Emmylou Harris Dazzles With ‘At the Ryman’ Anniversary Concert
Country singer and the Nash Ramblers reunite to reprise songs from the Grammy-winning 1992 LP that revitalized a crumbling Nashville landmark
By Stephen L. Betts
Twenty-six years after her three-night stint onstage at Nashville’s dark and dilapidated Ryman Auditorium helped spearhead efforts to refurbish the century-old former home of the Grand Ole Opry, Emmylou Harris and her acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers, returned to the Ryman for a sold-out show Tuesday night. Harris, now 70, and the Ryman, celebrating 125 years of live entertainment, proved they both remain vibrant and vital elements in Nashville’s rich musical history.
Vince Gill shares the history of Nashville’s newly renovated Ryman Auditorium, which has hosted artists from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Jack White and Foo Fighters
Backed by mandolin and fiddle player Sam Bush, with Jon Randall on guitar, Al Perkins on Dobro and Larry Atamanuik on drums – just as she had been for the Grammy-winning At the Ryman album, released in January 1992, nine days before she became an official member of the Opry – Harris and her bandmates re-created that mesmerizing 1992 concert. However, they did so missing one original member: bassist Roy Huskey Jr., who died in 1997. A photo of Huskey was placed on stage in tribute to the late musician, with veteran player Byron House taking his spot for the 90-minute show, which will air as a PBS special in August.
The set list consisted of all the songs from the At the Ryman LP, played in the same order as they originally appeared on record, with the exception of “Song for Roy,” Bush’s touching 1998 tribute to Huskey, which also featured Harris, Randall and House on the original. Kicking off with a vigorous rendition of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Harris showed relatively few signs of the years between the historic Ryman appearances, save for her now snow-white hair, which was merely graying a quarter-century ago. Her voice remains a distinctive marvel whether delivering vintage material from songwriters Jack Clement (“Guess Things Happen That Way”), Boudleaux Bryant (“Like Strangers”), Western-themed tunes (“Cattle Call,” “Montana Cowgirl”) or bluegrass classics such the instrumental “Scotland,” by the late Bill Monroe, with whom Harris buck-danced onstage in 1991. Other highlights of the night included the chillingly beautiful a cappella “Calling My Children Home.”
The more contemporary material she chose 25 years ago remains as powerful years later, especially Bruce Springsteen’s stark “Mansion on the Hill,” and the politically charged Nanci Griffith-penned “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go,” performed in a medley with Dion’s still-trenchant 1968 tune “Abraham, Martin and John.” Following the PBS-filmed portion of the evening, Harris and band performed a pair of additional songs. The first was Buddy and Julie Miller’s “The River’s Gonna Run,” which spotlighted Bush, whom Harris noted is the “King of Telluride,”a reference to his many performances at that Colorado bluegrass festival. Harris closed the show with her own composition, the wistful “Boulder to Birmingham,” written in the early Seventies after the death of her musical partner, Gram Parsons.
The At the Ryman anniversary is being celebrated with the vinyl release of the original LP, and the 125th anniversary of the Ryman Auditorium will be marked by special events throughout the year. Tours of the Ryman are available daily and include a filmed presentation of the Ryman’s remarkable history featuring vintage and contemporary clips as well as images of the iconic show posters that have been a trademark of the venue’s history.