"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." -- Mahatma Gandhi
A month or so ago, when it was announced that Emmylou Harris would be presenting a benefit performance, along with John Prine and some unnamed friends, for Bonaparte's Retreat Dog Rescue at Nashville's City Winery on January 22, I cancelled my other gig and immediately made my reservations. Her benefit performances are always special.
As she does at the beginning of each benefit show, Harris says a few words about Bonaparte's Retreat and a sister organization, Crossroads Campus. There was also a short film shown about one-third though the show.
In case you are unaware, the Retreat is dedicated to providing nurturing care for adoptable dogs when their allotted time at the shelter has elapsed. Its stated mission is to prevent them from being euthanized and to adopt them into permanent, loving homes. Ms. Harris founded the organization when her own beloved dog and constant companion, Bonaparte, passed away. Its success inspired Harris and some friends to develop another organization, Crossroads Campus, which works with young adults who are underprivileged or aging out of the foster system and don’t have jobs or a support system to fall back on.
Following that brief inroduction, Harris began, appropriately enough, with “Big Black Dog” as Prine and Jason Wilbur looked attentively on. While the guests came and went, Harris and Prine swapped songs and stories throughout the evening.
Some were nice juxtapositions, such as Prine doing his “Big Old Goofy World” (that I often quote to children when something doesn’t make sense to them) with the lovely “Love and Happiness,” which Harris and Kimmie Rhodes wrote for their children. Both Prine and Harris also spoke not only about their children, but also about living long enough to become grandparents. The look in their eyes reminded me of the Paul Simon song, "Old Friends," with the line "How terribly strange to be seventy."
The evening was full of such touching sentiments.
Prine followed with a story about how when he was a kid he hung around older folks, listening to their stories. So much so, he said, that his ambition in life was to become one. Now he is. Those experiences undoubtedly wove themselves into songs, such as his next one, “Hello in There.” He added that it was his first song he wrote that included all the chords he knew at the time, and he was quite proud of that. I wondered, did he he ever think his songs would continue to resonate so deeply after all these years?
There was also an extra chair on stage right, empty until Sheryl Crow made her appearance doing one solo and two duets with Harris, including Gram Parson’s “Juanita.” Prine followed with “Souvenirs,” which talks about going deeper into one’s past, what we gain, what we lose, and what’s left behind.
Next up was Mary Gauthier, who took us further into the abyss with “Mercy Now,” which is tragically more relevant now than when she first recorded it in 2005:
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it's going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now.
It brought the sold-out audience to its feet. It was one big collective hug, and a plea. This just cannot be happening.
Harris followed with some Guy Clark stories and dueted with Prine on “Magnolia Wind,” which they had done on 2011's This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. The best just kept getting better. There were no dry eyes where I was seated.
At this point Harris thanked Prine for bringing his noticeably large teleprompter (which looked like a flat screen TV) and recounted a Rodney Crowell story about when Vince Gill brought one to a mutual gig saying, “Having a friend with a teleprompter is as good as a friend with a bass boat.”
Before going into the song, Harris then told the story behind “Red Dirt Girl.” On her way to a recording session in New Orleans, she was driving through Mississippi and saw a road sign for the town of Meridian. That stuck with her. After arriving, she later saw the movie Boys Don’t Cry, whose underlying theme was young people with dead-end lives in a dead-end town. She later mused it into a song about two young women living nowhere lives, one getting out, the other not so fortunate.
To brighten things up, Harris did her best version of Iris DeMent as she went back and forth with Prine in the always spirited “In Spite of Ourselves.” Prine added that it was written for a movie he was in that went “straight to Blockbuster.” (That movie was, by the way, Daddy and Them, released in 2001, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, featuring Thornton, Andy Griffith, Laura Dern, Ben Affleck, and many more recognizable Hollywood names.)
Harris then wandered into Wrecking Ball territory with Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” before singing with Prine again in “Angel from Montgomery.” That was followed by Harris’ song for Johnny Cash, “As Long as I Live,” about which she said she later felt as if June had written it.
Then out of the wings, fresh from the Women’s March (presumably the one in Washington), came a rare appearance by Fiona Prine reprising “My Happiness” with John, as they looked lovingly into each other’s eyes, from For Better, or Worse.
Fiona remained on stage, Crow and Gauthier returned, and with Wilbur taking a verse, they closed the show with “Paradise.” It was an anthem in 197os Appalachia and unfortunately remains one now. It was one giant sing-along.
Two hours, 20 songs, two legends. It was a short drive back to the hotel on wet, near-deserted streets on a Nashville Sunday night. I had no need to seek any greater sustenance. I didn't sleep much that night either.
(Another review of a benefit performance by Emmylou Harris and friends for Bonaparte's Retreat can be found here.)