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Rooted in Country: Shawn Colvin on Emmylou Harris' 'Sleepless Nights'

Deidre Schoo

Since the release of her 1989 album Steady On, Shawn Colvin has been captivating audiences with her strikingly honest and powerful lyrics. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter recently released an acoustic rendition of her debut album, which introduced the Austin, Texas-based artist to fans of both folk rockers and country fans raised on the hard-won lyrics of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.

While Colvin ruled the pop charts with hits like "Sunny Came Home," a song from her 1996 album A Few Small Repairs, she's long been a country fan at heart. Colvin says there was one country artist in particular that was particularly influential: Emmylou Harris.

"I didn't really hear country music growing up. Dad loved The Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger, and mom loved soundtracks. And of course, there was church music," Colvin tells Wide Open Country. "When I was 20, a boyfriend of mine sat me down and put Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris on the turntable; The Return Of The Grievous Angel. By this time I knew some Merle, and George and Tammy and Willie, of course, and I loved all of them. But Gram and Emmylou, boy, they rocketed me right into the fold at warp speed. Emmylou Harris. Who was this chick? How could anybody sing that impossibly well?  I'd never heard anyone like her, still haven't, and don't expect to. Emmylou and Gram put country music on the map for me. All I wanted in the world was to sing like Emmylou Harris. Grievous Angel came out in '74. And in '75 Emmy released her first solo record, Pieces of the Sky. I got lost in it." 

Colvin says Harris' "Sleepless Nights," a heartbreaker penned by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, stands out as a breathtaking and haunting vocal performance by Harris.

"'Sleepless Nights' was the track that destroyed me. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote this simple, crushing ballad about heartbreak so torturous that sleep, a blessed respite from the pain, is totally evasive. When Emmy sings, 'Oh, these sleepless nights will break my heart in two,' I'm drawn entirely into my own gut recollection of being haunted and broken by lost love during the middle of the endless, dark nights. Emmylou's voice actually embodies the experience, she is that feeling. That's great and rare singing. It defies analysis. It is only pure emotion through sound. Emmylou Harris does that." 

In the decades since she first fell in love with the music of Emmylou Harris, Colvin has shared the stage with her idol on numerous occasions, touring with Harris, Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin as part of the Three Girls and Their Buddy Tour. But despite how close she is to the country legend, Colvin says she'll still never cover "Sleepless Nights." It's too special.

"I love to learn my favorite songs and, if I think I've captured something, I might play one during a concert. 'Sleepless Nights' is a song I will never try to sing," Colvin says. "Emmylou's delivery of it is sacred to me. There are some things you just don't mess with."

Colvin will hit the road with Mary Chapin Carpenter this fall. See below for a full list of upcoming tour dates.

Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin: Together on Stage! Tour Dates:

Oct. 9 -- Denver, CO -- The Paramount
Oct. 10 -- Kansas City, MO -- Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts
Oct. 11 -- Des Moines, IA -- Hoyt Sherman Place
Oct. 12 -- Saint Paul, MN -- The O'Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University
Oct. 13 -- Madison, WI -- Overture Center for the Arts
Oct. 15 -- Ann Arbor, MI -- Michigan Theater
Oct. 16 -- Toronto, Canada -- The Royal Conservatory of Music
Oct. 17 -- Pittsburgh, PA -- Byham Theater
Oct. 18 -- Chicago, IL -- Athenaeum Theatre
Oct. 19 -- Springfield, OH -- Clark State Performing Arts Center
Oct. 20 -- Carmel, IN -- the Palladium Center for Performing Arts
Nov. 6 -- Boston, MA -- The Wilbur
Nov. 7 -- Princeton, NJ -- McCarter Theatre Center
Nov. 8 -- Alexandria, VA -- Birchmere
Nov. 9 -- Alexandria, VA -- Birchmere
Nov. 10 -- Alexandria, VA -- Birchmere
Nov. 11 -- Lynchburg, VA -- Academy of Music Historic Theatre
Nov. 13 -- Nashville, TN -- Ryman Auditorium
Nov. 14 -- Durham, NC -- Carolina Theatre of Durham
Nov. 15 -- Charleston, SC -- Charleston Music Hall
Nov. 16 -- Atlanta, GA -- Buckhead Theater  
Nov. 17 -- Birmingham, AL -- UAB's Stephens Center  
Dec. 4 -- Scottsdale, AZ -- Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts  
Dec. 5 -- Escondido, CA -- California Center for the Arts  
Dec. 6 -- Thousand Oaks, CA -- The Thousand Oaks Arts Plaza  
Dec. 7 -- Monterey, CA -- Golden State Theatre
Dec. 8 -- Davis, CA -- The Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Dec. 10 -- Corvallis, OR -- The LaSells Stewart Center  
Dec. 11 -- Seattle, WA -- Benaroya Hall
Dec. 12 -- Portland, OR -- Revolution Hall    
Dec. 13 -- Chico, CA -- Laxson Auditorium
Dec. 14 -- San Francisco, CA -- Palace of Fine Arts  
April 25 -- Florence, SC -- Frances Marion University Performing Arts Center*
* Shawn Colvin Solo

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Rooted in Country: Shawn Colvin on Emmylou Harris' 'Sleepless Nights'