She was already Queen of Americana music. Then came ‘O Brother Where Art Thou.’

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A flashback of a flashback.

The time: May 2000. The setting: Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium. The occasion: An all-star gathering of Americana and bluegrass giants celebrating the almost religiously antique music they had been summoned to create by T-Bone Burnett for the Coen Brothers’ Homeric film odyssey “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The film’s soundtrack album would go on to sell over eight million copies, hit the top of the all-genre Billboard 200 chart and win three major Grammy Awards including the top prize of Album of the Year.

The record and “Down from the Mountain,” a documentary of the subsequent tour celebrating it (which opened here in Lexington at Rupp Arena,) were also bold reminders of a time when country music was concerned with more than beer and beach-combing.

Emmylou Harris will play the Kentucky Theatre on May 23.
Emmylou Harris will play the Kentucky Theatre on May 23.

During a concert intermission at the Ryman concert, the film focuses in on Emmylou Harris. Quiet and regal as honored peers like Gillian Welch gather around her, Harris strums the opening verse to “Red Dirt Girl.” The tune is as soulful as the hymns and generations-old pre-bluegrass country songs the rest of the celebrity cast were bringing to life onstage. But “Red Dirt Girl” is one of Harris’ own works, a sterling snapshot of Southern heritage that, three months down the road, would serve as the title tune to her 19th studio album.

What is stunning about this film interlude isn’t so much how timeless “Red Dirt Girl” sounds amid all of the time-cherished songs on the program, but how modestly royal Harris seems in this company, onstage and off. There is no ego, but rather a sense of worldliness from an artist who hasn’t just seen and heard it all when it comes to the roots of country and Americana music, but has lived it.

And this was nearly 25 years ago.

When Harris returns to Lexington this week for May 23 performance at the Kentucky Theatre, she will, at age 77, stand as an uncontested monarch for the music and culture she represents.

Is there a more lasting and inspirational female artist in Americana music today? Not likely. Is there a more lasting and inspirational male artist? Even less likely. Many have had greater commercial visibility, but few have stood so firmly for not only country’s tradition, but also its healthy stylistic development.

Long live the queen.

Teaming with Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs

Harris first grabbed headlines in the early ’70s under the tutelage of Gram Parsons, a young musical renegade who offered up a somewhat hippie-fied variation of country tradition with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and on his own. His solo career, with Harris as a vital protégé, would prove brief. Parsons died of a morphine/alcohol overdose in 1973 at the age of 26.

While an independent 1969 release titled “Gliding Bird” served as her first record, critics, fans and even Harris herself have viewed 1975’s “Pieces of the Sky” as her true debut record. The song sources shifted from Merle Haggard to Shel Silverstein to The Louvin Brothers — yet the stunner was Harris’ requiem for Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham.” The song still figures prominently in her concert repertoire to this day.

Harris’ string of remarkable recordings echoing country’s roots-savvy past without making it seem antiquated would extend well into the 1980s. With it came several editions of her Hot Band, an aptly named troupe that boasted such journeymen as Rodney Crowell, James Burton and Kentucky native Ricky Skaggs.

Emmylou Harris will play the Kentucky Theatre on May 23.
Emmylou Harris will play the Kentucky Theatre on May 23.

“Pieces of the Sky” and its mid ’70s follow-ups, “Elite Hotel” and “Luxury Liner,” were revolutionary. They built upon Parson’s revisionist ideas but embraced every musical inspiration that ignited them. She could ride the crest of the merriest swing outbreaks, dip into the deepest crevices of a honky tonk reverie and summon a level of vocal drama within a ballad — whether it echoed Patsy Cline or The Beatles — with the ease and precision of a true classicist.

As is often the case with innovators of this order, Harris would vary the stylistic trajectory of her music through the years.

In 1992, she gathered together some of the most progressive minded string pickers of the era — including another Kentucky favorite, Sam Bush — to form the all-acoustic Nash Ramblers. The band’s subsequent concert recording, “At the Ryman,” gave her license to provide a bluegrass derived cast to tunes by everyone from Stephen Foster to Bruce Springsteen.

A scant four years later, Harris plugged in big time by recruiting famed producer Daniel Lanois for the eclectic, electric and highly atmospheric “Wrecking Ball.”

“At the Ryman” and “Wrecking Ball” would both go on to win Grammy Awards — two of the 14 Harris has accumulated through her career.

Collaborations with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams

What is perhaps most remarkable, though, was the company Harris continued to keep. Few artists in any genre or generation have been so open to collaboration. A partial list of the notables she has recorded with: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and probably a hundred more representing varying shades of familiarity.

Not surprisingly, some of her greatest successes have been in the company of high-profile friends. Among them were multi-platinum selling records with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (1987’s “Trio”) and guitarist/songsmith Mark Knopfler (2006’s “All the Roadrunning”). In fact, one of the most notable of Harris’ many concert visits to Lexington through the decades was a January 2008 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts alongside Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller.

Harris’ most recent local performance was also collaborative: A November 2015 Opera House concert with Hot Band alumnus and champion songwriter Rodney Crowell. Harris sheepishly remarked at the concert’s onset that the folk-informed nature of the program was centered on “sad, depressing songs.” Crowell elaborated: “It’s kind of our forte.”

Harris hasn’t released an album since “The Traveling Kind” in 2015, the second of two duet albums with Crowell, although her professional life has been anything but stagnant. Her recent concerts still sport a panoramic view of works by such masterful artists as Parsons, Knopfler, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Paul Simon and Townes Van Zandt, as well as her own sublime works. A particular favorite that still pops up in her setlists: “Tulsa Queen,” a classic train song Harris penned with Crowell that glides with a rich, lonesome country elegance. The song closed what remains, to these ears, Harris’ greatest album, 1976’s “Luxury Liner.”

Offstage, Harris’ most visible passion remains Bonaparte’s Retreat, a nonprofit rescue organization she founded two decades ago to provide homes for shelter dogs in Nashville and surrounding areas with emphasis on aiding senior and large dogs along with those in need of medical attention — or as the organization’s website terms them, “the neglected and forgotten.”As for being an active artist after five-plus decades, Harris appears remarkably steadfast. When asked in a 2013 New York Times interview if there was anything she valued about getting older, Harris replied, “You mean like getting into movies cheaper?”

Her elaboration: “I don’t know if we get wiser, but we have more experiences under our belt. I think maybe your sense of humor gets more intense as you look at the world from a little bit of a distance. I’m just too busy living every day to really spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Am I old?’ I’m this age. I am in this moment and in this life.”

Emmylou Harris

When: May 23, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main

Tickets: $125.50 at

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