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Back on her first album, 1975's Pieces of the Sky, Emmylou Harris recorded a song called "Boulder to Birmingham." Until that album, Harris had been known mainly as the harmony singer for Gram Parsons, the hippie country artist credited with inventing the genre of country rock. But two years earlier, Parsons had died of an overdose, leaving Harris on her own. In "Boulder to Birmingham," Harris looks out of an airplane window, struggling bitterly with the emotions brought on by that loss. She doesn't want to hear a love song. She doesn't want to hear a sad story. She finds comfort in the lifeless emptiness of the prairie and the sky. "I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham," she sings on the chorus, "if I thought I could see your face."
The song became one of Harris's signatures. It's the first track on Portraits, a 1996 boxed set that traces her long career as a country singer; she recorded it again on last year's Spyboy, a collection of live performances that, despite its retrospective feel and countrified material, could only be called a rock album. On the 1975 version, a pedal steel dripped quiet tears while Harris contemplated whether traffic noise out on the highway could sound like the ocean washing her clean. "Baby, do you know what I mean?" she sang, in a sweet girl's voice, as if to a boy. On Spyboy, Harris's voice is sweet like aged liquor; it's weathered, wavering; it cracks. "Baby, do you know what I mean?" she sings, like someone who's seen too much of the world -- and knows that her audience has, too.
So when Harris performs the song at the Boulder Theater over the New Year's weekend, as she most certainly will, it won't have added meaning just because the song mentions the town where she's playing. It's a long walk from Boulder to Birmingham -- as it has been from that first version to the most recent version, from Harris as Parsons's backup singer to Harris as one of the country's most revered artists. Since 1975, Harris has sung or played across a spectrum of genres, with Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, to name just a few of the classics, with younguns like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, and with surprises like Luscious Jackson, U2's Larry Mullen Jr. and, at one year's Lilith Fair, Lisa Loeb. She's made several recordings with Neil Young, who influenced Pearl Jam and Nirvana -- and when you start tracing those sorts of bloodlines, Harris becomes one of the godmothers of American music in the last quarter of the century. So a Harris concert on this particular New Year carries a distinct historical relevance, and it seems especially appropriate to mark that in the town she named in that early, but still vital, song.
Harris admits a unique connection to Boulder: "It's always a special place for me," she says. "It's the first place I played on the road with Gram Parsons." And she has good friends here -- her college roommate lives in the area. But, she says, the town's name wasn't particularly significant when she was writing -- Boulder made for good alliteration with Birmingham, a choice that came to mind because that's where she's from. The song, she says, "just fell into my lap." And she didn't make a special effort to play Boulder on this particular holiday -- it was the only offer her manager told her about, she says a bit sheepishly. "Normally, I don't do anything on New Year's -- I've never gotten the whole thing about New Year's. I usually stay at home or go to the Radio Cafe in Nashville to see the Esquires, which is Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings in their incarnation of a rock band. It's a neighborhood thing."
What's exciting for Harris about the Boulder gigs is that they're a chance to get the Spyboy band back together for the first time in more than two years. On that album, Nashville musician's-musician Buddy Miller, along with bassist Darryl Johnson and drummer Brady Blade, created something approximating the dense ambience that rock producer Daniel Lanois had achieved for Harris on 1995's somewhat controversial Wrecking Ball -- only live, with playing that sounded sometimes like a runaway train, sometimes like an angel band, sometimes like the thick miasma of Mardi Gras at 3 a.m. "I have missed playing with those guys," Harris says. "I took a sabbatical, let the band go, left my record company, left my management, and wanted to put my energies into writing." The year ended up being busier than Harris expected, however, particularly promoting Trio II with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton (a sequel to 1987's hugely popular and Grammy-winning Trio). This year also saw the release of Return of the Grievous Angel, a Parsons tribute Harris co-executive-produced, which added Beck and Chrissie Hynde to her deep, wide river of collaborators.
"I asked them to work on the record, but they asked me to sing with them," Harris explains. When she sought out artists to participate in the project, "we had a pretty big master list, and we didn't really look for people who maybe had an obvious connection [to Parsons]. We weren't going against that, but we felt that the criteria should be people who had cut their own path and gone their own way and were individual voices, not just literally in the sound of their voices, but in their body of work. Because I felt that that was what Gram did. These were people who hadn't necessarily explored the veins of traditional country music, for example, the way he did that and married it to his own generation."