Recording of November 2003: Heartbreak Hill

ALBERT LEE: Heartbreak Hill
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3977A (CD). 2003. Albert Lee, Steve Fishell, prods.; Dave Sinko, Larry Getz, engs. AAD? TT: 43:51
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Back in the mid-1970s, when someone at Warner Bros. Records told Emmylou Harris to get herself a "hot band," she went out and, using her talent—prodigious even then—as bait, cajoled and, oh yeah, paid the best players she could find to join her ascent. The result was one of the most storied backup bands in country-rock history.

Nobody's fool, this girl—she went straight for Elvis' band. Let's face it: If they could play with Elvis, or what was left of him by then, they were not only musicians, but magicians of a sort. Drummer Ron Tutt, piano player Glen D. Hardin, and guitarist James Burton became the core of the first incarnation of Harris' Hot Band.

Over the years, the Hot Band also included bassist Emory Gordy Jr., pedal steel player Hank De Vito, fiddler Ricky Skaggs, pianists Glen D. Hardin and Tony Brown, and singer-guitarist Rodney Crowell. But it was the guitar chair that generated the most fire. When the great Burton left in 1976, he was replaced by an English half-gypsy named Albert Lee.

For two glorious years, Lee was almost as big an attraction in the Hot Band as Harris herself. His unmistakable clean tone and quiet, economical, yet very distinct phrasing and laconic, meandering solos—which invariably featured breathtaking sprints—became, on stage and on record, no small part of Emmylou's sound. Since those days, Lee has done studio work, and has released several solo albums with vocals. But nothing he's done since has equaled his work with the Hot Band. It's sweetly fitting, then, that Lee would re-emerge after a long silence with an album that reprises tunes he first recorded with Harris.

If you're having trouble remembering Lee or, conversely, still hunger for his fleet digits, punch up track 5 of Heartbreak Hill, Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner," for a heapin' helpin' of what makes this guitarist great: speed, ideas, and more speed. Lee first recorded the track with his own vocal, but later stripped that out in favor of this steaming, straight-ahead instrumental version. Vince Gill and Brad Paisley add their voices to this whirl through Parsons' tale of ships and lost love, of "A long-lost soul for a long, long time." About the only thing missing in this version is a "Whew!" at the end. As it is throughout the album's 10 tracks, the sound here is unobtrusive: solid images, compact yet clear dynamics, guitar solos that snap.

For fans of Harris, and/or of Lee's time in the Hot Band, Heartbreak Hill exudes a warm, familial feeling. His harmonies with Patty Loveless on the title tune open the album on a high note. Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine," which appeared on what for many is Harris' most acclaimed album from her Warner Bros. years, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), is taken here at the song's original, slower tempo. On the gorgeous "Till I Gain Control Again," Lee delivers not only great instrumental work on piano, but a surprisingly heartfelt and steady vocal as well.

In fact, Lee's singing is the one aspect of Heartbreak Hill that might surprise even those who know his work. The deep knowledge of American music that infuses his guitar work with such authenticity also gives his singing a soul that makes, for example, his take on Rodney Crowell's "Bluebird Wine," the song that opened Harris' first album for Warner Bros., Pieces of the Sky (1975), a feel that, while reminiscent of Harris' earlier rendition, is explicitly Lee's own. It's the fine line Lee successfully walks throughout this album: evoking Harris without letting her shadow overwhelm his own art.

Which brings up this album's only conundrum: Where's Emmylou? It would seem a natural that she would have been tapped to add at least one vocal harmony, and Lee's vision for the album and instrumental chops are certainly strong enough to have withstood her presence on one song. Harris does make an appearance, however—in words. In the short essay she wrote as part of the album's liner notes, she closes with this high praise, which pretty much sums up Lee's gifts, as revealed in his work in the Hot Band, and now on Heartbreak Hill: "When St. Peter asks me to chronicle the highlights of my time down here on earth, I'll be able to say (with pride if that's allowed) that for a while I played rhythm guitar in a band with Albert Lee."—Robert Baird