Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers: At The Ryman (1992)

One of the nice things about having a CD collection as stupidly large as the Tanuki's is that you can go spelunking. You can find things you haven't listened to for years and years. Things you forgot you even had. Sometimes you realize there was a good reason you forgot. Sometimes you wonder what you were thinking every minute you weren't listening to Emmylou Harris And The Nash Ramblers At The Ryman.

Why do I even have this? I don't know. I like country music, but more in the breach than the act; I don't have much of a collection. I appreciate Emmylou's importance, but thought all I had of her was stuff she did with Gram Parsons, or the Band, or Dylan, or for the Coen Brothers. Then I stumbled across this the other night, and put it on, and was spellbound for an hour.

I've come to appreciate voices. Singing. This is not something you always learn growing up asLink a rock fan, especially in the postpunk era, when a scream or a growl was more trustworthy than a croon. And I still naturally gravitate toward vocals with the bark and husk left on (Dylan's my man) over the vocal acrobatics that some musics prize. But I have come to appreciate a beautiful voice and a well-sung song.

Well, Emmylou Harris has a voice. Just listen to how she delivers "Hard Times" (and isn't that a topical song?). She gets as breathy as a prayer, but never weak, never unsure. Listen to that little oomph of aargh - 'scuse me, that added measure of passion she packs into "who toils." The way she phrases the rest of that line, the way she makes "better days are o'er" soar and weep.

Or take what she does with "Mansion On The Hill." You might think Bruce owns it - he wrote it, after all - but dig the way she just opens up and lets it float on "children playing," "tall cornfields," "beautiful full moon." She finds this rich pathos in the song, this full beauty, that Bruce's version hints at, but is too stark petrified of its own discovery to realize.

My favorite moments on the record, though, come in the Bill Monroe covers. This whole album is acoustic: it's Emmylou and a crack bluegrass outfit, a perfect fit for her pure voice. And of course they shine on the Monroe tunes. But the thrill is how completely she owns them. Listen to "Get Up John." All the gentleness of "Hard Times," the contemplation of "Mansion On The Hill," is out the window. This is fast, hard-charging railroad music - but she's right on top, mastering it at every moment. The way she delivers that first verse, punching the melody, but simultaneously caressing it - she's a rounder and a preacher all in one. And then, we get the refrain, and she vows "I'll go with you," and it's just a plain statement of fact (until the last time around, when it's a shout of exultation), and then she hollers "John the Baptiiiiist." You know, the song is written from the point of view of the Lord. She makes you believe it.

The point is, she knows how to sing. But beyond that, she's got that voice. Even at the joyfullest moments of "Get Up John," that voice is heavy with some secret acquaintance with sorrow. It always expresses more than it says. If you accidentally pull this record out after leaving it on the shelf for fifteen years, and it catches you in an untethered moment, you might just find yourself with tears in your eyes.

I think I'm going to be getting me some more Emmylou.

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