Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers - "At the Ryman" (Reprise Records)
The Ryman Auditorium was the home of the Grand Ole Opry for many years. There's a lot of country music history in that building -- Harris talks about the "hillbilly dust" left there. Harris and her crack band were obviously inspired by that history, and responded by putting together a wonderful set spanning the history of country music. In fact, even such non-country sources as John Fogerty ("Lodi") and Bruce Springsteen ("Mansion on the Hill") sound like country classics as rendered by this group. No less than three Bill Monroe songs are included, showing Emmylou's respect and fondness for the father of bluegrass. She also shows the continuation of the tradition in songs by the O'Kanes ("If I Could Be There") and Nanci Griffith ("It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go"). The band creates a first-rate acoustic sound, led by Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle, and also including Al Perkins on dobro (and banjo and guitar), Jon Randall Stewart on guitar (and mando), ex-Seatrain drummer Larry Atamanuik, and ace bass Roy Huskey Jr. They also contribute some heartbreaking harmonies, like the four-part harmonies on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times".
The major disappointment of this album, to me, is that Bill Monroe himself apparently dropped in as a guest, but doesn't appear on the album. The photo-montage shows Monroe embracing Harris and trading mandolin licks with Sam Bush. That would really have been something to see, as would Harris' buckdancing as Bush fiddles up a storm on the Monroe instrumental "Scotland" -- at least we get to hear the audience reaction to that one. In general the audience seems very subdued; in introducing "Hard Times" Harris jokes that they used to start the song with a triad "but then we added a fourth voice, so we called it a crawdad". Hardly a giggle from the crowd. Maybe they were being quietly reverent, I dunno. The only disappointment in song choice is the sappy "Abraham, Martin & John", done as a medley with "It's A Hard Life..." so you can't even skip it on the CD player. Still, this is a top-notch acoustic country album showcasing Emmylou and a great band at the top of their form.