Friday, December 5, 2008

Reverence for the Hillbilly Dust

Thoughts on the live recording “At the Ryman” by Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers

Emmylou Harris is a keeper of the key, a true believer in the songs that she loves. It is at the center of her highly influential career. Her music when at it’s best tells you, convinces you that the songs mean everything; it is her faith and religion. “At the Ryman” is her greatest confession of this belief and just so happens to be my all time favorite live record.

All 16 tracks are written by other artist, mostly giants, prophets in her old and new testament of song. Bill Monroe, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Foster, Steve Earle, Jack Clement, Nanci Griffith, and John Fogerty among others are given their turn at the wheel, all given their propers somehow with the grace and integrity they damn well deserve. It takes a lot of guts and belief to deliver that kind of set.

Venue is integral, you can’t deliver a sermon on the mount not on a mount. Between songs Emmylou says of the Ryman that she has played in a ton of places from multi million dollar arenas that sound terrible to one place in Lake Charles, Louisiana where the only way you can get on stage is through a window and that the Ryman is the best. The mother church of country music, the Ryman was the long time home of the Grand Ole Opry the single most important and influential disseminator of American music that ever was. This record at the time of its release was a major instigator in the refurbishment of the Ryman Auditorium; there goes Emmylou key keeping again.

The title is actually: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers Live at the Ryman. Members of the Ramblers are stars in their own right with players such as Sam Bush on mandolin and Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass that accompany a little, stand out a little, and are smoke ass on fire just about the whole time. Particularly stunning are the vocal arrangements.

Track 1: Guitar Town –

“Hey sweet daddy are you ready for me it’s your good rockin’ momma down from Tennessee.”

Hell of an opening line for one hell of an opening song. Earle writes hard edged songs earned the hard way and this cover of an early hit of Earle’s is a calling card. The music here is acoustic, with soft drums, and gorgeous vocals while managing to drive and throttle at the same time. The resonator guitar fills between verses emphasizes the “here I am, take it or leave it” phrases in the song. The title itself is an ode to Nashville.

“Everybody told me you can’t get far on 37 dollars and a Jap guitar. Now I’m smoking into Texas with the hammer down and a rockin’ little combo from the guitar town.”

“Well I gotta keep rocking while I still can got a two pack habit and a motel tan.”

When someone as lovely as Emmylou, with a voice even lovelier delivers lines like these it can do things to a man, most importantly make him listen.

Track 2: Half as Much –

Written by Curley Williams but everyone knows this as a Hank Williams song. It was obligatory for there to be a Hank Williams song for this set. This fact should not be downplayed. Hank is the omni-spirit that floats over the music Emmylou believes in. His performances haunt the very stage this recording was made on and his spirit drifts like Luke in the stain glass that illuminates the Auditorium.

The performance is a good one, really part of a one two punch with the opening Guitar Town. The harmonies introduce themselves and you start to get the feeling you are listening to something pretty darn special. It warms you up and gets you ready.

Track 3: Cattle Call –

A definitive cowboy song written by Tex Owens and popularized by Eddy Arnold. Emmylou has fun with this and the vocals are up front and center, it is her way of showing how a place should sound, you can hear the Ryman acoustics in the harmonies.

Track 4: Guess Things Happen That Way –

This is one of a number of hits penned by Cowboy Jack Clement. The Man in Black had a hit with this, and in the hands of the Ramblers really transforms into a toe tapper. Lines that you just don’t see anymore:

“God gave me that man (woman in original) to lean on then he put me on my own.”

This song closes out what I like to think of as the warm up. The tone so far has been light and playful and has your attention, now the focus and depth comes in.

Track 5: Hard Times –

“Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door, Oh’ hard times come again no more”

Stephen Foster’s Hard Times is an American masterpiece from the pen of “The Father of American Music”. Covered an insurmountable amount of times it is a crying for the poor and down trodden, a reminder to those who have of the connection with those who do not.

All voices, with but the faintest of a strum, a moving and devastating version given here. A lethal dose of humanity, a callous heart softener, a calling sung with enough conviction to change the listener that is tuned in.

Track 6: Mansion on the Hill –

From Foster to Springsteen we travel through the landscape of American voices. Emmylou being a key keeper again. This is my favorite cover of a Springsteen song. Shown time and time again covering Springsteen is a difficult task, his music being so much about him and his devotion and belief in what is being transmitted. One off tracks of his like Pink Cadillac can work but rarely do songs from the Book of Bruce work in another’s hands, I mean who would dare to do Darkness on the Edge of Town?

