I’m not going to lie. I dragged myself out the door to this taping after a long week of work, mostly out of duty and respect for names I grew up hearing. I did not know it would be it one of the best shows of my life. I did not know that Emmylou would bring me to tears, that both she and Rodney Crowell are two of the finest songwriters in country music, and that they’d be backed up by the tightest honky tonk road band I’ve ever seen. “Thanks for letting us come out here and play y’all some country music. Some real country music,” she announced, with her mane of white hair and trademark smile flashing under the hot stage lights. Turns out that “real” country music is a little bit like mainlining whiskey (which may account for the soggy state of my commemorative program.) In any case, it was the kind of show you didn’t want to end — when you realize how special it is while it’s actually happening. And this is why I go to concerts. A lot of concerts. In hopes that one out of fifty is like this. Maybe you only get a few. But you can live off those moments for a long time.
Emmylou is still impossibly pretty, so let’s get that out of the way first. And she’s done something I’ve never seen a woman do before — used the aging of her voice to her own artistic advantage. She’s breathier now, wiser, more road-worn. And when she’s telling you a story — say, about Pancho – she gives you no choice but to believe her. Over forty years of experience have turned both Emmylou and Rodney into the great living masters of ballad delivery. They tell many stories, but it’s undeniably the best when they’re telling their own. Two back-to-back songs, about halfway through the set, were the two I can’t stop thinking about: The first was Emmylou’s “Red Dirt Girl” chronicling the hard knock life of a girl from Harris’ home state of Alabama. And the second was Crowell’s semi-autobiographical story of abuse and salvation, “Rock O My Soul”. They came as a one-two punch straight to the gut, and pretty much knocked the wind out of me. I’ve yet to recover.
But there were happier stories, too — mostly shared by Emmylou and Roger between songs. Like how lead guitarist Jedd Hughes spent his youth practicing guitar in a garage in the 50-person town of Quorn, Australia (I swear to you, people, that is the only way you get that good. I have never seen anyone shred a Telecaster like this guy does.) And the fact that drummer Jerry Roe is a third generation ACL performer. His grandfather was Jerry Reed and his father, Dave Roe, was the bassist in Johnny Cash’s band. She dedicated “San Antonio Rose” to the much beloved Texan songwriter who penned the tune, Susanna Clark (Guy’s wife). Anyways, it felt like being introduced to this larger family or network — the artists and songwriters who make up this sort of great quilt of Americana music. And just knowing that Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and The Band were very much a part of that quilt, too, well… it just doesn’t get much cooler than that. Friday night we heard songs by Townes, Roger Miller, Matraca Berg, Kris Kristofferson, and Gram Parsons in addition to songs by Harris and Crowell. It was, in the words of ACL producer Leslie Nichols, “a set list to end all set lists.”
And did I mention that the band kicked ass? There’s just something about a brushed drum behind smooth pedal steel… throw a smoking hot telecaster in the mix, and that’s a guaranteed good time. Which brings me back full circle to what Emmylou calls “real” country music — and to me that means traditional country instruments backing songs crafted with integrity about American life. If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to real country music performed by seasoned musicians, then please do yourself a favor and tune in to this taping when Season 39 airs. I know I will.