Building the 'Wall'
Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt hone already gilded harmonies in preparation for their tour, which starts Friday.
With her silver hair clipped back, a long strand swept over one eye, Emmylou Harris sits and stares through tinted glasses at an unseen audience, deftly strumming her almond-colored, hollow-bodied Gibson guitar.
She begins to sing, and her voice is plaintive, expressive and pure as faceted crystal. She is dressed in a green shirt and gray jogging pants, and her dark, pearly polished toenails poke out through the front of her sandals as her heel marks time with metronomic regularity.
She leans into the microphone a little too closely and abruptly halts. Her singing partner, Linda Ronstadt, continues with the harmony line for a moment, then stops.
"I just got a shock," Harris exclaims. "I always wanted bigger lips."
A chuckle goes through Tucson's Jim Brady Studios, where Harris and Ronstadt were rehearsing Thursday for a concert tour.
The tour, which coincides with their latest release, "Western Wall," begins in Reno on Friday and will stop in Phoenix on Sept. 14. According to tour manager Josť Delgado, a Tucson date was sought but no local promoter was interested.
During this rehearsal, Ronstadt sits to Harris' left. The Tucsonan, dressed in a loose white cotton skirt and blouse, gazes intently through brown horn-rimmed glasses at the printed lyrics in her hand. She pauses now and again to mark the location of solos and structural change-ups on the lyric sheets.
Production manager Maple Byrne checks Harris' microphone and guitar for grounding problems that might have caused the mild shock, then returns to a pair of oscilloscopes in front of the microphone line. The scope displays spin like a slot machine as he tunes each guitar for songs that will be rehearsed.
The room is awash with stringed things - acoustic and electric guitars, basses, mandolins, mandocellos, dobros and lap steel and pedal steel guitars. A tool for every sound, it seems. A drum kit and a short stack of keyboards fill out the rest of the broad sonic palette needed in support of a show featuring all of "Western Wall" and favorites from Ronstadt's and Harris' solo books.
Everywhere an air of purpose presides. On "Loving the Highway Man," which opens the CD and will open the tour, former Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon tweaks the arrangement to match the record.
On the CD, the song, which details the alienation the song's heroine endures because of the man she loves, has a chorus that rises from the wistful haze of tremolo guitars like a high wall of water rushing through an arroyo after a monsoon cloudburst. In rehearsal, that wall of sound has to be built piece by piece.
"Could you punctuate the chorus with the bass drum?" Leadon asks drummer/percussionist/guitarist Ethan Johns, son of "Western Wall" producer Glyn Johns. With agile ease, the straw cowboy hat-bedecked Johns slips in taut accents without losing the gentle drive of his shaker rhythms.
Next, Leadon focuses on guitarist Buddy Miller, having him stomp on the distortion pedal to mark the same words. Keyboardist Wix also fortifies the bass line at the desired points, leaving slide wizard Greg Leisz free to loft the high, haunting tremolo guitar notes that set the mood, which will be abruptly shattered by the clatter of the climax. Quickly, the arrangement goes from flat to punchy, rough to cleanly honed.
"We've got enthusiasm and virtuosity," Harris says between gulps of a chocolate power bar in a break between songs. "That's a pretty unbeatable combination."
Though Ronstadt and Harris have been friends for most of their 30-year careers, and have worked in the Trio group with Dolly Parton, this is the first time they've toured as a duo. Harris looks forward to rediscovering Ronstadt and Harris solo classics through the collaborative effort.
"I always think it's interesting how old material can shimmer with a new band," she says. "We're doing a pretty long show, which gives us a chance to pull songs from our respective catalogs. I always love to sing with Linda."
Harris was responsible for rounding up the bulk of the 13 uniformly strong and stylistically diverse songs that comprise "Western Wall." In typical self-deprecating style, she shrugs off her curatorial finesse.
"When you're not writing your own songs, you've always got your antennae out," she says. "You tuck things away and pull them out for different projects. Some of these songs go back 10 years."
In the reception area of the studio, Ronstadt works with Harris' 19-year-old daughter, Meghann Ahern, carefully crafting the order of the sets while the musicians have a smoke and chat on the patio outside. Ahern is a back-up singer on the tour. (Webmaster's note: This is not true.)
"It's nice to have the luxury of so many songs that I really love," Ronstadt says, glancing up from the long set list. "How about 'The Rose of Cimarron' there?" Ronstadt suggests. "That's a good song to put into the saggy middle."
A sudden monsoon cloudburst sends the sidemen back inside, and all return to the studio. Guitars are tuned and retuned. The gilded harmonies ring out over arrangements growing tighter and richer with each repetition.
And the road stretches out ahead.