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Harris: Always at Home in Nashville : Music: Singer, who performs Monday in Santa Ana, says that she has been embraced, never shunned, by the country establishment.

August 22, 1992|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Over the years, any number of articles have posited Emmylou Harris as a country renegade, which she truly was when she first picked up the torch of her friend and mentor, country-rock iconoclast Gram Parsons.

Such stories--including one in the August issue of Vogue--usually go on to note how long it took the Nashville music scene to accept Harris.

Tales of such adversity make for good copy. But at least one person says it wasn't actually like that.

"You know, that's really not true," Harris said by phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. "I don't know where that got started, because I was really accepted right off the bat without even trying to be accepted. I did an album ("Pieces of the Sky" in 1975) where I didn't have any idea what was going to happen with it, I started getting No. 1 country singles, and Nashville has always opened its arms to me. So I never had any resistance from Nashville."

She's feeling kind of cozy with the country bastion herself. She's lived there since the mid-'80s, is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and is president of the Country Music Foundation ("I'm sort of their cheerleader," is how she describes the job). These days, she's referred to as the First Lady of Country and the Godmother of the New Traditionalists, among other laudatory titles.

This still doesn't guarantee that everything goes exactly as she would have it. Her recent "Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman" is as beautiful a country album as one is likely to hear this decade, but it stalled at No. 32 on the country chart and dropped off entirely after 12 weeks.

It's enough to give one an achy, breaky heart.

The live album was her debut recording with her band of the last two years, the Nash Ramblers. She assembled the acoustic, bluegrass-steeped group after throat problems aggravated by singing over electric instruments caused her to disband her legendary Hot Band. For 15 years, the group had been a home for such monster players and future stars as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, James Burton and Albert Lee.

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The Nash Ramblers more than live up to the challenge of following the Hot Band, playing with a near-magical empathy and skill. The group is made up of ex-Blue Grass Revival fiddle and mandolin player Sam Bush, onetime Burrito Brother Al Perkins, drummer Larry Atamanuik, guitarist Randy Stewart and bassist Mark Winchester, who recently replaced the group's original bassist, Roy Huskey Jr.

Backed by the mountain-stream purity of their strings and vocal harmonies, Harris has never sounded better than on the current album, which was recorded in concert last year at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

To Harris, it's no great secret why the album didn't chart well:

"The record company didn't think there were any singles on it. So there was very little airplay, because right now if you don't have a Top 40 radio hit, you just don't get played. It's selling well overseas, and it's doing well here, considering there hasn't been any airplay."

Although she differs with her label about the potential of the album's songs, she's not overly upset about the situation.

"I still don't know what a hit single is after all these years, though I certainly think that everything on the album is as good as anything I've heard on the radio. But I've managed to survive radio before, so I don't calculate my career or my success by radio."

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She does have mixed feelings about the state of country radio.

"In one sense, I think it's really good now, because certainly the people who are having mainstream country success now, there's no question that they are country artists. I think there was a time a few years ago when what stations played was sort of a more watered-down pop music, which was neither fish nor fowl.

"But it seems to be there are artists that are sort of left of center, that are slightly different, that are pushing the envelope a little bit, who are getting left by the wayside. I'm speaking more of up-and-coming artists who really need that radio exposure to be known--I've already got a constituency out there. These new artists need a place to be heard.

"I think there's room for many different variations on the country-music theme. Growing up on the radio in the '60s, you get spoiled because you heard so many different types of music. I don't think there's a radio format that showcases that kind of taste, and I think there's a lot of people who have a more eclectic taste than is being represented by radio now."

Harris may be used to getting her share of hits and misses, and one gets the impression that any fretting she's done over the Ryman album's poor sales is on behalf of her band, which she is justly proud of.

"I'm really enjoying this lineup a lot," she said. "It's really helped me to be working in a slightly different territory. Even though I'm able to do all my old material with them, it feels fresh and new. I got a whole new lease on my music when I changed the band."

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