Emmylou Harris’ latest release is a nearly accidental album. “Unplanned” as she puts it, Spyboy — which came out Aug. 11 on Eminent Records — began solely as an attempt to get a really good live-in-concert version of Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker” as a kind of demo for a studio recording. Instead, as tape rolled at several venues on Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball tour, an album began to seem possible, perhaps inevitable.
While newcomers to Emmylou, attracted by the Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball (1995), may launch a great journey of discovery through this release, longtime fans will likely savor the rare pleasure of an authentic retrospective. Harris spoke at some length about that in an early July interview in a motel suite sitting-room at Nashville’s Spence Manor. The Music Row “Motel of the Mysteries” (to grab a title from writer David Macaulay) is notable for its aggressive anonymity — no sign, no office, no open lobby — although its guitar-shaped pool seems to be the oasis of choice for the countless Nashville teens who swear they’ve skinny-dipped there on hot summer nights.
The unplanned Spyboy happened, Harris explains, when she and the crew decided to roll tape during several shows while touring behind the Wrecking Ball album with musicians Brian Blade, Daryl Johnson and Buddy Miller (and a little help from Julie Miller too). Unlike some country artists, whose road bands mimic the licks of the studio session players on the recordings, Harris has by and large brought the same band members on tour that recorded with her in the studio, from the days of her electric Hot Band to the acoustic Nash Ramblers to the eclectic Spyboy, whose name doubles as the title of the new record. (Spyboy is also the inaugural release for Eminent, a new label started by Harris’ former manager, Monty Hitchcock.)
Last Date (1982) and At The Ryman (1992) were also live recordings, but Harris emphatically distinguishes those projects from the Spyboy release. Those albums featured material deliberately worked up for capture as “virginal” presentations, which “might not be the very best version you ever play” but yet feature “the freshness of discovery,” as she put it. This project, on the contrary, seeks to preserve the best performances of classic Harris signature songs backed by a small, tight ensemble, with a new departure into complex percussion plus lush electric guitar somewhat reminiscent of the Hot Band era of James Burton and Albert Lee.
“The Maker” is the only new song on a 14-cut album, but her description of Spyboy as “an interesting retrospective” is certainly accurate and even a bit understated, given the new level of maturity in evidence here. Longtime Emmylou fans can indulge a pleasure rarely provided in country music recording — namely, a real interpretive rethinking over a quarter-century of searing songs, including “Love Hurts”. First recorded in duet with mentor Gram Parsons, “Love Hurts” is offered here in duet with Spyboy singer-guitarist and album co-producer Buddy Miller, who manages, amazingly, to be vocally present even as he respectfully leaves Gram’s slot open for listeners mentally to add Parsons’ voice.
Included, too, is Emmylou’s eulogy for Parsons, “Boulder To Birmingham” (which appeared on her major-label solo debut Pieces Of The Sky in 1975), along with her own “Prayer In Open D” (first recorded on 1993′s Cowgirl’s Prayer). Other titles include “My Songbird” and “Ain’t Living Long” (Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, 1978), “Calling My Children Home” (At The Ryman), “Tulsa Queen” (Luxury Liner, 1977), “Wheels” (Elite Hotel, 1975), “Born To Run” (Last Date), and three cuts from Wrecking Ball — “Where Will I Be”, “All My Tears”, and Dave Olney’s “Deeper Well”, the last of these arguably Wrecking Ball’s standout for listeners discovering the rich resources of Emmylou’s lower register.
(A reassuring note here for those who often come to resent the too-loud crowd noises included on many live-in-concert albums: Applause and cheers throughout are fairly subtle accents throughout Spyboy.)
Harris, often commended for making every album a concept album, takes pains to set Spyboy apart from compilations of hits — which in her case includes Profile (1978) and Profile II (1984), as well as the three-disc box Portraits (1996). She has “a hard time shaking hands with best-of albums” because, she explains, “those songs don’t belong together,” meaning such compilations are an odd mix of musical strangers whose common ground is the mere accident of radio and chart success. Similarly, she implies, the boxed set is internally discordant because of the flux within the musical ensembles. Portraits spans not only the eras of the Hot Band and the Nash Ramblers, but moves the listener abruptly from instrumentalists as diverse as Steve Fishell, John Ware, and Sam Bush, and vocalists as different as Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Barry Tashian. In this sense, she implies, the box is a record of her bands’ personnel changes.
It’s very much in Emmylou’s interest, of course, to support Spyboy even at the expense of seemingly comparable projects. But she makes a good point. One advantage of this retrospective is its ensemble coherence. Queried about the precedent of working for the first time with black musicians (which began with 1995′s Wrecking Ball), she muses that it’s a “progression” — that when Lanois found bassist Johnson and drummer Blade for her, she also “a fantastic singer” in Johnson and “a great musician…of the New Orleans/Louisiana school” in Blade, who plays “maybe the best shuffle I’ve ever sung behind.” As for Miller, her voice proclaims victory when she says, “But I found Buddy Miller!”
It is worth taking a moment to situate Emmylou in her own musical traditions. She emerged in the early 1970s from the folk-rock and country-rock music pioneered by Gram Parsons, with whom she toured and recorded for a couple years until Parsons’ death in September 1973. As a solo artist, her reputation was established in performance and on recordings from 1975 to 1987 with her critically acclaimed electric Hot Band, its most prominent musicians over the years including Crowell (on acoustic guitar and supporting vocals) and Skaggs (fiddle and mandolin), as well as Hank DeVito, Emory Gordy Jr., Brian Ahern, Glen D. Hardin, Frank Reckerd, Barry Tashian, Albert Lee and John Ware. “The high standard set by the Hot Band was set by the musicians themselves, each musician that came into it,” Harris says. “Without me saying a word, you could feel a sense of responsibility and a desire to stretch.”