Each year the Brevard Music Center adds one or more “Variations” concerts to the schedule. The concept is “to present select artists and entertainers from other musical genres…, a variation on the core classical programs BMC offers throughout the season.” Such variations set the entire curriculum in relief and perhaps provide some real relief for all the hard-working campers and musicians.

This year, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder launched the festival (on June 17), and the second of two “Variations” programs was given on July 12 by veteran pop singer Emmylou Harris, who was the headliner appearing on the main W-P Auditorium stage with Buddy Miller. The concert was sponsored by Fletcher (NC) BMW and the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation. Take 5 (the Asheville Citizen Times online) was the official media sponsor.

Some measure of the night could be taken from the general scene at 7:50 p.m. and the sheer number of people milling about in relaxed fashion – it was very unlike the art music scene. At 8:05 there was, over the PA system, music (with drums) – sort of countrified eclectic; and even though the main lights flashed at 8:10, cars were still streaming in the entrance road. The Bell Ringer started at the top of the hour and again at five after – and then gave up when it was clear nothing would start until the main roads showed some relief.

Buddy Miller opened the show. He is Harris’ long-time sidekick, guitar player, and vocal accompanist, with a sharply clear tenor voice and quasi-country style and timbre. Playing a newly strung six-string western-style guitar, his act is straight stand-up, sing to the mic, and tap the toes. Many selections were from his Grammy-nominated Universal United House of Prayer (http://www.newwestrecords.com/home_noflash.php [inactive 11/05]), produced in May 2004. Miller told the story of anticipating the Grammy Awards celebration because he had attended on a previous occasion and the food was really good; he didn’t expect to win but was really looking forward to the food. His music is sort of country/folk/rock/hip/blues of the singer-songwriter genre but dating from before that term became popular. Emmylou Harris joined him on stage for “Higher Power” and “Nobody Told Me About This Part,” both foot-tapping, quasi-gospel-energy good-spirit revelations on work as life.

Harris has called Miller “one of the best guitar players of all time,” which at face value is an awfully reckless thing to say in public. Throughout the period of her own career, standards of guitar playing have evolved to levels never even conceived before 1965, and the quote puts Miller under enormous pressure. Besides, we’re here in North Carolina where the density of big-time front-porch old-timey, new-time, bluegrass, new-grass, folk, countrified, pop, rock, and classical guitar players is pretty scary. Nothing against Buddy at all, but there are less stressful ways to reward a band mates’ loyalty while complimenting their solo career.

At intermission we got our first good look at this audience. As one Brevard-based scholar noted, it was “not exactly the chamber music set.” Mixed in with the older-demographic season-ticket holders were many cowboy hats and low-cut gingham dresses, all accompanied by a breezy nonchalance toward schedule and protocol. In fact quite a few beat-generation holdouts and hippies from the medicated 60s live in this region (due to the alleged existence of a large crystal and its undeniable healing powers, located in the earth immediately below Asheville). Many people who attended this concert would otherwise never see BMC. Folding chairs fanned out both sides on the lawn, which is allowed for modest prices when a concert is sold out, and those lawn sites were at a premium due to the wet effects of former hurricane Dennis.

Emmylou Harris took the stage alone at 9:45 p.m. but was joined at mid-song by Buddy Miller, accompanying on electric guitar. It is this duo that played until 11:00 p.m.; it was a show of professional pace. Her set was 22 songs and included a reunion with Fayssoux Starling (now McLean) of nearby Spartanburg, SC, a singing partner from Emmylou’s first six recordings. There was also one occasional egg-shaker percussion roadie, and one guitar tech ferrying instruments on and off the stage between songs, acting with efficient movements resulting from years of repetition. The performers used their own stage monitors while playing through an excellent house system.

It is within this frame that we heard songs of sad, depressing, and dark subjects sung by a stylist whose opaque image is so fragile it’s nearly translucent. Her breathy falsetto, virtually a whisper, has a dusty, almost ancient quality, and the clear but often distant soprano seems constantly to border on failure without ever collapsing. As result there is tension. Her diminuendo does not come from the technique of gradually backing away from the microphone but is simply reduced by controlled airflow. Her act is a holdover from the folk-diva era and is certainly made more significant by familiarity with her core works and hits. The audience often responded with applause and cheers at the beginning of songs. In fact, Harris belongs in a quartet of women (it includes Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins) whose diversity and talents shaped folk music in and around the 70s with songs of conscience, honesty, protest, and unrequited love. All four women have, at one time or another, demonstrated the same “genre-transcending pathfinder” characteristics attributed to Harris by Billboard Magazine.

Toward the end of the concert there was a power failure. Quickly Harris quipped, “Talk about getting the hook!” She then recounted a story of performing for a television special at an outdoor facility. She had planned three songs but in the middle of second one she noticed a technician out in the audience with a big sign reading “GET OFF THE STAGE.” Her most famous screen appearance is in The Last Waltz, performing with The Band and a galaxy of rock stars.

Harris’ current performing schedule ranges from small venues to private performances for small groups (150 people) benefiting special causes to a recent festival booking (with other acts) in Winnipeg, Canada, in front of 15,000. The BMC experience reminded crewmembers of performing at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and Music Camp in Michigan. “It’s the same kind of easy vibe – an open air hall, kids outside practicing during our sound check, a nice easy feeling. A good scene.”

Rhino Records will soon release a “Best of” CD, a “comprehensive single-disc collection span[ing] Emmylou’s career with 20 tracks” that will be a must for any EH fan; see http://www.rhinorecords.com/store/ProductDetail.lasso?Number=73123 [inactive 11/05].

Oh, they were driving a long-chassis Prevost motor home with Oregon plates. $KaChing$! And so much for Joe Hill….