In 1998, throat-worn and road weary, the divine Miss Emm needed a musical break from touring with her thrilling, yet vocally taxing, fully electric Hot Band. Looking for not just relief for her physical voice, but also for her muse, Harris turned to longtime friend John Starling, and the good doctor penned the perfect prescription. “Start a bluegrass band with Sam Bush,” he suggested. And so begat Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers.
Reaching back for inspiration to the 1980 release that endeared her forever to bluegrassers, Roses in the Snow, Harris embarked on a series of acoustic gigs with the Ramblers seeking to soothe her ravaged voice, and most likely her weary soul.
Never intended for release, this live CD (which was recorded without her knowledge at the time) vibrantly captures Harris on stage with Bush, the late Roy Husky (whom Harris called “the Heartbeat of America”), Al Perkins, Larry Atamanuik, and “Randy Stewart,” better known these days as Jon Randall Stewart, or Jon Randall. The transition gave her the chance to sift through a huge repertoire; of the 23 tunes included here, none was repeated on Live at the Ryman.
The songs here show us an Emmylou Harris freed in some ways from her own standards and expectations, setting the stage for the rest of her career as a musical seeker and genre-buster. Anchored in the driving acoustic groove of Bush’s inimitable right hand, with a rhythm section worthy of Count Basie’s band, Harris launches ambitiously into “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” at a searingly quick tempo, driving the pace without recalling the ghosts of the Hot Band. Husky’s otherworldly bass disappears as it creates the perfect groove here, only to appear as if out of a time warp for his solo. It’s a truly stunning rendition of one of her signature tunes, maybe her best ever. And my goodness, what a sound.
Randall’s flat picking guitar homage to Tony Rice at the start of “Wayfaring Stranger,” bracketed by Sam’s reinterpretation of his original solo, give Harris a true blue foundation to sing this bluegrass classic. At times, like when she rides to glory on the oceanic bass pulse Husky generates on “Green Pastures,” Harris just relaxes and revels in her unrestrained voice again. By the time the band gets to “Born To Run,” she relaxes the reins even more and it becomes Bush’s band rhythmically and vocally, with Harris as his harmony vocalist.
The final tune, her signature, heart-spoken paean to lost love, “Boulder to Birmingham,” feels like her first time singing it, and she’s never done it with more grace and power. We get the chance to hear Emmylou Harris just let loose and go for broke on a tune she＊s sung infinitely before this, and it emerges as transcendent and sacred.
Harris’ decision to make a U-turn and draw up the bluegrass wagons around her opened a new world for emerging female bluegrass vocalists like Brooke Aldridge. On “Ramble in Music City,” we get to hear an essential chapter in her musical autobiography, one that set the stage for her future breakthroughs.