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Emmylou Harris: A Conversation with Music at the Times Center

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

Emdashes is very pleased to feature an events report by a new friend of the site: Ethan de Seife, professor of film at Hofstra University and author of the delightful "Cultographies" book on This is Spinal Tap. He also has a forthcoming book on the director Frank Tashlin.

With no further ado, we turn it over to Ethan:

The big red LED clock at the back of the Times Center auditorium last Wednesday had just blinked precisely 9:00pm as I and the rest of the crowd filed out, having witnessed precisely 90 minutes of "conversation with music," in which American music icon Emmylou Harris was interviewed by fawning New York Times writer Dana Jennings. This was a tightly run ship.

Given the opportunity, I, too, would likely fawn over Emmylou Harris, whose records have been at or near the center of my collection for a couple decades. Harris's credentials as a musician and singer are entirely unimpeachable: she is unquestionably one of the most important and sensitive interpreters of American popular song of the last four decades. In the most recent of those decades, give or take, she has turned to songwriting, and she's quite good at it—not as good as she is at singing, but, then, Emmylou Harris sings better than most people on earth. She is eminently fawnworthy. Still, Jennings's forced familiarity grated after a while. But we were not there to hear him.

Harris sang a couple of fairly lightweight songs of her own composition, the better of which was a tribute to her friend and inspiration, the recently deceased Kate McGarrigle. The two songs left me craving more, especially since I hadn't seen her perform since the late 1990s, at the tail end of the Wrecking Ball tour (when she was supported by the remarkable Spyboy band).

The real goal was to get Harris to talk, not sing. And she told some good stories: writing to Pete Seeger when she was a girl; many tales about her beloved dogs; fond remembrances of departed colleagues Hazel Dickens and Charlie Louvin; and the inevitable recollections of Gram Parsons, about whom she was quite frank in her assertion that he did nothing less than change her life, both by "discovering" her and by dying, so very very young, when he and she were lovers.

Ultimately, though, the event did not get much more revelatory than a good, solid magazine interview, and it carried the whiff of something more than a little prefabricated: the second-by-second LED countdown clock; the three camera operators, and so on. So while I would love to have Emmylou Harris over for tea—she seems charming, warm, and good-humored, and I'd love to play for her and sing along with her to, say, my Moe Bandy and Ferlin Husky records—this "TimesTalks" venue did not really play to her many strengths.

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