33 years ago I came to Montana and fell in love with the both of you—the big sky and your voice. Fresh out of Germany, I found myself dirt poor living in a primitive cabin on a million dollar view mountainside, trying to make a go at a rough life with a mountain man. It was rough, all right, but the mountain man had a small collection of records and a pretty nice, recently purchased stereo system, and one of the albums was fresh off the press, Profile by Emmylou Harris.
It was a great era for music and there were other amazing albums in the collection, Loggins and Messina, Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, Bonnie Raitt, hey, it was 1979! But your album I listened to the most. Trying to wrap my brain around what I was experiencing, looking at that vast, wild, beautiful Montana landscape. It was overwhelming, so big, so new, so raw, so ridiculously unsafe, so uncharted. It's not that I was scared, I was too taken in by the adventure but I didn't quite know how to process it, what did it all mean, was I just a kid rebelling against growing up, was I romanticizing an immature need to prove myself? It was all of the above, I am sure, but there was more to the story. Your album was my favorite, it tugged at my heart so much that I made a rule not to listen to it all the time. It became my gem, my treat, to be treasured and listened to only once in a while, to keep it fresh. At the time, I didn't really understand why it moved me so deeply, as a student in Germany I had listened to cool urban jazzy stuff like Steely Dan or Weather Report. But there it was, your album, always beckoning me, with a full sized picture of your beautiful face, your long dark flowing hair.
My life at that time was an experiment at proving the rules of my upbringing wrong. Yes, I can survive in a frigid wilderness without indoor plumbing and a long-term game plan. Yes, I can make do without a washing machine. But again, there was more to the story. I loved it. Crystal clear ice-cold winter mornings, my breath steaming in sub-zero temperature, my big sorrel boots crunching through the frozen snow on the way to the water spigot, getting ready to make hot strong coffee on the little built-in wooden table in the cabin. You look up and see the vast snow-covered mountain landscape glowing in the pink sunrise with the promise of a brilliantly sparkling winter day, air so cold it freezes the inside of your nose on each breath and you draw the scarf tighter around your face. Or the Montana summers, the sweet smells, the water rippling over rocks, the shades of green, the vast blue sky broken up by the most amazing sets of clouds, the sleek deer feasting on the new grass, the eagles circling in the sky. Your senses can't take it all in, how can someone so insignificant witness so much beauty.
Best you can do is surrender to it.
To all of it, not just the pretty stuff. The pretty stuff has a price. There's not much money. There's hardship. Cold causes physical pain. Your car gets stuck in the snow. You don't know if you'll make it home safe. Driving on the ice can kill you. You witness the animals suffer in the winter. There's undeniable death.
The perfect sound-track to all this has been your voice, all these years. A voice of heart-breaking beauty and surrender to the mystery of this existence. Sweet and mournful at the same time. Translucent like the Montana air. Sweeping emotion that seems to stream through the valleys and echo off the mountain ridges. At times gentle and breathy, but then your voice hits that sublime edge, it pushes you right up to the limit of what you can endure, like Montana does, right up to where you run out of words, and, if you can take it and you dare, you surrender.
Fast forward 33 years. Red Ants Pants Festival. I had come early to make sure I'd get a spot close to the stage. I ended up in the second row, only about 15 feet from where her microphone was set up. The band was doing sound checks, the rag-tag-sun-baked-midsummer-night-Montana-music-festival crowd around me happy, exchanging excited glances and big smiles. I was just wondering who was going to do the big intro when she comes walking right up to the microphone, right up towards where I'm standing, tiny framed, her unmistakable long silver hair gently blowing in the wind, faded jeans, moccasin boots, colorful hippie shirt and a knee-length wool jacket, grabbing her guitar and giving us a good look-over. "How're you doing?'" she asks with her actual Emmylou-Harris-voice and a warm smile. We all yell back trying to convey that we really couldn't possibly be any better right now and the woman right in front of me calls out to her happily: "How're you doin' Emmylou?" We're all just like a bunch of good old friends. Beaming faces all around. She says something about how we had stuck it out through some severe weather. And then she just starts playing. I soak up being so close, how beautiful she is, how easy and relaxed she meshes with the band, how she becomes one with her voice, how she moves with the music. When she steps aside with two guys in the band to sing a heart-breaking harmony about her children living so far away, I'm not the only one crying. Everyone around me is a wreck. And then I see Emmylou wiping her own face as she walks back to the center mike. This is the moment I give up my great spot to find Eric. Need someone to hug me, bad! In the meantime, Emmylou gets Rodney Crowell back on stage, the one who first sang with her on the profile album. They have a great banter, she's telling him how she just knew he'd get famous with that voice, and he says he kind of needed to ripen a little first. How they love what they do. How they just are what they do. At the end of the concert, Emmylou brings her big black dog on the stage. It's all about love and taking care of each other. What joy, and what a magician she is. And how happy I am for that moment.