Recording of December 1998: Spyboy

Eminent EM-25001-2 (CD). 1998. Emmylou Harris, prod.; Buddy Miller, prod., eng.; Dean Norman, Doug Dawson, engs. AAD? TT: 67:07
Performance ****?
Sonics ****?

In discussing the concept for this album, Emmylou Harris told No Depression magazine, "In a very real sense, a performer is naked onstage....If an artist doesn't allow the audience to see the essential truth, then it's Las Vegas time."

Harris is a long way from playing Sin City. Or maybe not. In some ways, she's still using the emotional lessons about her essence that she learned from the writer of the song "Sin City," Gram Parsons. When Parsons made her his duet partner in 1972, Harris began the process of transformation that turned a shy, Alabama-born folkie into the confident, genre-bending performer she is today. Here, on her third live album, she acknowledges her debt to Parsons in an inspired, exquisitely sad rendition of their signature song, "Love Hurts" (in which Buddy Miller sings Harris' old harmony part); and in one of the few tunes she ever wrote herself, her paean to Parsons (with whom she may or may not have been lovers), "Boulder to Birmingham."

In talking about Harris, it's hard to pick a favorite strength—she has so many. First and perhaps most obvious is her birdlike soprano, often fragile as spun glass, which has now taken on a darker, rougher edge courtesy of a quarter century of good use. Harris can still sing ballads—the sadder the better—like no one else, a talent she displays here in one of her other rare originals, "Prayer in Open D."

Another of her prominent strengths is Harris' ability to attract and shape first-class backing bands. Here, following in the enormous footsteps of her mid-'70s electric Hot Band and the acoustic Nash Ramblers of the mid-'80s, is a lean trio named, like the album, Spyboy. It's a Mardi Gras term that, according to the liner notes, means "the person who goes ahead of the parade; a street entertainer, jester, troublemaker, scout."

Spyboy features two all-world New Orleanians, drummer Brady Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson, as well as that quiet but increasingly influential guitarist/singer extraordinaire, Buddy Miller.

It's hard to overestimate Miller. As Dave Alvin—no slouch himself on guitar—recently told me, "When I see Buddy Miller play guitar, I think, 'Shit, I need to go home and practice.' " You also get the feeling that Blade could more than hold his own with anyone in any genre at any time—the guy is a monster drummer any way you slice it. No wonder Steve Earle and others borrow him every chance they get. All three men are also singers, and not just of the backup variety—listen to the near-perfect mix of all four voices on the gospel number, "Calling My Children Home."

Overall, the potential instrumental firepower here is almost frightening. From Bill Monroe to the Beastie Boys, these guys could play anything well.

Despite their overwhelming individual talents, this trio of players harness their talents to tastefully embroider and support Harris' musical vision, and in the process pay her a lasting compliment. Only on "Born to Run" (not the Springsteen tune) do they cut loose and play solos.

At this point in her career, Harris has an incredible wealth of material to draw on for her live shows, which unfortunately means that everyone has his or her own private set list that in large part they never get to hear. Recorded during the 1995-96 Wrecking Ball tour, Spyboy has a fair mix from across the span of Harris' career. From 1978's Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town comes Rodney Crowell's "I Ain't Living Long Like This," while 1977's Luxury Liner is represented by a Harris/Crowell collaboration, "Tulsa Queen." Three tunes from Wrecking Ball are included: Daniel Lanois' "Where Will I Be," Julie Miller's "All My Tears," and "Prayer in Open D."

Nearly as rewarding as the content—at least for those who care about sound—is the spaciousness and pristine quality of this live recording. Audience tracks are done as tastefully as I've ever heard, the dynamic range is warm and natural, and the intimacy and surrounding ambience of this disc are extraordinary. You are there.

Where Emmylou Harris will journey next in the fascinating saga that is her career is anyone's guess. With this muscular, simpatico trio around her, she obviously has fresh inspirations and energy to draw on. But Harris has never waited to be inspired; her inner reserves of spirituality and artistic drive have always called the tunes, a condition that's made her relationship with the exclusive, parochial minds of the country music establishment a rocky one.

With Wrecking Ball and now Spyboy, she seems to be on a roll whose central premise is change, and she's asking her fans to stay tuned; because as the song says, "I ain't living long like this..."—Robert Baird