Copyright 1998 The San Diego Union-Tribune
BYLINE: GEORGE VARGA
SPYBOY. EMMYLOU HARRIS, Eminent * * * * No other country music artist, male or female, can match Emmylou Harris when it comes to taking chances, stretching out and exploring new vistas, no matter how great the possible commercial risks.
With the superb "Spyboy," Harris stretches even further. Recorded at the end of a European tour last year, it extends the moody, intensely atmospheric sound of her marvelous, Grammy Award-winning 1996 album, "Wrecking Ball," while offering a mini-retrospective of her richly faceted career. (The fact that "Wrecking Ball" mysteriously won Best Folk Album honors demonstrates the difficulty Grammy voters had in determining how best to categorize her increasingly eclectic music.)
Fourteen songs strong, "Spyboy" is just as moving and memorable as Harris' stunning performance here with Spyboy last year at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay. Guitarist Buddy Miller, drummer Brady Blade and North County-based bassist Daryl Johnson, a former member of the Neville Brothers, provide imaginative and empathetic instrumental backing. They also contribute soulful vocal support, particularly on the stirring country-gospel chestnut " Calling My Children Home," which is performed a cappella.
Harris is in fine form throughout. Soaring and angelic one moment, earthy the next, her singing captures the depth and breadth of American roots music - - and the country that spawned it -- with grace, grit and unerring emotional accuracy.
Highlights include ingeniously re-arranged versions of such old favorites as "Boulder to Birmingham," "Wheels" and the hard-edged "Ain't Living Long Like This," which features two especially potent guitar solos by the probing, cliche-free Miller. Equally rewarding are more recent songs, most notably the chiming "Where Will I Be" and the ethereal, destiny-questioning "The Maker." The result is a splendid album that reaffirms yet again why the most vital musicians, such as Harris, are those for whom growth is an artistic imperative and laurel-resting is anathema.