"She lets you go where the music goes," says former Emmylou band member Buddy Miller. "When you get hired by her, she hires you to do what you do. She doesn't hire you to learn everybody else's licks that they've played just because it's become part of a song, part of a record."
This year, Harris offers a stripped-down version of her sound, touring with the simple backing trio of Mary Ann Kennedy on mandolin and percussion, Pam Rose on guitar and John Prine sideman Dave Jacques on bass. Kennedy and Rose have been with Harris off and on since the '80s. Rose and Kennedy, formerly of the group Calamity Jane, had just written Lee Greenwood's Grammy-nominated song "Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands" when they were chosen as background singers with Harris' Hot Band for 1985's Ballad of Sally Rose tour. Harris has been calling on the pair for gigs ever since.
"We did a bunch of neat, special stuff with her over the years. It's been a cool honor, a cool relationship," Kennedy says from Nashville. That "special stuff" has included playing with Harris for Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies and President Clinton's inauguration in 1997, as well as several symphony gigs. They've handled background vocal duties on several records, too. Harris took the duo back on the road after seeing them perform with Rosanne Cash on Austin City Limits in the '90s. "After that, Emmy just said, 'OK, God, I just realized how much I've missed you guys, the sound,'" Kennedy says. "We're like the bookends. It's just a very magical blend."
The Raleigh stop is the first one on this tour, but Kennedy already has some favorites from rehearsals. "Cup Of Kindness," "Red Dirt Girl" and "All I Left Behind" make her great list, but for her "Evangeline," an old Robbie Robertson tune "is a work of art." Otherwise, material runs the gamut, from The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance" to and O Brother Where Art Thou's"Nothing But the Baby."
"But a whole lot of the stuff is her favorite self-penned songs that have been so based in female harmonies," Kennedy says. "She really hasn't had that--those voices out with her, in the last few years."
Kennedy believes the Rose-Kennedy backing beats out Harris' trio work with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. She has more air and a rounder sound than Ronstadt, she says
"I mean, really, as magical and wonderful as their work was together, it wasn't around the vocal talent as much as it was three friends," Kennedy says. "So we just feel very fortunate. We all appreciate how fateful it all feels."
Emmylou Harris plays Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh on Friday, March 17 at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $40.