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Review: A Live Emmylou Harris Masterpiece, Lost Then Found

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Paul Natkin / Nonesuch Records

At The Ryman, the 1992 live album by Emmylou Harris and her band The Nash Ramblers, changed the fans who owned it and changed Nashville history in ways we’re still assessing. Drawn from a three-night stand at the decaying and nearly abandoned Mother Church of Country Music for audiences of just 200 people, the Warner Bros. release sparked the conversations and investments that literally saved the Ryman Auditorium for the second time in 20 years. In no small part, Emmylou’s music helped turn around a depressed downtown Nashville.

For Harris, the album was a landmark in her evolution and stature. She was already a major star, but At The Ryman foretold her status as an icon of Nashville and a global ambassador for roots music. It had these multiplier effects because the artist and her band were so good, so in synch and so connected to a brilliantly curated collection of songs. Every listen to At The Ryman makes us crave more from this particular chapter of her story. And while that seemed beyond reach for decades, it is no longer.


Recently, Rhino Records A&R man and audio archivist James Austin discovered tapes of another Nash Ramblers show recorded in Nashville almost half a year before the fateful Ryman date. This document of September 28, 1990 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center has been released on Nonesuch Records under the title Ramble In Music City. With its spacious audio quality, its superb song list (entirely different from the Ryman set), and its sublime musicianship, this surprise release takes a place in the Emmylou essentials catalog.

Harris, in her early 40s as the 90s dawned, was in transition. She was already bound for the Hall of Fame with five Grammy wins and a dozen more nominations. Her recent album Trio, the luminous collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, was heralded as an instant classic. But she was adjusting to what seemed to be the closure of her country radio run. She was tired and vocally stressed from well over a decade singing with her powerful electric Hot Band, an all-star country outfit.

So looking for a change, she took a bluegrass friend’s advice and built a new band around some of Nashville’s most exceptional acoustic musicians. It started with Sam Bush, who’d just dissolved New Grass Revival, on fiddle and mandolin. Young Jon Randall Stewart was a virtuoso guitarist with a supple tenor voice that still goes toe to toe with Vince Gill’s. On dobro and banjo was the star sideman of his era Al Perkins. The Nash Ramblers were rounded out with a dream rhythm section matching Roy Huskey Jr.’s legendary bass with restrained, refined drumming by Larry Atamanuik.

As Ramble In Music City gets going with a short stage introduction, we can tell the recording captured the air and ambience in the TPAC hall, not just the clinical precision of the mixing board, yet the instruments and voices are as defined as a studio. The opening sets a bluegrass tone with “Roses In The Snow,” the title track of the artist’s 1980 album. From there, we hear a kind of ideally curated mix tape of country/roots songwriting that includes cowboy influence, the blues, heartfelt gospel, classic pop, R&B and up-to-date Nashville songcraft. The material tracks the chapters and influences that made Emmylou such an eclectic alchemist, from The Louvin Brothers and The Carter Family through Paul Simon, Dallas Frazier, Jesse Winchester and her lifelong colleague and Hot Band alumnus Rodney Crowell.

One tune that brings all the strengths of the record together is “Amarillo,” which Harris wrote with Crowell. Its brisk tempo is putty in the hands of the band, and Emmylou’s voice skips nimbly through the tongue-twisting lyrics while landing solidly on the long bluegrass tones of the chorus. Perkins’s dobro answers the lead singer’s phrasing with perfect timing, and Stewart smokes his acoustic guitar solo with alacrity before Bush comes in with his mandolin propulsion. That segues gracefully into the waltzing “The Other Side of Life,” which sounds like an old church house hymn, but it was a contemporary tune by the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Alan O’Bryant.

Also special are songs that anchored Harris’s extensive album output to that point, including her 1979 title cut “Blue Kentucky Girl,” “One Of These Days,” a top five hit from the 1976 album Elite Hotel and her Pasty Cline cover “Sweet Dreams” from the same opus. “The Price I Pay,” a Chris Hillman song, becomes a showpiece for Sam Bush, who opens the performance with a stunning mandolin solo and sings the lead vocal at the peak of his powers. “My Songbird” by Jesse Winchester from 1978’s Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town is one of my favorite Harris interpretations ever, so it’s wonderful to have a new iteration of it here. The 23-track set concludes with another Harris original, one of her signatures, “Boulder To Birmingham.”

Emmylou knows where to push a phrase and how to lay back. Her tone is not the sinewave clarity of Alison Krauss but an unmistakable timbre with the kind of gentle figured grain we look for on the back of a guitar. But it’s more than that. Her glowing vocal performances have always derived from her vigilant commitment to - and pure pleasure in - listening, to her harmony partners and to her band members, with every passing measure. Never is she the diva monopolizing center stage. She wants you to hear her music as a collective effort, including the full effect of the vocal blends and the brilliance of the songwriters whose work she curates and interprets. Her standards are very high, but the TPAC tapes impressed even her. “It only took one listen to realize not a single note was out of place or in need of repair, a truly extraordinary performance by these gifted musicians,” she says in the press material for the album. “What a joy it was to share the stage with them.”

A recording from the modernist, concrete TPAC may lack the historic resonance or the huge ripple effects of At The Ryman. But as a document of how unique and persuasive and important Emmylou Harris was in the 1990s, when roots music needed powerful boosters, Ramble In Music City is a precious find.

The Nash Ramblers circa 1990, from left: Larry Atamanuik (drums), Roy Huskey Jr. (bass), Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle), Emmylou Harris, Jon Randall Stewart (guitar) and Al Perkins (banjo and dobro).

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.