Midway through her concert Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, Emmylou Harris made a reference to bucket lists but acknowledged hers is basically nonexistent. There’s a good reason for that, as she explained a little later: “Because I’ve been doing what I love for nigh on these 50 years.”
At 71, and refreshingly proud to acknowledge her age from the stage, Harris has indeed lived a lifetime of music that must sometimes seem like a dream. Across 22 songs on the first of two nights at the historic downtown venue, she gave a sold-out crowd some sense of that journey.
There were tunes she sang with Gram Parsons nearly a half-decade ago, plus highlights from the 1970s solo albums that found Emmylou coming into her own. She gave a nod to Texas with songs by Townes Van Zandt (“Pancho & Lefty”) and Billy Joe Shaver (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”), plus the beautiful “Love and Happiness” co-written with Austin’s Kimmie Rhodes. And she turned frequently to the significant catalog she’s amasses as a songwriter in her later years with albums such as “Red Dirt Girl,” “Stumble Into Grace” and “Hard Bargain.”
The wide-career overview also allowed for an appreciation of the many sounds and styles Harris has brought into her own identity as a musician. Those early country-rock explorations with Parsons were readily apparent on “Luxury Liner” and “Wheels,” but Harris never allowed herself to be typecast or tied to any one genre. The more mystical work with Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn a couple of decades ago got plenty of play, from her rendition of Anna McGarrigle’s “Goin’ Back to Harlan” to her own mesmerizing “Michelangelo.” And a sterling solo performance of the exquisite “Prayer in Open D,” from her 1993 album “Cowgirl’s Prayer,” showed how moving Harris’s music can be when it’s reduced to just her voice and an acoustic guitar.
When she spoke between songs, the spirit was conversational. Harris treated the audience like old friends, even specifically saying as much when she asked for forgiveness after halting the bluegrass burner “Get Up John” mid-intro because she’d forgotten to play “Wheels.” She prefaced her moving tribute “My Name Is Emmett Till” (from 2011’s “Hard Bargain”) by noting it had been inspired by an NPR report about the black teen lynched in 1955 Mississippi — making clear her sociopolitical standards by championing “that bastion of liberal bias called the truth.”
You can’t make music for half a century and not leave out some highlights. We’d have loved to hear the other Van Zandt song Harris is famous for, “If I Needed You,” in part because her duet partner on that 1981 hit, the late Don Williams, had played this theater several times in recent years. And it’s hard not to miss “Two More Bottles of Wine,” the tune by another Texan (Delbert McClinton) that became Harris’s first chart-topping single in 1978.
It’s possible those songs or others might get played on Sunday, as examinations of recent Harris set lists suggests she mixes things up with regularity. (To wit: Saturday’s set featured only four songs in common with her last full Austin concert, a June 2013 appearance at ACL Live.)
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Harris gratefully acknowledged the support of her band with a mid-set introduction: mandolinist/fiddler Eamon McLoughlin (a former Austinite during his tenure with the Greencards), electric guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboardist/accordionist Phil Madeira, bassist Chris Donohue and drummer Bryan Owings. Quoting Willie Nelson’s famous line about “making music with my friends,” she gave thanks for the opportunity to lead this life she’s loved. Soon she’ll be on the road again, but Sunday she’ll be back at the Paramount, for one more night in Austin.
1. Here I Am
2. Orphan Girl
3. Love and Happiness
4. Red Dirt Girl
5. Making Believe
6. Big Black Dog
7. O Evangeline
8. Born to Run
9. My Name Is Emmett Till
10. Raise the Dead
11. Luxury Liner
12. Prayer in Open D
13. Pancho & Lefty
15. Goin’ Back to Harlan
16. Old Five and Dimers Like Me
18. Get Up John
19. Shores of White Sand
20. The Pearl
21. Bright Morning Stars
22. Boulder to Birmingham
READ MORE: Our full guide to live music in Austin this summer