Emmylou Harris left one subsidiary of Warner Bros. (Asylum) in the mid-’90s before being picked up by another (Nonesuch) last year. During those five years she released an excellent but overlooked album with Linda Ronstadt and toured the world with a three-piece band called Spyboy (named after the jester that leads a Mardi Gras parade), perfecting the darker folk-rock sound she and producer Daniel Lanois developed for 1995’s “Wrecking Ball,” an album of heavy-weather atmospherics and glum songs.
|‘Spyboy’ by Emmylou Harris|
On her live DVD, “Spyboy,” recorded during a 1998 concert at Nashville’s Exit/In club, Harris seems determined to exploit her Second Coming as a country music innovator. Between songs she talks about how she’s always “pushed the envelope” to the point where she feels she’s “broken right through the paper.” The self-promotion is unnecessary considering how much more affecting these performances are than the ones on “Wrecking Ball” (or, for that matter, the ones on her new album, “Red Dirt Girl,” which is essentially “Wrecking Ball, Part 2”).
Buoyed by the guitar and harmonies of alt-country god Buddy Miller and anchored by the jazzlike rhythm section of Darryl Johnson and Brady Blade, Emmylou rides the waves of these 10 songs with her usual sense of drama, but without all the production business that made the Lanois project so murky. And with that amazing mane of silver-gray hair, she’s never looked more like a Lorelei. Whether she’s growling through Rodney Crowell’s fatalistic rocker “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” or calling down angels on her own “Prayer in Open D,” her narrative instincts transcend the limiting label she’s always worn as “an interpreter’s interpreter.” She’s the only singer who does what she does.