-generated wind that we project from our lungs we can convey an infinite variety of emotion and personal truth.

Songwriters and singers are intimately aware of the hermetic bond between word, meaning and sound. By blending words and music a singer can evoke depths and shades of emotion unattainable through ordinary speech. When grafted to a melody as solemn and mournful as a rural cemetery, a phrase as unadorned as “Lefty he can’t sing the blues/ all night long like he used to do/ the dust that Pancho bit down south/ ended up in Lefty’s mouth,” can illuminate a novel’s worth of character in one four-line verse.

Interviewed by Irish Times in October 2000, when her self-penned album Red Dirt Girl was released, Emmylou Harris summed up her particular artistic predilection thusly, “It seems like I’m drawn to the sad songs. They’re the most evocative, they’re the ones that unlock that pool of emotion within us.”

Pursuing the topic further she added, “Music helps us get through those bleak times, not by telling us that everything is all right, or going to be all right, but by acknowledging the suffering that is pretty much usual fare for everyone.”

That’s a credo that must at times be a burden to fulfill. But at last Sunday’s Laxson Auditorium concert with brilliant accompanying guitarist Buddy Miller, Harris demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt her commitment to the emotional and artistic honesty inherent in her statement.

Devoted as it is to wringing spiritual beauty out of difficult circumstances and finding the cold but genuine comfort that comes with finding the strength to accept rock hard reality, the art of Emmylou Harris transcends mere entertainment and transports us to a realm of emotional truth that allows us to grasp the poignancy and preciousness of our own mortality.

Even to my ear these are high-falutin’ words to describe the work of a very unpretentious and straightforward performer. A tall, slender, beautiful grey-haired woman with a self-deprecating sense of humor, a humble and gracious manner, and a deep awareness of her own strength, Emmylou Harris brings a luminous character and a voice like the flame of compassion to bear on her sad songs, and by doing so she illuminates the depths that are too often hidden within ourselves.

I couldn’t ask for more from any artist. But she plays great rhythm guitar, too.

Emmylou albums you should have:

Wrecking Ball

Pieces of Sky

Luxury Liner

Red Dirt Girl