NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Emmylou’s Many Legacies

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Since CMT and moved from our old digs out at Opryland to downtown Nashville in late September, one of the greatest things for me has been the view from my window. I look out over the Ryman Auditorium, the fabled old Mother Church of country music.

Watching the sun set over that magnificent old tabernacle the other evening, I remembered that the Ryman came very close to being demolished in the 1970s, after the Grand Ole Opry moved out to Opryland. The Ryman was closed up and that part of downtown was pretty much abandoned to winos and hookers and hustlers. Downtown Nashville was being lost. And the Ryman remained closed and in limbo for years.

Enter Emmylou Harris . She managed to get the Ryman re-opened to record a live album (At the Ryman). And she led a campaign — a successful one — to save, refurbish and reopen the venerable old building. Now it’s the anchor of a solid and thriving downtown that also includes the new Country Music Hall of Fame.

Emmylou has many musical legacies in this town, besides the Ryman. And many of them are walking, breathing artists. Every now and then I get the pleasure of seeing some of them in action.

I saw Jennifer Hanson perform at a party recently. I was familiar only with her video for “Beautiful Goodbye,” which is good. But seeing her up close and personal and doing an acoustic set was very impressive. In person, she struck me immediately as a young contender to Emmylou’s role of the sensitive but sensuous country singer. It’s been a long time since I heard a better version of Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine,” which Emmylou put on the musical map. A bonus was a rare chance to listen to Hanson’s husband Mark Nesler , who was accompanying her and who’s one of the better songwriters working today in Nashville. Some of his recent works are “I Miss My Friend” for Darryl Worley , “Living and Living Well” for George Strait and “Just to See You Smile” for Tim McGraw . Nesler put out his own very solid solo album four years ago on the late Asylum Records. If you ever have a chance to pick up his I’m Just That Way album, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Like Nesler, Buddy Miller is a songwriters’ writer. Miller is probably the most valuable player in Nashville today, partly due to his playing a pivotal role in Emmylou’s road band and partly due to his fiercely independent spirit. He and his wife Julie are also two of the most expressive writers working today. Their song “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” remains one of the best things Lee Ann Womack has recorded. Their solo albums — recorded in their Nashville home (in a room known as Dogtown Studio) — are freewheeling, eclectic, intense, soulful music unlike anything else being made anywhere. Although their solo albums are collaborative efforts, their one collaborative album in name, Buddy & Julie Miller, was nominated for a Grammy award last year in the contemporary folk category and was named album of the year in the first Americana Music Awards ceremony in Nashville last month. If you had to describe them, Buddy is a downhome cross between Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello ; Julie is spiritual and ethereal — exactly what Stevie Nicks would like to be.

Buddy’s new album Midnight and Lonesome (HighTone Records) is a splendid showcase of the possibilities open to an adventurous country talent. Songs range from his twangy and visceral interpretation of the seldom-heard Everly Brothers song “The Price of Love” to a Buddy-Julie modern-day gutbucket evocation of the Hank Williams myth with “Wild Card.” Emmylou sings on the great Jesse Winchester ballad “A Showman’s Life” and Womack adds soulful vocals to the Julie Miller-penned “I Can’t Get Over You.”

The album also serves as a reminder of Buddy’s prowess on the guitar and his gifts as a lead singer. In her years as one of the best bandleaders in popular music — in addition to her roles as artist, writer and activist — Emmylou Harris discovered and nurtured some of the leading young lights in country music. In his gig as Emmylou’s musical touchstone, Miller is filling some shoes once belonging to such stellar sidemen and musical collaborators as Gram Parsons , Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell . He’s proven that he’s more than up to the job.