Norman Geras is the proprietor of the excellent Normblog, a reasonable Marxist, a British friend of America, a fine person, and a knowledgeable fan of Emmylou Harris. He has been running a recap of Emmylou’s recorded musical output in anticipation of seeing her live in Manchester.
Emmylou always performs live with incredibly hot musicians, and her current group is no exception. It goes under the name “Spyboy,” and she has released a disk of the live show she performs with the group. We saw the show in Minneapolis two years ago, and it was a transcendently beautiful event.
Emmylou was discovered by Gram Parsons and launched on her own career by her early work with him. Parsons is one of the legendary flameouts of rock and roll. He left an indelible imprint on pop music through his recorded work with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his own two solo albums. He forged the union of country and rock and folk that he dubbed “Cosmic American Music,” then died in 1973 of a drug and alcohol overdose at age 27.
Emmylou must have loved him deeply. She unfailingly pays tribute to Parsons in every live show she plays, either performing one of Parsons’ songs or a song on which she sang harmony with him. (She also produced an excellent Parsons tribute disk a couple years ago.) The night we saw her play in Minneapolis (and on the Spyboy live disk) that song was the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts.” Her musical tributes to Parsons are a highlight of her live show and her loyalty to his memory is moving.
On Wednesday Norm took a brief break from commenting on pressing events to post his review of Emmylou live in Manchester: “[O]n comes Emmylou Harris with the ease and naturalness of a grand old lady of the music, and wearing it without any trace of arrogance or show. She just sings her stuff, both new and old, like it’s forever. And that voice, with its distinctive purity; not thin exactly but kind of slender, and coming from somewhere higher up.
“I don’t mean this in a religious sense, not being so inclined. But in a metaphysical sense, maybe. For Emmy stands on stage and she sings at you; it’s plain, that’s where the voice is coming from. But it sounds like from somewhere higher, as though sliding down from between two very closely aligned forms. Of the Emmylou Harris classics, we heard a marvellous Hickory Wind; and Together Again, and Wheels, and Wayfaring Stranger. And then to finish – in the encore – possibly her two greatest songs: (Townes Van Zandt’s) Pancho and Lefty, and Boulder to Birmingham, written by her in memory of Gram Parsons.
“Live music, there’s nothing to touch it. And though I don’t know exactly how far it is from Boulder to Birmingham – Colorado to Alabama, right?, and Emmylou sings it like it’s further – that’s how far I’d go if it was the only way of getting live music of such quality.”
Three of the songs Norm mentions relate to Parsons. “Hickory Wind” is Parsons’ classic number from the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. “Wheels” is one of Parsons’ contributions to the Flying Burrito Brothers. Norm notes that Emmylou’s “Boulder to Birmingham” is her own tribute to Parsons. I mention this because, as Norm’s assessment confirms, the Manchester show must have been something special.
UPDATE: Reader Erik Root of the excellent Cali-Carolina blog has kindly advised us of the publication of record of “Cosmic American Music” or, as it’s currently known, alt-country or “No Depression.” The publication is Erik’s North Carolina neighbor.
CORRECTION: Writing from memory, I’d forgotten that “Boulder to Birmingham” is also on the “Spyboy” live disk. Now that it’s come back to me, I can’t get the words or the melody out of my head: “I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham/I would hold my life in his saving grace./I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/If I thought I could see — I could see your face.”
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