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SONGFINDER : Emmylou Harris Knows Where to Look for the Good Ones

August 20, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Country singers who rely on outside songwriters are always lamenting how hard it is to find enough good material to fill out an album.

They must be right, because if you go up and down the country charts you'll find a whole bunch of terrific voices squandered on songs that aren't worth singing.

Somehow, this problem has never afflicted Emmylou Harris. Her 17-year career is proof that there is no shortage of good material for a singer with wide-ranging tastes and the intelligence to know where to look (hint: not some Nashville office warren where it takes three hacks to come up with a bunch of cliches and glue them together into a verse-chorus structure).

It's that taste and intelligence that make Harris the essential female country singer of the past 20 years--that, plus an enchanting voice, winsome looks and a knack for surrounding herself with extraordinary musicians.

Her latest album, the live release "At the Ryman," is a fine example of an acute musical intelligence at work. The all-acoustic album, recorded at the auditorium that formerly housed the Grand Ole Opry, delves deep into country tradition, but it is also an exploration of the wider tradition of good songwriting.

In one three-song stretch, Harris goes from a 19th-Century hymn, Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," to a Bruce Springsteen meditation, "Mansion on the Hill," to a high-stepping Celtic-bluegrass tune by Bill Monroe.

But Harris doesn't just collect good material with an ear toward diversity.

In the album's second half, her sensitivity toward theme and story enable her to array songs in a sequence that allows ideas to resonate from one tune to the next, creating something akin to an essay on what it means to live with loss and loneliness.

"Lodi," John Fogerty's portrait of somebody lost and alone in one of life's cul de sacs, starts the sequence. In succeeding songs, Harris goes on to depict others cut off from the warmth they need: an aged parent whose children have left the nest, and a pair of lovers separated by unbridgeable distance.

With another Monroe song, "Walk of Time," she contemplates the greatest separation of all--death. But the song also seeks comfort in a sustaining faith.

Then, in "Get Up, John," she presents a lively gospel tune in which faith isn't just a crutch in time of sorrow but a motivating force that can jolt us toward an exuberant and purposeful life.

As a singer, Harris' greatest attribute is her ability to convey sorrow and fragility with her signature aching vibrato. But she also can hold on to a note with a plain determination that suggests an underlying dignity and strength.

Harris, 45, got her early artistic schooling from Gram Parsons, one of the key figures in applying country's traditional sound to rock's thematic reach.

She accompanied Parsons on the two albums he made before his death in 1973, then launched her own career in 1975 with the hit album "Pieces of the Sky." Her 18-album catalogue touches on everything from bluegrass and gospel to Beatles balladry and Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll.

After years of fronting an electric ensemble dubbed the Hot Band, whose shifting membership included the likes of James Burton, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs, Harris formed the Nash Ramblers in 1990 partly out of necessity: Having experienced voice problems, she decided it would be easier to sing in an all-acoustic setting.

With such soloists as Sam Bush, an astonishing mandolin player, and veteran dobro player Al Perkins, the electricity is still there, at least figuratively speaking.

Who: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers.

When: Monday, Aug. 24, at 7 and 10 p.m.

Where: The Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Dr., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to the Dyer Road exit. From the north, go right on Grand Avenue, then take the first right, Brookhollow Drive; from the south, go left under the overpass, right on Grand and right onto Brookhollow.

Wherewithal: Both shows are sold out.

Where to call: (714) 549-1512.

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