Though I knew about her before those records – and owned the two “Profile” Best Of compilations on vinyl (freebies that I took because I knew the name and wanted to investigate) – it was the 1995-2000 period that really sold me on her sound. Shortly after Red Dirt Girl I bought the whole back catalogue. And I reckon I would not have been alone in that. Sure, there were fans already that knew that stuff and then carried on buying the new records – she’s now country music royalty and a case can be made for her as simply the greatest cameo harmony singer (from Bob Dylan to Bright Eyes via Neil Young and so many other guest spots) – but I reckon the tour in support of Red Dirt Girl was a gateway for many.
I mentioned to someone just recently that I saw Emmylou back in 2001. They were gob-smacked. I was too – just thinking about it all again. It felt special for a couple of reasons.
First up, Red Dirt Girl is a brilliant album. It is now nearly 21 years old and it stands up – fierce and proud. Great songs, great production, stunning performances. It’s a class act. Secondly, Emmylou was touring with Buddy Miller. He’d just then been voted Nashville’s top guitarist – he has a long history performing with wife Julie Miller, on his own records and as a session guy cutting records and touring with many of the greats. Since working with Emmylou he’s been Robert Plant’s hired gun for a time.
Miller drew double duty, offering a set as opening act first. Then returning to the stage to really show the crowd his true guitar fire.
A chance to see a show like this was really something special. And I rushed at the opportunity to get a ticket.
But also I was just starting out as a reviewer really. I’d done a few student-rag things and I was trying to get myself in the paper. By the end of the year that I saw Emmylou Harris I would achieve that goal. I feel like her gig was one of the reasons I landed my gig. You see I was filing reviews for the LOOP website. They were a magazine and site as well as a record label back then – and the LOOP site was a great place to write. They were keen on content. I was basically reviewing my record collection for them. I was doing a bunch of film reviews and even some theatre but I’d stay up all night writing reviews of any album I purchased and the very small amount I was sent for free back then. And so I reviewed Red Dirt Girl. (And even did a wee retro review of the Profile Volume One Best of Emmylou).
This set me up nicely to file a gig review. Which I did.
And what a show.
Darren Watson plays an opening set. Solid acoustic blues songs that help to set the scene. Then Buddy Miller does his thing. And he’s great. A highlight was Emmylou just strolling out in her civvies – jeans and a shirt – and waving to the crowd as she donned the acoustic and joined in for a song or two. She blew kisses and waved as she left the stage, promising to the crowd that she’d see us again soon. I remember thinking this was such a nice touch.
And then the main set. Five songs before any banter. Just majestic. Beautiful music. That voice. It just soars. And Miller was subtle and dynamic and the rhythm section (Brady Blade on drums, Tony Hall on bass) was perfect. A subtly huge sound.
There were plenty of pre Dirt Girl songs – a duet with Miller on Love Hurts. Even a track from Western Wall which, sometimes, is my favourite Emmylou Harris record. But this was definitely about taking the Red Dirt Girl material to the world. And that album reinvented or at least reinvigorated both Harris and her fan-base. The last 20 years has been a case of just building on and from Red Dirt Girl. So songs like Michelangelo, The Pearl and the title track were greeted like old hits; songs we’d known forever when really they’d only been in this world for a year. Tops.
I dashed home from the gig and stayed up to write my review.
I filed. And hoped for the best.
Next morning the very best thing did happen. Not only was it on the LOOP website. It was the front page. First time my review had been anywhere other than in the music tab. There was no Reddit back then. So it felt like I was very much on the front page of the internet.
I remember printing it out. Lol. I blu-tacked it to the wall. My wee trophy.
I emailed the newspaper again. Told them I’d be keen to review gigs and write album reviews. Ran through the things I’d done. Mentioned the Emmylou gig too. Within a month or so I’d be writing album reviews for Wellington’s newspaper. By the end of that year I’d be writing gig reviews too. And then for the next decade I was the gig reviewer – the main person doing it.
In some ways I feel like it all stems from seeing that Emmylou show.
And all of this came flooding back to me just recently. Driving home from Hawke’s Bay after Christmas, searching for something perfect to play…I settled on Wrecking Ball. First time hearing it in years. Absolutely the right late-night driving-home music. And it sent me on a big Emmylou Harris kick; first time in years. I never ever want to turn her music off but sometimes I just forget to turn it on.
It’s on again now. Lots of it. Particularly that Spyboy/Red Dirt era. And I think again now of that special gig. And of what it did for me. It opened something up. I could see the path. I knew the way after seeing that show. This is all 20 years ago now. Back when there was music journalism. Back before it died. Back when I was young. And hungry. And the world seemed to want to read about things like this.
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