Copyright 1998 Billboard Publications, Inc.

Billboard

JUNE 20, 1998

MUSIC TO MY EARS: HARRIS' 'SPYBOY' IS LABOR OF LOVE

BYLINE: BY TIMOTHY WHITE

"I was just another pretty voice until I met Gram Parsons," says singer Emmylou Harris of the "personal and professional journey" retraced on the magnificent live album "SPYBOY" (Eminent, distributed by RED, due Aug. 11). "And then Gram gave me a direction and literally taught me how to sing."

While paying deferential homage to Parsons--the late, legendary former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother who was Harris' country music mentor--the engrossing 14-cut "SPYBOY" (also the name of her excellent three-piece band) adapts selections from Harris' quarter-century of solo recordings to tell a deeply moving, concert-length tale of searching, loss, and redemptive experience.

" 'Spy boy' is a Mardi Gras term for the person who goes ahead of the parade," Harris explains, "and as my bassist, Daryl Johnson, says, the spy boy's like a street entertainer, jester, troublemaker, and scout. Life is a journey on the physical plain we all currently occupy. And while I'm drawn to the spiritual songs I've written or played because of their uplifting lyrics, I find it difficult to separate the spiritual and the secular. The record has new versions of Jesse Winchester's 'My Songbird,' Rodney Crowell's 'Ain't Living Long,' 'Love Hurts' by Boudleaux Bryant, my own 'Prayer In Open D,' and 'Wheels' [written by Chris Hillman and Parsons] and 'Boulder From Birmingham' [co-authored by Harris and Bill Danoff] from my 1975 'Pieces Of The Sky' album.

"Interestingly, the one song on 'SPYBOY' that I hadn't previously done on my other albums is 'The Maker,' a song my friend Daniel Lanois wrote and did on his own [1990] solo album, 'Acadie.' Having worked closely recently with Daniel, who produced my previous 'Wrecking Ball' [winner of a 1995 Grammy for best contemporary folk album], I wanted to get down my own performance of 'The Maker.' The rest of this album came about actually as a result of a desire to interpret that one brilliant song about a personal spiritual journey."

Harris' opportunity to preserve her live rendition of Lanois' work came near the close of her 1997 European tour with the SPYBOY band, which consists of bassist/vocalist Johnson (a member of Lanois' regular rhythm section), drummer/vocalist Brady Blade (also from Lanois' musical corps), and noted guitarist/vocalist Buddy Miller, who co-produced the final product. "Normally," says Harris, "my strength really is in the slow songs, but it was Buddy who suggested we try and give the other guys a chance to rock during our sets.

"Over the years, I've always had a great supporting cast of players around me, like Rodney Crowell in the Angel Band, plus James Burton and then Albert Lee with the Hot Band, and then in the acoustic sound--but with real fire--of the Nash Ramblers. Since then, Daniel has taught me, at warp speed, how to go with what feels right in the studio. But I had never done a live record of my previously recorded material, and with the SPYBOY band I was able to see how a small group could both anchor and generate a big sound, giving the material a new freedom and life."

It also gave the entire arc of Harris' Parsons-inspired, Lanois-revitalized career path a sense of cohesion and culmination, allowing her to look back with clear eyes and a sure heart on her long trek from tentative artistic searching to assured self-sufficiency.

Harris was born April 2, 1947, at East End Memorial Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., the second of two children (she has a brother, Walter Jr.) of Walter Rutland Harris and the former Eugenia Murchison.

"My mother's family were farmers from southern Alabama near Clanton, and my dad came from Glen Ridge, N.J., his father working for Tidewater Oil. My parents eloped during World War II while he was in officers' training, and he proposed in her parlor, them getting a license the next day and taking a train to where my father was stationed in Texas. It was not easy being a new wife during the war, because in those days there was a stigma to being married to someone you just met who then got shipped overseas. People said you weren't really married."

The senior Walter Harris distinguished himself as a Marine pilot and later served in Korea, where his plane was shot down. He was missing in action for three months as the 5-year-old Emmylou and her mom waited for any word; they eventually learned he was a prisoner of war. "As a major, the senior officer in the POW camp, my father was tortured," Harris recounts, "but he was an extremely strong person spiritually and compassionate toward his fellow soldiers, feeling that everyone had a personal pain threshold, and his captors didn't find his. Afterward, he received the Legion of Merit."

From ages 6 to 9, Emmylou lived in North Carolina, then relocated to Quantico, Va., until her 18th year. After attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the former high school beauty queen and marching band saxophonist was admitted to Boston University to study dramatic arts. But the part-time waitress/folk singer and aspiring actress got sidetracked en route by New York's Greenwich Village folk scene.

"I acted at acting, if you know what I mean," says Harris with a laugh, "but the feeling of being present in something was much stronger with folk music, where Dylan was my early influence." By 1970 she was wed to songwriter Tom Slocum, pregnant, and issuing a debut album ("Gliding Bird") on the Jubilee label, but she soon foundered from a bad record deal and a worse marriage. After a divorce, Harris moved to Nashville and fed her infant daughter via waitressing and food stamps, eventually moving into her parents' farmhouse in Maryland and wading into the Washington, D.C., folk scene. Harris' act at a back-room club called Clyde's was caught by Parsons. He sang with her for the next two years until his lonely death in 1973 in the Mohave Desert from a heroin overdose; Harris had been featured on his 1972 "GP" and posthumous 1974 "Grievous Angel" albums. Married twice more and raising two daughters with her mom since her dad's death in 1993, the protegee has since eclipsed the pioneering Parsons, furthering his musical dream while in turn assisting other seekers like Crowell.

"Now I'm helping organize a tribute album to Gram for the Almo Sounds label," she says. "It's a modern introduction to him, really, that includes Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Beck, the Cowboy Junkies, and Chrissie Hynde. My vision of music was bequeathed to me by Gram," she concludes softly. "Like the 'SPYBOY' record, it's all about a journey and trying to touch other people along the way."

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