Review: Emmylou Harris’ ‘Ramble in Music City’ is a Ramble Well Worth Revisiting

Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers/Ramble in Music City/Nonesuch
Four Out of Five Stars

When you’re an iconic artist like Emmylou Harris, retrieving something of substance from the archives is an effective way of ensuring the market is satisfied and somewhat satiated until there’s a new effort is readied for release. 

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The newly-discovered concert represented with Ramble in Music City certainly serves that purpose. It gives her fans and collectors an opportunity to delve into a critical chapter in Harris’ ever-shifting career, courtesy of the former backing band once dubbed the Nash Ramblers. Consisting of an all-star group of pickers and players—Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, guitarists John Starling and Randy Stewart (who now refers to himself as Jon Randall), bassist Roy Huskey Jr., Al Perkins playing dobro and banjo, and Larry Atamanuik on percussion—the group was firmly entrenched within a bluegrass regimen, with the customary side jaunts into gospel and country as well. Although they generally took a traditional tack, they also made room for a core collection of Harris standards—in this case, “Boulder to Birmingham,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “If I Needed You,” “Born to Run,” and “Blue Kentucky Girl,” among them. A take on Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” and a handful of vintage classics (“Sweet Dreams,” “Hello Stranger,” “Mystery Train,” “Save the Last Dance For Me” “Wayfaring Stranger” et. al.) add depth and diversity to an abundant 23-song set.

Happily, the sound is pristine, especially considering the fact that the recording is over 30 years old. The site for this particular performance was the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and it would, in effect, provide a prelude to greater glories. The Ramblers would later record a live album at Nashville’s historic Ryman Theater, which, at the time, was threatened with demolition. The concert offered the impetus needed to save it, while also resulting in a recording that reaped a Grammy nod as well. In that regard, it’s easy to see how the show that’s preserved here helped set the stage. 

According to Peter Cooper’s liner notes, Harris herself had come to a crossroads in her career, uncertain where to turn and what to do next. The Nash Ramblers provided the impetus and inspiration for her to pursue the other possibilities she aspired to, and in that regard, helped reboot her career. Ramble in Music City may have long been forgotten, but now that it’s been unearthed, it becomes a fitting tribute to the exceptional outfit that first brought it into being.

Photo by Kat Villacorta/ Nonesuch Records

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