The connection between Emmylou’s belief and faith in the song allows her to convincingly deliver a Springsteen song that is all about belief in its own statement. She somehow manages to voice that belief in her singing, her love is so deep for the song that the reverence shines through. When I listen to this I know she loves the song as much as I do. That is an astounding accomplishment.

Track 7: Scotland –

An instrumental piece by the Father of Bluegrass Mr. Bill Monroe. Lovely, lovely, lovely. At the end Emmylou says while short of breath, “The things I have to do to get a date with Bill Monroe. I had to promise him I would dance to his song and I did.”

Damn! She was dancing, I should have gotten off my ass and danced too.

Track 8: Montana Cowgirl –

Continuing on the heels of Scotland The Ramblers keep driving with this song reflecting the western theme of Cattle Call. A lot of fun to listen to, a song about going home.

Track 9: Like Strangers –

Emmylou gives credit to the Everly Brothers recording of this song written by Boudleaux Bryant part of the songwriting team with his wife Felice Bryant. These two wrote Rocky Top, All I Have to do is Dream, and Bye Bye Love among many others.

Another stunning vocal arrangement, a call for peace and forgiveness among lovers. This record has really sunk in now and attention is undivided as the whole of it is coming into focus.

Track 10: Lodi –

What may seem like an out of place selection actually is a highlight. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame is underrated in his place in songwriting history. Take his best 12 songs and stack em’ up against anybody and you will be doing O.K. I mean the man wrote Proud Mary.

This calls back to the spirit of Guitar Town, finds that same person later on driven down and beaten by the road and the performing. Resonator guitar driving this feeling home with mandolin in accord.

“If I only had a dollar for very song I sung. Every time I had to play while people sat there drunk. You know I’d catch the next train back to where I live. Oh Lord stuck in Lodi again.”

Heads are shaking now, we need a drink.

Track 11: Calling My Children Home –

The high point emotionally for the record, singing so fine you are hoping that drink is a stiff one. A song of a parent’s love and sacrifice. The tears are coming now, you almost need the record to stop. I have to post the lyrics:

Those lives were mine to love and cherish.
To guard and guide along life's way.
Oh God forbid that one should perish.
That one alas should go astray.

Back in the years with all together,
Around the place we'd romp and play.
So lonely now and oft' times wonder,
Oh will they come back home some day.

I'm lonesome for my precious children,
They live so far away.
Oh may they hear my calling...calling..
and come back home some day.

I gave my all for my dear children,
Their problems still with love I share,
I'd brave life's storm, defy the tempest
To bring them home from anywhere.

I lived my life my love I gave them,
to guide them through this world of strife,
I hope and pray we'll live together,
In that great glad here after life.

I'm lonesome for my precious children,
They live so far away.
Oh may they hear my calling...calling.. and come back home some day.

Track 12: If I Could Be There –

This one lets you breathe, another beautiful song about longing.

Track 13: Walls of Time –

Now they are ready to drive you home. Emmylou takes the restraints off of the Ramblers and lets them have at it. We didn’t dance earlier now we have to. They take this second Bill Monroe song and set it on fire, burn baby burn. A common theme in old bluegrass of a lover waiting to be buried beside their love and to see them in the great afterlife bye and bye.

Track 14: Get Up John (Or How Sam Bush Kicked my Ass) –

This is simply one of the greatest live bluegrass recordings ever. The groove lick that Bush plays drives and drives as your volume knob turns up and up. You instantly wish you could play like that, while Emmylou’s voice matches the intensity. Explosive and propulsive twang.

Track 15: It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go/ Abraham, Martin, and John

Back in your seat/sofa/chair/ floor for a two fer with a 60’s era peace movement theme. The first song is a great one from Nanci Griffith a contemporary of Emmylou. All about being a hypocrite and knowing better. No punches pulled.

“Cafeteria line in Chicago, a fat man in front of me. He’s calling black people trash to his children but he’s the only trash here I see. I am thinking this man wears a white hood in the night when his children should sleep but they will slip to their window and see him and think that white hood is all they need.”

“It’s a hard life wherever you go. And if we poison our children with hatred then the hard life is all that they’ll know.”

The second part of this is a song written in memorial of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. calling back to Abraham Lincoln as icons of social change cut down in their prime.

Track 16: Smoke Along the Track –

A train song about hitting the trail. A perfect bookend to Guitar Town and an excellent choice to close out the record. The rhythm stays with you and keeps cycling in your head long after the disc has stopped spinning.

“I’m gonna leave you crying in the smoke along the tracks.”

The key keeper, Emmylou Harris, loves these songs. When you listen to this performance that fact is undeniable, and there is a real good chance you are going to love them too.

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