The Queen of Nashville Emmylou Harris is writing her memoirs!
This revelation, which will delight fans worldwide, lies buried in one of the countless interviews the Americana Music superstar has given in recent weeks to promote the release of Ramble In Music City: The Lost Concert (live in Nashville, 1990).
When asked by Clash magazine whether she had written any songs in the last 12 months, Harris replied: “No, I’ve sort of taken off the songwriting hat. I'm working on a memoir and that's pretty much what my writing is. I don't know, I just, I don't feel the need. And, I have an album coming out that I recorded 30 years ago, so I already did the hard work on that!”
She was referring to the release of The Lost Concert, an album of a live concert recording at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in September 1990, a few months after Harris had formed her own acoustic band the Nash Ramblers. The rare recording was unearthed only last year by renown music archaeologist James Austin.
It should not be confused with the Grammy-winning Emmylou Harris And The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman released two years later. It was this event, held before a limited audience for safety reasons, which led to the full restoration of the Ryman auditorium as a major music venue once again in America’s country music capital.
The significance of the latest release is that the live recording wonderfully reflects the true purity of the talented musicians - Sam Bush, Roy Huskey Jr., Larry Atamanuik, Al Perkins and Jon Randall Stewart – Harris recruited as the Nash Ramblers to replace her famous Hot Band, which first established her as a superstar.
The Nash Ramblers had made their debut earlier in 1990 at the Wembley Arena in London, where Harris and the Hot Band had formed an endearing relationship with local fans, helped by the fact that the Hot Band’s lead guitarist Albert Lee was somewhat of a local legend. But Harris was determined it was time to return to her country roots, with established acoustic and bluegrass pickers.
"I really wasn't sure that people weren't gonna boo me off the stage without the Hot Band," she told the Nashville Tennessean. "But, of course, the boys were so fantastic. And it was the same material. My audience embraced the change from the beginning."
It certainly was “the same material” as, apart from a couple of instrumentals, all but one of the 23 songs on The Lost Concert had been from previous albums featuring the Hot Band. This was not so on At The Ryman which had a completely different setlist of material – unheard on previous albums - and somewhat unique to the Nash Ramblers - no doubt forged from their time together in the intervening two years!
There is also some subtle live-sound ambience on the recording from the Arts Center, not obvious by the more directional sound preferred on the Ryman release.
Harris, renown for her modesty and devotion to her backing musicians, pulls no punches expressing the delight she felt when first hearing the lost tapes.
“Yeah, it was an incredible surprise. And what a delight to discover this. I just felt that people needed to hear it. The playing on it was so extraordinary. And you know, it was a blast from the past, but just musically, I felt it was so good. And I am so grateful to Nonesuch (Records) for putting it out,” she told Clash.
Harris has good reason to grateful for the release. For it again establishes her as one of the greatest live performers country music (of any genre) has produced. Yes she can rightfully praise the support she gets from her talented musicians, but a random concert seemingly plucked from obscurity only serves to again illustrate the sheer majesty and consistency of her vocal range across the range of covers she can largely call her own.
The Lost Concert fittingly opens with a very upbeat, fiddle-fuelled rendition of “Roses in the Snow” the opening track on the 1980 album of the same name and the set-list actually includes the next three songs on this release – “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures” and Paul Simon’s classic “The Boxer.”
As might be expected, the closer is her signature-song “Boulder to Birmingham,” one Harris co-wrote about the loss of her mentor Gram Parsons. It is one of only two songs on The Lost Concert from Pieces of Sky, the 1975 album released two years after Parsons died. Though not her debut album, the Reprise release is long considered the one which launched her solo career of five decades.
In keeping with her desire to use the acoustic instrumental skills of the Nash Ramblers to accentuate her love of traditional roots music, there are timeless classics penned by such legendary songwriters as A.P. Carter, Charlie and Ira Louvin, Don Gibson, Townes Van Zandt and old friend Rodney Crowell.
It was Parsons who introduced the music world to her incredible harmonizing skills, but it was Crowell, as a member of the Hot Band, who further fine-tuned this astonishing art with Harris. Now The lost Concert reveals the early days of yet another great vocal collaborator, Jon Randall Stewart, who at 25 was the youngest member of the Nash Ramblers. He would go on to find fame in his own right –as Jon Randall – largely because of his high-tenor harmony vocals as a Nash Rambler.
“I just love singing harmony with other people. It's all about serving the song,” Harris told Clash. “It just is such a joy to sing on your own and then singing with other people is another kind of joy… creating that third voice. And it's always unique, because everyone's voice is unique.”
As might be expected with an event of three decades ago, there has been a tinge of sadness as Harris reflects on the loss of bass player Roy Huskey Jr who died of lung cancer in 1997 at only 40. She dedicates this release to both Huskey, once described as “ a bass-playing genius,” and a musician friend John Sterling who helped her choose the band.
At 74, Harris shows no sign in slowing down her life-long passion for performing. She recently starred - along with Crowell - at the Festivalzelt in Gstaad, Switerland, and is heading back to the U.S. for a number of scheduled concerts through early next year. Long may she run!
Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation