My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+