Three Americana legends – lifelong friends Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell – lifted the pandemic gloom when they performed live on the Grand Ole Opry on the first day of August.
The musical history and rich friendship the trio share meant there was probably no better combination to mark the 4,925th consecutive Saturday show in Opry history – albeit to a live audience of zero.
"I met Emmylou and Rodney when I was 19. I don't have two better friends in the world,” Gill said. Harris added: “There’s nothing better than singing with old and dear friends, especially if those friends happen to be Rodney and Vince.”
Crowell wrote one of Emmylou’s early hits “Bluebird Wine” and would become a member of her star-studded Hot Band in the 1970’s before becoming a solo star himself. The duo renewed their musical collaboration this century with two acclaimed albums Old Yellow Moon (2013) and The Traveling Kind (2015).
Gill’s relationship with Emmylou and Rodney is just as entrenched. When Rodney left the Hot Band in 1977, he started up The Cherry Bombs, which Vince soon joined.
And in the 80’s Vince appeared prominently on the Harris albums The Ballad of Sally Rose, Thirteen and Angel Band.
Many regard Gill and Harris as having the finest voices of their genders in Nashville today. “Emmy and Vince? Hmm ... With those voices, maybe I’ll have a chance if we’re wearing masks,” quipped Crowell.
But indeed it was the Rodney Crowell-penned songs which dominated the hour-long set which was streamed live in addition to the radio and television broadcasts.
It was an all-acoustic arrangement, with just one backing artist – British fiddle and mandolin player Eamon McLoughlin. The stars each kicked off with solo number.
After thanking the Grand Ole Opry for “keeping the tradition alive” in troubled times, Harris led the way with the Louvin Brothers classic “If I could Only Win Your Love” off her album Pieces of Sky. In fact, it was a song Harris actually performed with Charlie Louvin on her Grand Old Opry debut back in 1975.
Then Vince did “Oklahoma Borderline,” a song he co-wrote with Crowell and the late Guy Clark, another of the trio’s oldest friends.
When it was Rodney’s turn, he quipped: “I hope I can remember the words. My songs have been socially distancing from me.” He had no such problems, with a stunning rendition of “Still Learning How to Fly,” soothed nicely by McLaughlin’s fiddle.
Rodney and Emmy were soon a duet again, performing the title track from Old Yellow Moon, a “song about people you love.”
Gill then honoured Rodney’s upcoming 70th birthday with a magical performance of the Crowell classic “Song for The Life.” And there was a particularly poignant moment when Emmy and Rodney harmonised with: And somehow I learned how to listen/For a sound like the sun going down.
Emmy and Rodney hammered out an energetic “Bluebird Wine” before it was all hands on deck- fiddle and all - for “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a song dedicated to artist/songwriter Suzanna Clark, late wife of Guy.
Gill kept the Crowell-song streak going with “Till I Can Gain Control Again,” Rodney’s most beautiful love song and probably his most covered. For Vince it “was a song which bonded a friendship of 44 years.” Rodney contributed a verse and, after a moment’s hesitation Emmy chimed in with one of Americana’s great chorus lines: Out on the road that lies before me now/There are some times when I will spin/I only hope that you can hold me now/Til I can gain control again.
The “love fest” ended, as it started, with yet another Crowell song – the Cajun cracker “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Harris took lead vocals and McLoughlin, who had been keeping a respectful social distance behind the trio, made his presence felt with a spirited fiddle riff.
As the Grand Ole Opry approaches its 95th year, this particular performance, in such unique circumstances, can be regarded as one of its finest hours. Its musical heritage has certainly survived this pandemic.
Editor – Crossroads Americana Music Appreciation