Emmylou Harris was on the phone from Nashville, where just days before a man walked into a church and shot eight people, killing one.
“These crazy people,” she said, quietly. “Guns everywhere.”
She was eager to talk about healing, and helping — something the 13-time Grammy winner and country legend is doing with Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees, which will land at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on October 3.
The shows are being produced by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), in partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The goal is to raise awareness and money for educational programs for displaced people and to help refugees “heal, learn and thrive,” according to the JRS.
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The tour will stop in eight cities with a rotating group of Grammy-winning performers that includes Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin and Dave Matthews (who will all play in Seattle), as well as Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, Joan Baez, The Mastersons, Alynda Segarra, James McMurtry and Lila Downs.
“Steve is our captain,” Harris said of Earle. “He writes about the world, he writes about injustice. And so it was great when we found out he could do the tour.”
The artists sit in a semi-circle on the stage and perform in a round-robin way.
“First of all, you get to sit down, which is enjoyable,” said Harris, who is now 70. “I have bad knees.”
Harris is never sure what they’re going to play from one night to the next.
“The thing about this format, you almost don’t decide before the show,” she said. “There’s a spontaneity to it. It’s always different.
“You’re experiencing the same music as the audience. It’s like you’re at a show and you have the best seat in the house.”
This is the second time that Harris has gathered a group of musician friends to play for a greater purpose.
In the late Nineties, her friend Gail Griffith — now the executive director of the JRS Global Education Initiative — got her involved in the effort to ban landmines in Southeast Asia. For four years, Harris held a series of small, intimate acoustic concerts in the U.S., Canada and Europe that raised millions of dollars — and awareness — for the cause.
“I believe people really have a desire of doing something really deep, a sense of compassion, and they want to help,” Harris said. “I think that most artists who are successful enough and lucky enough, they really want to give back.”
At home in Nashville, Harris is devoted to Bonaparte’s Retreat, an animal shelter she established and named for the dog she owned for a decade, and who died in 2002. She is also involved with Crossroads, a non-profit that pairs at-risk youth with shelter dogs.
She’s also working on a memoir.
“I get started and I’m going great guns and then they dangle a tour in front of me,” she said. “I’ll get back to it this fall.”
For now, she is eager to get on the road and help a group of people she met last summer during a visit to Rome, where some have resettled, and Ethiopia.
“I was warned that I would come back depressed,” Harris said. “But what I witnessed was so much hope and possibility. They hadn’t been destroyed by forces beyond their control. They still believe there is a life for them. So I came back quite energized.”
It’s likely Harris will have to tour again to raise more money for more displaced people.
“But I also hope that there will be a day when we don’t have a need to go out because there won’t be refugees anymore. Wouldn’t that be great? We’ll just do it for fun.”