I witnessed the past, present and future of country music this week – not once, but twice.
Last night, before a sold-out house at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Emmylou Harris and band traveled down country music’s historic highways and lesser-known byways, as well as a few roads she paved herself.
The 20-song set surveyed her storied career, in other words, which has often found her giving new life to old classics. Songs by the Louvin Brothers, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen and Merle Haggard – all of which she’s also recorded – were sprinkled throughout the show, though for me the night’s highlight was her rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” She recorded it for her 2008 All I Intended to Be album but, as she explained while introducing it, identifies with the lyrics all the more now that she’s 72. Other highlights included a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” (which she recorded back in ’82) and the encore, her own “Boulder to Birmingham.”
Two nights earlier, before a sparse crowd at the Local 506 club in Chapel Hill, Kelsey Waldon and her crack band razed the roof with a high-octane sonic concoction that barely left the rest of the building’s structure intact. The performance rocked the soul, in other words. Over the course of an 80-minute set, the Kentucky born-and-bred country singer-songwriter demonstrated that all the good press she’s been getting is well deserved. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
“Kentucky 1988,” from her recent White Noise/White Lines album, was one highlight:
Another: “Lived and Let Go,” which was the second half of a two-song acoustic set.
She also performed a few covers, opening with Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road” (which she recorded on her 2016 I’ve Got a Way album) and including a rockin’ rendition of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” mid-set. (In the past, as I discovered this morning, she’s also covered Neil’s “Powderfinger” – wish I’d heard that this night. But c’est la vie.) She also placed Bill Withers “Heartbreak Road” as the penultimate song of the night, right before her own “All by Myself.” The combination, and thematic interplay between the two, was perfect.
Back in the ‘70s, Emmy’s oeuvre was essentially a sonic bridge between country music’s past, present and future. It still is. And, in almost every respect, Kelsey’s doing the same. Maybe she’s not re-introducing yesteryear classics to modern listeners at the same rate that Emmy once did, but she’s definitely digging up and sharing the genre’s roots all the same. At its best, after all, country music relates and celebrates the ups and downs, foibles and fables, heartaches and heartbreaks, of common folk. That’s what Kelsey does in her songs. If or when she comes to your town, don’t think twice. Go see her.
Emmylou 11/8/2019: Easy From Now On; One of These Days; Millworker; How High the Moon; Ooh Las Vegas; Red Dirt Girl; Get Up John; Calling My Children Home; Kern River; Making Believe; If I Needed You; Pancho & Lefty; Goin’ Back to Harlan; Old Five and Dimers Like Me; Michelangelo; Tulsa Queen; Wheels; Born to Run; Long May You Run; Boulder to Birmingham
Kelsey 11/6/2019: Travelin’ This Lonesome Road; Kentucky 1988; Havin’ Hard Times; High in Heels; Anyhow; Sunday’s Children; Run Away; White Noise/White Lines; You Can Have It; Are You Ready for the Country; There Must Be Someone; New Song; Lived and Let Go; Black Patch; Dirty Old Town; Very Old Barton; The Heartbreak; Heartbreak Road; All by Myself