Emmylou Harris | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Emmylou Harris 

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Given her special place in the religion of roots music--she's high priestess in the Gram Parsons memorial chapel--it was preordained that when Emmylou Harris collaborated with producer Daniel Lanois on 1995's Wrecking Ball the more puritan elements of the congregation would protest. Scolds of that ilk never take historical context or services rendered into account: Harris held aloft the torch of tradition when it counted, during the Urban Cowboy dark ages; in today's O Brother, Where Art Thou? climate, she's more than entitled to play around with ambient texture, percussion loops, and anything else that catches her fancy. Like 1999's Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (with Linda Ronstadt) and 2000's Red Dirt Girl, Harris's new album, Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch), is pretty much a sequel to Wrecking Ball--a bit more folky, if nowhere near folky enough to appease diehards impatient for her to get back to the gospel and bluegrass basics of 1980's Roses in the Snow. Those unable to make the transition are missing out on Harris's late-career bloom as a gifted songwriter: she wrote four of the eleven tracks and shares credit on the rest (among her collaborators are Lanois, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson, and producer Malcolm Burn). The overall mood of the album is one of spiritual melancholy, and in less tasteful hands the material could have degenerated into something sticky and Lilith Fair-ish, but Harris has a knack for making mourning sound beautiful but not bathetic--"Strong Hand (for June)," her simple, moving elegy for June Carter Cash, is a case in point. Harris's mezzo-soprano is as strong and limpid as ever, and her phrasing has only improved with age. She'll be backed by her killer three-man touring band, Spyboy. With Buddy Miller. Saturday, November 1, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

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