Emmylou Harris is very close to sainthood status in my book. Not only does she sing like an angel and uphold all that is honest and true in America’s musical roots, now she has leant her voice and her celebrity to a noble cause of worldwide scope. She organized a group of like-minded musicians to perform a series of concerts in December 1999 to benefit the Nobel Peace Prize winning Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
This sampler from Vanguard presents 11 tracks from the concert series, from which the artists are donating all royalties; Vanguard too is donating a portion of its proceeds to the campaign.
As with any tribute or benefit collection, this one has its highs and lows. It’s worth the price for the first and last tracks alone, though.
Emmylou opens things with a heartbreaking rendition of “The Pearl,” from her 2000 Nonesuch release Red Dirt Girl. This one, though, is a straightforward acoustic version, and its impact is all the greater for the lack of the heavy-handed production that it received on the studio release. Harris’ voice alternately soars and cracks and whispers on such memorable lines as these from the final bridge: “Like falling stars from the universe, we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl … ”
Harris’ Nashville neighbor Steve Earle has the honor of bookmarking the other end of the disc with a similarly moving rendition of his “Christmas in Washington,” with its chorus of “Come back Woody Guthrie/Come back to us now/Tear your eyes from paradise/and rise again somehow.”
In between are offerings from folk and country stalwarts John Prine, Guy Clark, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Kris Kristofferson and Terry Allen.
Prine lightens things up after Harris’ opener with an avuncular rendition of “Big Old Goofy World,” and Clark is similarly entertaining with his “Cold Dog Soup,” accompanied by the estimable Verlon Thompson. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ballad “This Shirt” is a sentimental evocation of life’s pleasures and regrets as recalled by an old and threadbare but still favorite garment, delivered in her warm style. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings turn in a picture-perfect reading of their sardonic “Morphine.” It’s a wonder how these two can pack so much dramatic and musical tension into such an apparently languid performance, but they’re masters at it. Patty Griffin pulls out all the stops on “Mary,” her tribute to all the mothers of the world who pick up the pieces.
Cockburn and Griffith both get a little preachy, as is their wont. They’re the only artists to directly address the subject of the benefit concert, Cockburn with “The Mines of Mozambique” and Griffith with “It’s a Hard Life.” They both seem to be singing down to their audience, but if you’re a fan, you’ll probably have no complaints. And there’s no arguing with their message, particularly Griffith’s: “If we poison our children with hatred … there’ll be no place where children can go.”
Vanguard was a little stingy with this release, which barely clocks in at 55 minutes, and with information on the performances. The liner notes don’t reveal who is accompanying or singing with whom. There are no revelations or surprises here, just a disc of solid country and folk in the service of a good cause.