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Another country
Emmylou Harris and the ‘Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue’

Emmylou Harris plays well with others. And if that kindergarten praise sounds strange applied to an 11-time Grammy winner who has long since graduated into legendary status, it just might be the compliment she would choose. The country diva’s breathtakingly æthereal voice was first introduced to inspiration-starved listeners when she became the protégée-partner of the late, great Gram Parsons in the early ’70s, and every step of her 30-plus-year career — most notably away from that classic country-rock sound and into her own folk-tinged originals — has been marked by innovative pairings, recently as diverse as Linda Ronstadt (on 1999’s Western Wall) and Daniel Lanois (whose work on 1995’s Wrecking Ball was more in the nature of a partner than a mere producer).

"I’ve always collaborated with other people," Harris explained when I reached her by phone. "I’ve always enjoyed the sound of different voices singing together."

About to embark on the "Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue" when we talked, Harris seemed to be looking forward to more group activity. With Patty Griffin, Buddy and Julie Miller, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings aboard, the tour (which comes to FleetBoston Pavilion next Friday) offers a range of roots, country, and alt-country sounds from a community of artists who have either known one another or performed together over the years. "I’ve sung on Patti’s records and she’s sung on mine. The same goes for Buddy, we’re so joined at the hip. Dave and I have sung in countless shows in countless living rooms. [Welch and Harris also sang on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack together.] It’s almost like a working vacation. I don’t think we’re going to have to bend into uncomfortable shapes at all."

The tour, which will feature various combinations of the artists singing on each other’s songs, does sound like a bit of a break for Harris, who has been touring with her own band almost continuously in support of last year’s Stumble into Grace (Nonesuch). Although the Stumble into Grace tour has been Harris’s show, the cool, beautiful album is itself a team effort, though not as much as she’d intended.

"When we started Stumble into Grace, when it was just the ‘Next Record,’ I thought it would be more of a collaboration." In particular, Harris had been hoping to work more closely with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, with whom she’d written "All I Left Behind," which ended up on Western Wall. "I specifically wanted to write with them. When I first decided to write, to put the energy and time into writing, the first people I called were Kate and Anna. I love their writing, I love their harmonies, and I really enjoy their company as people, so it was a win-win situation. We’d talked about it when we were doing the ‘Down from the Mountain’ tour together, they came out for a couple of days."

But the project, as artistic projects will, took a different turn. "As it turned out, I wrote more songs then I thought I was going to write. So it morphed into something else." The trio did complete three songs together: a beautiful version of "Plaisir d’Amour" and the originals "Pretty Bird" (which borrows a lilting Peruvian melody) and the ruminative "I Will Dream." In addition, the McGarrigles provide vocal back-up on various tracks, as do Ronstadt and Jane Siberry, among others.

That Harris chose to make this disc more her own project shouldn’t be surprising for an artist of her stature. But though her singing voice still seems to float effortlessly, she has long said that her composing voice is not so easily summoned. "Is it difficult? Oh yes," she laughs. Although she had established herself as a songwriter with 1985’s autobiographical The Ballad of Sally Rose, she has not worn that cap lightly. "Songwriting is agonizing and difficult." And working with others doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. "It’s just that you’ve got company. Misery loves company!"

Plus, she notes, the hard work of revision can be eased with another pair of knowledgeable ears. "Certainly it helps to have somebody to come up with that wonderful phase when you know you’re stuck. You can toss things out and you trust each other enough to say, ‘Um, no I don’t really think that works.’ That helps; it saves a lot of time."

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Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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