At Stagecoach festival, Emmylou Harris is the first lady

Times Staff Writer

PROMOTERS of this weekend's Stagecoach festival in Indio have cast their lasso far and wide to rope in a variety of talent to create an event showcasing the stylistic range and artistic ambition of all that can be considered country music today.

From the commercial punch of headliners Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson to the intensely revelatory songwriting of Lucinda Williams and Kris Kristofferson; the Western music tradition of Riders in the Sky to the high-lonesome bluegrass sounds of Ricky Skaggs and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver; the edgy country-sympathetic rock of Neko Case and the Old 97's to the staunchly traditional artistry of the Sons of the San Joaquin.

Emmylou Harris: An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend about Emmylou Harris referred to Daniel Lanois as the producer of her "Red Dirt Girl" album. Lanois produced her "Wrecking Ball" album. Malcolm Burn produced "Red Dirt Girl." —

It'll require roughly 20 hours spanning two days Saturday and Sunday for fans to sample everything offered at this twangy answer to last weekend's pop-rock-dance-hip-hop Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club.

But had time or purse strings been tighter, Stagecoach organizers could have accomplished pretty much everything they set out to do by simply putting Emmylou Harris on stage alone.

Harris, who plays Sunday night on the Palomino Stage (one of four set up to accommodate 62 acts), is arguably the festival's most respected artist, a woman whose three decade-plus recording career has been the gold standard of heady ambition, personal and professional integrity and nearly flawless execution.

It certainly helped that she was mentored early on by one of the most influential musicians in country and rock of the last half century, singer and songwriter Gram Parsons. Harris' otherworldly voice was a key part of Parsons' highly regarded "Grievous Angel" album, and after his death in 1973, she caught the ear of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt, who put her elegant harmonies on their recordings.

But with her "Pieces of the Sky" solo album in 1975, she stepped into the limelight, and has since let her exceptional musical conscience be her guide.

She championed the songs and heart-wrenching harmonies of the Louvin Brothers when most in country music looked on them as relics of the past, she was among the first to recognize the sterling songwriting of Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, and astutely covered songs by Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Delbert McClinton. She went outside the usual country circles to record tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lennon-McCartney.

From 1975 to 1988, she charted 27 Top 10 country hits, seven of them reaching No. 1, and to date she's taken home a dozen Grammy Awards. When country was going pop in the wake of "Urban Cowboy" in the late '70s, she headed in the opposite direction with an exquisite acoustic bluegrass album, "Roses in the Snow." And when she became one of the countless veterans to whom country radio turned its back in the '90s in a single-minded rush for young, fresh faces, she took yet another bold step, opening new thematic and sonic vistas for her by hooking up with celebrated rock producer Daniel Lanois for the richly atmospheric "Red Dirt Girl."

It also flung open the door for a new level of self-expression. Having previously been almost exclusively an interpreter of other writers' songs — the major exception being the instant-classic "Boulder to Birmingham" she wrote for that early "Pieces of the Sky" album—suddenly she proved herself to be a first-rate songwriter as well as one of the most highly regarded singers ever in country.

At 60, she remains a selfless and enthusiastic promoter of music of all stripe, jumping at the chance to record with acclaimed younger acts such as Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. And when there's a worthy cause in need of assistance, Harris is frequently on stage helping out.

So for anyone heading to Stagecoach, go ahead and party with Kenny Chesney, catch George Strait's four-square commercial country hits, hear Willie Nelson sing "Whiskey River" for the 10 zwillionth time, pop in on newcomers Eric Church or Jason Michael Carroll for a glimpse of Country Yet to Come.

But to grasp the very heart and soul of the music known as country, consider Emmylou Harris' performance on Sunday to be the one that's absolutely essential.

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