Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A New Stage

Live album shows Harris at her best

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 10, 1998:  By the time most modern musical performers reach their 50s, they tend to spend most of their creative energy reflecting on past accomplishments especially in their stage shows. But as Emmylou Harris proves on her new live album, Spyboy, the 51-year-old veteran continues to move forward and seek musical challenges. Harris has always been artistically restless, but her latest collection pushes ever further into new musical territory. As a result, the album offers some of the most lasting and moving music of her career.

Spyboy was, in part, born from dilemma. After releasing 1995's Wrecking Ball, Harris confronted a formidable task: How to reconcile the moody tension of that record with the gentler, more straightforward country of her previous records? Her decision was a daring one: She enlisted a New Orleans rhythm section featuring Neville Brothers bassist Daryl Johnson and jazz drummer Brady Blade. To that, she added emerging alternative-country hero Buddy Miller on guitar and harmony vocals.

The results are remarkable: Harris is known for assembling extraordinary bands, but Spyboy may be her best. Sounding more confident and less delicate than usual, the singer is at the height of her powers on Spyboy. She refashions "Love Hurts," "My Songbird," "Boulder to Birmingham," and especially "Green Pastures" with a mature depth that makes these songs even more impressive than before. The band members get a chance to flex their muscles on the rockers "Ain't Living Long Like This," "Wheels," and "Born to Run" (not the Springsteen song, but a tune written by Paul Kennerley and previously recorded by Harris).

When asked about the experience, guitarist Miller says, "It felt like we were doing something special every night. The songs had their arrangements, but during the instrumental breaks, she would let them go where they were going. It wasn't a set eight- or 16-bar solo section."

This freedom allowed the band to turn in an apocalyptic version of David Olney's "Deeper Well," on which Miller, Johnson, and Blade stretch out in a remarkably dynamic instrumental jam. The song is part of a stunning sequence that also features Harris' chilling solo version of "Prayer In Open D" (which she wrote) and an a cappella quartet take on "Calling My Children Home," a song originally recorded by bluegrass group The Country Gentlemen. The album closes on an equally outstanding note with a cover of Wrecking Ball producer Daniel Lanois' "The Maker" the only song on the album that Harris hadn't previously recorded.

In fact, "The Maker" is the primary reason that Harris decided to make a live record in the first place. "I started singing it when Daniel and I were on a short tour together," she says. "I performed the song each night with Daniel; I really loved it and knew I wanted it on record. But there was no way I could compete with his studio version of it, so I thought I would record our shows so I could get a live version of it to put on a studio record."

Later, as she listened back to the tapes, she realized that she wanted to document this band and this period of her career. "This album is representative of where I was during those two years of my life, which is what a record should be," she says.

As it turns out, though, the album was subject to the hardball politics of Harris' former label, Asylum Records. The singer initially planned to include more songs from Wrecking Ball, but the label restricted her from doing so. "I went back to the drawing board and listened to some of the older material we'd been doing just out of necessity," she says. "Ultimately, I think, that made for a better record."

That the singer is without a major-label deal while at the height of her artistic powers may seem preposterous to some observers. But Harris says she's free of contractual ties by choice. "Working on Wrecking Ball and with this band really got my fire going again," she says. "But to keep the fire stoked, I felt it was time to remove myself from certain situations and pressures. I left the record company and my management. I didn't want the pressure of making my next studio record, and in order to keep my management, I would have had to keep everything going as far as touring and recording."

What she really wanted to do was write songs. Never a prolific writer, Harris realized that she needed to give herself the freedom of time alone so that she could create. "One of the main things I've learned over the years is that it's important to give yourself space," she says. "It's hard to do, because the inclination once things are rolling is to keep going rather than to stop. But, in my mind, it seemed like it was time to shift to another gear. I felt like this was the time to do it, so I took the chance. You sort of have to trust your instincts. You can get so busy that you keep a door closed that you're supposed to be opening."

Once she decided to release a live album, she reconnected with her longtime manager, Monty Hitchcock. He had been thinking about starting his own independent record label for years. And making her album the initial release on his newly created Eminent Records made sense to her. "I have so much confidence in Monty," she says.

Meanwhile, Harris has hardly retreated from view. As always, she's been singing harmony on other people's records, most recently and most notably on songs by Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. That kind of work is important to her, she says. "It puts you in a different place, and you end up hearing things you wouldn't have heard or thinking ideas you wouldn't have thought otherwise. It's real stimulating."

To illustrate, she points to her experience singing on Griffin's song "Mary," from the album Flaming Red. "I started crying in the studio as I was listening to it," she says. "It's a real life-changing song. It's always good to hear something that good. For me, if I know a song like that has been written and recorded, then I know somewhere down the line another new song will touch me like that too. An experience like that can keep me excited for months."

Meanwhile, Harris has other projects on tap. She's heavily involved in an upcoming Gram Parsons tribute record, and she has recorded a track for a Tammy Wynette tribute album that will feature her, Linda Ronstadt, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle together. She's also got a duet album with Ronstadt in the works, and plans are being set to reunite her, Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton for another Trio album.

"Sometimes a few different things end up in the wind at the same time," she muses. "That's why it seemed a good time to take time off. It won't be like I won't have a presence out there. But right now, I'm in a stewing-around stage. I have no idea where I'm going, but I'm enjoying the trip. As long as I feel excited about music, I won't have to worry about what will be next."

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