Virginia-raised Emmylou Harris made her debut at the Longhorn Ballroom on Saturday night. And also very proud.
Reminding fans that he was once declared an honorary Texan, he delved into the Lone Star songbook and performed songs by half a dozen Texan songwriters, from Nancy Griffiths to Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt.
"I love Willie Nelson so much," she said, introducing Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty, which was a big hit for Nelson. "But I just want to say that I was the first person to record this song."
Laughter, a common sound in the 90-minute shoot, peppered with self-deprecating quips and strings. Harris enjoyed playing the spirited clown on stage, a clever way to contrast a repertoire full of melancholy.
At 76, his voice was almost perfect, but still had a hoarse, weak tone. She's an accomplished singer, not fit for pop radio, who never really caught on. It does not matter. Harris' voice has always been a voice unto itself. On Saturdays, when she whispers sad words, the sopranos shine like a rusted feather.
His longtime backing musician, the Red Dirt Boys, was just as exciting. The members kept changing instruments until they became a bluegrass band capable of playing Bill Monroe ("Get Up, John") and Irish-style fiddle tunes ("All the Roadrunning" by Mark Knopfler) .
Phil Madeira is incredibly versatile, bringing Graham Parsons' "Ooh Las Vegas" to life with languid piano and softening the dark edges of Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" with live accordion. But the star of the group is former Hot Band bandmate Steve Fishel, whose dobro and steel guitar solos rarely impress.
Harris spent most of his 55-year career as a songwriter. But some of the show's highlights came with two of his compositions from 2000's Red Dirt Girl : "Michelangelo" and the album's title track, a song that rivals Van Zandt's darkest work.
As he told fans, he doesn't write many songs. But when it does, it's the guards.
Harris' show — his first from a two-day platform — was the first show since the Longhorn Ballroom reopened in late March. As you'd expect from a venue run by Edwin Cabaniss and the rest of the team behind Oak Cliff's excellent Kessler Theater, the Longhorn is a fun place to party.
On a five-foot stage, you can actually see the performers clearly, which isn't always the case in music venues. The building, which opened in 1950 as the Bob Wills Ranch House, had visibility obstructed by foundation columns but was of interest to only a handful of spectators.
The acoustics are better than one would expect in a large rectangular room with lots of hard surfaces. However, as with any place with a bar within an actual concert hall, there were loud people talking in the back bar and adjacent gallery area of the museum on the Saturday.
There was a small problem with the air conditioner, with very few pockets the room was so cold it was uncomfortable. Glare was also an issue, with platform lights illuminating some of the common areas near the entrance and video screens on either side of the stage interrupting fans during the performance with "Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys." Apparently we didn't know who we were going to meet.
But most of these things can be easily fixed. With capacities of 1,000 and 2,000, the Longhorn competes against similarly sized music venues in Dallas – a long list that includes the House of Blues, Granada Theatre, Echo Lounge & Music Hall and The Factory's studio.
In a city that tends to be intimidated by its past, the renovated Longhorn Ballroom is a welcome new/old addition to the concert scene.