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Americana icons join forces in "Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue"

It's less than a week before the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue begins its 14-stop journey in Atlanta, and two-fifths of the featured participants are in Europe finishing a tour, one is in post-Democratic National Convention seclusion, another one is on a hush-hush photo shoot, and Buddy Miller has no idea what's going to happen.

"I don't know exactly what it is," Miller says of the event, which stops at Carowinds' Paladium Amphitheatre Friday, "I don't think any of us do. We haven't even all talked about it, let alone rehearsed...yeah, we plan to, because we want it to be, well, not too humiliating."

Despite the informal and last-minute nature, it's unlikely any of these performers are going to get humiliated -- not when your Revue includes Emmylou Harris (Democratic National Convention), Patty Griffin (photo shoot), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Europe). Along with Miller, this is a dream lineup for country-rock music fans who prefer theirs with a distinctly non-Big Hat turn.

Harris, of course, has been a country rock icon ever since her "Cosmic American Music" duets with star-crossed Gram Parsons in the early 70s, and recently released her 23rd solo record, 2003's Stumble Into Grace. Blessed with a gossamer singing voice, she is rightly considered country rock royalty, but has also proven perfectly adept at a myriad of other styles. Griffin is fast becoming one of the most critically acclaimed of the new Americana singers, and her fourth studio record, the somewhat politicized Impossible Dream was just released in April.

Welch is the Los Angeles songstress who sounds as though she was plucked from 1930s Appalachia; her old school sound and strong narrative skills have earned her accolades across the country music board, from Hank Williams fans to alt-country rockers. Along with Harris, Welch was part of the cast that won a Grammy for the platinum-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. Rawlings, who produced Welch's last disc, 2003's Soul Journey, is a much-admired guitarist who has accompanied Welch since their days together at Boston's Berklee College of Music.

Miller has his own small-but-rabid following, but is still awestruck to be in such company -- even though he's been there plenty of times before. The 52-year-old guitarist is set to release his fifth solo record, Universal United House of Prayer, on September 21, a country-gospel mix inspired by socially aware records like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and The Staple Singers' Freedom Highway. He's also been the guitarist in Harris' touring back-up band, Spyboy, for the last eight years, and appears on her last three records.

"She's as warm a person as her voice sounds," Miller says by phone from Nashville. "Her voice just cuts you to the heart, and then with those songs behind it, they're a perfect fit. Musically, she gives you so much freedom, it's almost unheard of, certainly in the town that I live in."

But that's only the beginning of this Revue's professional connections. Harris covered Griffin's "One Big Love" on her 2000 Red Dirt Girl and Welch's "Orphan Girl" on 1995's Wrecking Ball. Harris has sung on two Griffin records (Flaming Red and 1000 Kisses), and Welch provides background vocals on Harris' Stumble Into Grace. Harris and Miller have sat in on the annual New Year's Eve shows of Welch's and Rawlings' side project, The Esquires. Miller and his wife Julie provide backup harmonies on 1000 Kisses -- and it was Harris that turned Miller onto Griffin (and Welch, for that matter).

"I get more emotionally involved by her songs," Miller marvels of Griffin. "I just sit there and go, "oh, gosh, it's killing me.' I don't know exactly why it strikes me so hard, but it really does. All of her records do."

Miller is no less struck by the work of Welch, if for different reasons, including her old school aesthetic, lyrics and songwriting chops.

"The songs are so simple and yet multi-layered," he says. "The writing has gotten so deep, record to record."

But as a top-notch picker himself, Miller's admiration for Rawlings may just be a little more personal; their shared vocation leaves Miller practically breathless as he extols Rawlings' fretboard skills.

"I've never heard anybody play like that and take those kind of chances," Miller beams. "He's just kind of fearless and out there on a limb from the minute he starts playing.

"I love his electric playing, too. It's one of my goals on this little tour to have him play electric with me, maybe we can play something together in my little set."

It was a confluence of all these elements that proved to be the impetus behind this rolling shindig, and one night in particular stands out. During Griffin's residency at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, Harris and the Millers sat in with her. During the performance, Ken Levitan, whose company Vector Management represents everyone on this tour but Welch and Rawlings, said, according to Miller, "We ought to take this thing on the road, it feels good."

And, approximately two years later, they have. They may not know what format it'll take (Miller: "I'm still trying to figure out what songs I'm going to do"), but being familiar with each other's works, as well as being friends off the stage, means Miller, for one, isn't worried.

"I think it's going to change as it goes along," he says. "I hope so. That'll keep it fun and fresh. Everybody probably has a not-quite-thought-through idea of what it could be like, or at least their part of it, but it could turn into something that's a whole lot different than that -- no matter what it is, it's going to be a lot of fun."

The Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue plays the Paladium Amphitheatre at Carowinds Friday. Tickets are $37.50 or $52.50

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