Ronstadt And Harris Do A Duets Set

BY MELINDA NEWMAN

LOS ANGELES -- For Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, the release of the pair's "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions" is the culmination of a dream more than 25 years in the making.

"We've talked about doing something like this since we met in 1973," says Harris of the Aug. 24 release on Nashville-based Asylum Records, "but we were always off doing our own things."

They were finally able to record the project when Harris took a year off and Ronstadt went into what she calls retirement. "It basically took for one of us to retire to have enough time. So, I'm going to do this [project] and go back to being retired," says Ronstadt, the mother of two. "You can't have little children and do this."

The pair teamed with producer Glyn Johns and started the record last fall in Arizona. "We were indulged by Glyn," says Ronstadt. "He brought some equipment to a house that we were able to rent in Tucson, and I sat in a chair all day long and read or sang, the two favorite things I love to do," says Ronstadt.

Recorded with only a handful of musicians besides Ronstadt and Harris, the album has an organic feel. "People just brought in instruments," says Harris. "The house looked like heaven's music store. Most of the songs were cut on all these old instruments, vintage mandocellos, you name it. We were able to use a real repertoire of instruments because these guys are so versatile."

Harris, this year's recipient of Billboard's Century Award -- the magazine's highest creative honor -- picked most of the songs for the project. "Emmy has the best collection of material always. I've never known her to have less than 20 new songs that I've never heard before," says Ronstadt. "I always just figured she stayed up later than I did."

FOR ABSENT FRIENDS

Many of the tunes are remakes, including Jackson Browne's "For A Dancer," Leonard Cohen's "Sisters Of Mercy," and Andy Prieboy's "Loving The Highway Man," a song Harris says she and Ronstadt had wanted to record with Dolly Parton, but it didn't fit into either of the group's two Trio projects.

"For A Dancer" was specifically chosen as a tribute to a fallen friend.

"A year ago February, there was a concert to honor Nicolette Larson [who died in December 1997]. Jackson performed that song with just a keyboard, and it had a chilling affect on me," says Harris. "I immediately heard Linda's voice on that song. We had every intention of dedicating that song to Nicolette on the credits, but I made a mistake, so we will on the second printing."

Like "For A Dancer," much of the material was picked for its haunting feel. "Ultimately, you're going for a song that you really love," says Harris. "It's always been a mysterious project for me, an interpreter of song: What is this album? What is the story this record is going to tell? You don't really know what that's going to be, but there are major themes that Linda and I have always gone for -- love and loss and yearning. They're always the best songs."

The first single, "Sweet Spot," is a new tune written by Harris and Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff. The track, which is being worked to radio by Asylum sister label Elektra Entertainment, is already gaining fans at triple-A radio.

While radio has responded to the single, Asylum president Evelyn Shriver says she sees the project as being publicity driven. "We've got David Letterman booked in September, Jay Leno the day of release. We also have 'The Today Show,' 'Roseanne,' 'Martin Short,' and CNN."

The duo will also guest on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," a show that proved to be a boon for "Trio II" this spring.

TRIO VS. DUO

Of course, one of the challenges Asylum must overcome is that audiences might see this as a Trio record minus Parton. "This music is different in that 'Trio' is much more traditional country music; this isn't country," says Shriver.

"Also, this isn't so much three voices singing together [because] Emmy does a track and Linda does a track," she continues. "It's like a wonderful project of two women who have respect and admiration for each other but didn't have to sing together every second." Shriver also expects audiences to understand the project better through a monthlong tour that starts Sept. 5 in Seattle.

While she's excited about being onstage with Harris, Ronstadt, who suffers from an exhausting auto-immune disease, jokes that "the other day I asked if one of my friends would run over my foot with her car so I wouldn't have to go on tour, but she said no, so now I have to go. You have to make people understand some way that the record exists."

For Harris, the tour is a chance to "pick songs and see how they're going to shimmer in a different way. These old songs take on a new life. Linda's picked a bunch of songs, I've picked a bunch, some of which we'll sing together. We'll also give each other a break because it's going to be a long show."

As their schedule permits, Harris and Ronstadt will be making in-store stops and even performing on days they don't have concerts.

The tour was booked jointly by Monterey Peninsula Artists and William Morris Agency. Ronstadt is managed by Ira Koslow, Harris by Ken Levitan, Vector Management.

Although Ronstadt knows the tour will be fatiguing, she's already thinking ahead to the next step. "I'd love to see part two of this record. Any chance to sing publicly or privately with Emmylou and Dolly I'll take any day."

1999 Billboard and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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