Don't be fooled by Jan Elliott's southern twang. This Nashville-based lighting designer and programmer was born and bred in the far north — Minnesota to be exact — where she stayed through a degree at Concordia College. Today she lights up to 100 performances a year for country legend Emmylou Harris, and in her spare time designs shows on riverboats and cruise ships.
“I got a degree in sociology and religion, with a minor in psychology. I thought you went to college to get a real job,” Elliott admits, noting that all of her electives were in theatre. In fact, before heading to college she was hooked by lighting, without realizing it was a career choice. “I walked into a community theatre when I was 15 and never left. The first thing I did was drop dry ice into a bucket of water for the cloud scene in Jack and the Beanstalk.”
From this humble beginning at the Barn Theatre in Willmar, MN, Elliott went on to lighting shows. “Wow — it's magic,” was her teenage reaction to creating a streetlight with the beam of a theatrical fixture. The gig with Emmylou Harris began in 1997, after a wide range of experiences led her to the hallowed musical ground of Nashville.
“I spent many years in Texas and sort of consider it home,” she says. The Texas years were perhaps her baptism by fire into the music business. While working for Showco in Dallas, as lighting designer and assistant manager of the lighting department from 1973 to 1981, Elliott toured as design assistant for Jackson Browne, the Bee Gees, John Denver, and Peter Gabriel, and also worked on the design and building of touring light rigs for the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Paul McCartney and Wings.
From Dallas, Elliott hopped back up north, crossing the border for a nine-year stint with the National Film Board of Canada. “I got to do every kind of lighting there, from dance and fashion to still photography and industrials,” she recalls. “That's where I learned how to put a light on anything.”
Road management and lighting design for Canadian country artist Michelle Wright eventually took Elliott down south again (Wright was signed to a Nashville record label and asked Elliott to move with her so they could continue working together). “I liked Toronto but wanted to come back home,” she says. After a few years with Wright, Elliott served as road manager and LD for Highway 101 with Paulette Carlson, on its reunion tour in 1995-96.
When the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, Elliott took a short breather from the music business and worked as lighting designer for three stages in Centennial Olympic Park. She programmed and operated the lighting for 70 different acts during the 17-day festival. This was good training for her eventual gig with Harris, which came after one year in the saddle as road/production manager for the Dixie Chicks and Big House.
Elliott started working with Harris thanks to a chance meeting. “Kevin Brown, the sound engineer I hired for Highway 101, met Emmy's road manager, who was looking for a lighting designer,” explains Elliott, who immediately said, “I love Emmylou Harris. I had an interview with her manager in 1997 and have been lighting her shows ever since.”
Harris tours extensively, sometimes performing as many as 20 shows in a month, usually one-night stands in the US or Europe. “Emmy doesn't carry production,” says Elliott, meaning that the lighting rig is rented from a different company for every performance. “I have a different board and a different system every night, but it's the best: It keeps me creative.”
Elliott designs two basic plots: theatrical, and box truss for festivals and small arenas. “There is a set of looks I use, and since Emmy never does the same show twice, I mix and match.” Elliott's rig usually includes moving lights (she specifies High End Systems fixtures, finding them especially reliable for the short turnaround time she has) and she quite frequently works with boards by Avolites, Celco, and ETC. “It keeps you on your toes. You have to know how to program almost every board out there.”
Simple and subtle looks, no followspots, and a less-is-more philosophy characterize Elliott's lighting for Harris. “I like to get the most impact with as little equipment as possible,” she says, noting that her rig contains just eight moving lights and up to 150 conventionals, PAR cans or ETC Source Fours, depending on the venue. “Harris' incredible gray hair takes light beautifully. She often has a soft halo of purple or blue.”
Things might change in the future, making life a little easier for Elliott. “Because of the success of Emmy's new CD, Red Dirt Girl, we're talking about carrying a basic moving-light package on the tour,” she says. “That would save at least two hours of programming every day.” Not that Elliott is complaining. “I have the greatest job in the world,” she says. “Emmy lets me do my job and lets me be creative. She trusts my judgment to enhance the look of her show.”
When Harris is not on tour, Elliott finds time to work for Gaylord Entertainment Productions, designing shows on the General Jackson riverboat or at the Alabama Theater in Myrtle Beach, SC, while also designing productions for the Century, a Celebrity cruise ship. Her current activities also include nursing a young goat with a baby bottle, on 160 acres way out in the country from Nashville, the place Elliott calls home these days. She can also be found on the internet at www.JanElliott.com.