I Saw Emmylou Harris Play in a Hotel Lobby
This past weekend, my bass-playing husband and I packed up our two boys and headed west from Austin to the Kerrville Folk Festival. Kerrville — a bastion of hippie songwriter-dom — is an 18-day festival in Texas’s gorgeous hill country. Quiet Valley Ranch, where the festival takes place, is a magical RV park where songs are king for these few weeks.
This weekend, I judged the New Folk contest, where 32 finalists were culled from some 800 entrants to go head-to-head in folksinger warfare. A few lucky souls will win a coveted position as “One of the Six” winners. Though I’ve competed in the New Folk contest before as an artist, judging anything is not my style. Still, it was an honor and my solemn duty to listen to these songs and try to discern which was the crème de la crème.
My esteemed co-judges were two of the most established long time folksingers on the scene: Ellis Paul and David Wilcox. It was heartbreaking for me to have to choose, almost as heartbreaking as it was when I lost this very contest in 2007. This year’s winners — Tom Meny, Anna Tivel, Wes Collins, Amy Kucharik, Becky Warren, and David Berkeley — were the contestants whose songs showed the most vulnerable hearts. The others were equally as talented and as deserving, but alas. We were told to narrow it to six.
On Saturday, at around 3:30 p.m., due to insane amounts of torrential rain, all festivities were called of. Even heavily amplified, there was no way in hell we could have heard the New Folk contestants sing. Dalis Allen, Kerrville’s intrepid producer, often referred to as “The Empress,” had a very tough call to make. Specifically: what were they to do about the Emmylou Harris show booked for that evening?
I haven’t seen a name as big as Emmylou on the Kerrville line-up since the Indigo Girls played in 2010. As an enormous Indigo Girls fan, I sat sidestage that year during their sound check and then again during their show, tears streaming down my face when Emily Saliers sang “Southland in the Springtime.”
This year, similarly, every folk music fan within a 500-mile radius of Kerrville has been abuzz with news of Emmylou hitting the festival’s beautifully lit stage. How sad that it would turn out, on that day, central Texas was hit by feet and sheets and piles of rain, thunder, and lightning.
So, the Empress decided that the Emmylou and Rodney Crowell show could not go on. Lightning was striking at an alarming rate, and getting struck in Texas is, shockingly, not as rare as you’d think. (Once, while I sitting in an RV, I saw lightning strike another RV across the way and burn a hole in it. Thankfully, that selfsame storm quenched the fire and no one was injured.)
Anyhow, this Saturday night, I saw a tweet saying that Emmylou and Rodney were setting up to play in the lobby of the YO Hotel, where artists such as myself are accommodated during the festival. So, I packed the baby in the Ergo, my dear friend and helper Jaime grabbed my older son’s hand, and we walked into a room that housed about 200 silent people and many taxidermied animal heads (including a rather disturbing stuffed mother and baby giraffe). We made it just as the band was kicking off Lucinda William’s “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.”
The air was electric and hushed. One lone Bose tower was amplifying the music. Some of the entrants in the New Folk competition were sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the other judges — everyone a student on the same level. Emmylou played “Pancho and Lefty,” a favorite in this crowd of Townes devotees. Then came “If I Needed You,” another Van Zandt classic.
Then my three-year-old melted down and I had to call it a night. Motherhood trumped the songwriter in me; my two most treasured roles were up in arms with each other yet again.
I heard the set went on for another 90 minutes. Just as reverential as I had seen it. Each soul bore witness to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell preaching the gospel of great music.
photo by Chris Corbin