Emmylou Harris is no stranger to risk: Her 1980 acoustic bluegrass album "Roses In The Snow" was a radical departure that helped pave the way for country music's current "new traditionalist" movement that includes Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Reba McEntire.
In 1982, Harris ignored the safe "greatest hits" format typical of concert recordings by selecting all-new material for her exuberant "Last Date" live album. And in 1985 she turned to the concept album format for her ambitious, if disappointing, semiautobiographical "Ballad of Sally Rose" LP.
Still, her new "Angel Band" album--an ultratraditional collection of a dozen spiritual songs performed on acoustic instruments--may be the biggest gamble of her career.
"Initially we weren't doing it as a gospel album; we were doing a traditional acoustic album," Harris, 40, said by phone recently from Nashville, where she was taking a short break from a tour that brings her to the Pacifc Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa tonight.
"But the spiritual songs seemed to be the prettiest, the most singable and the most musical," said Harris, whose vocal purity and beauty have often been described as "angelic," making the new album title, "Angel Band," appropriate indeed.
From gospel standards like J.B. Coats' "Where Could I Go but to the Lord" to Harris' own arrangement of the album's only up-tempo tune, the traditional "We Shall Rise," the spirit of "Angel Band" is light years away from the drinkin', lyin' and cheatin' songs that define country music.
It's also an unlikely follow-up to the "Trio" album she made with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton earlier this year that put her onto Billboard's Top 10 pop album chart for the first time.
So "Angel Band" comes as a dramatic shift that is bound to spark speculation about Harris' religious convictions and whether she has turned her back on secular music. On that count, however, Harris' fans can relax.
"We ended up sort of by accident with a gospel album," she said. "The traditional music, the acoustic backing, the sparse arrangements, the live singing and harmony--those are the aspects of the album I see and hear when I listen to the album. It isn't a personal statement. My own philosophy is private. More than a religious statement ('Angel Band') is a musical statement--but all music is spiritual to me."
Realizing that her comments sounded as if she were distancing herself from the religion question, she quickly added, "I'm not trying to pretend that these aren't gospel songs, but the album wasn't done for any religious or political reasons; it was done for musical reasons.
"Whenever you do a song or an album, you don't know what people will get out of it. Music affects people and lyrics affect people in different ways. All I can hope is that this will affect people in a good way."
The songs on "Angel Band" were performed by a core group of Harris, veteran sidemen Vince Gill, Carl Jackson and Emory Gordy and supplemented by instrumentalists Mike Aldridge, Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor. In construction, though, the album's form is as unusual as its content, because nearly all of the singing and playing was done live without the extensive overdubbing that is de riguer in today's music business.
The record's whole tone of spirited informality might make some listeners think the music wafted out of a casual living room get-together rather than a stereotypically rigorous recording studio session.
In fact, Harris said with a laugh, "That's exactly what it was. We were sitting around in (songwriter-producer) Paul Kennerly's living room, and it so happens that Paul has a 16-track recording studio in the house."
"We were literally sitting in one part of the room singing, and Paul was in the other part of the room (recording). It was purely done as a meeting of friends who sing; we weren't even wearing headphones. We thought it would be something nice, but we didn't think it would turn out as good and as stunning as some of the harmony is. Those are the things you go for in studio, but a lot of times when that red light goes on, you tense up and have to go back and get it with overdubs."
With the exception of her "Sally Rose" tour in 1986, when a major portion of her concerts was devoted to performing that album virtually intact, Harris said the "Angel Band" tour resembles previous tours in mixing new and old songs:
"We'll do some of the songs from 'Angel Band' in the normal acoustic set I always do. We try to do stuff from all the albums, but we're up to 14 now, including 'Trio,' so we can't always get one song from every ablum."
Within that framework, however, Harris won't predict exactly which songs they'll play on a given night or in what order they will be played--another example of her ongoing desire to keeping her music fresh for audiences as well as for herself.
"We don't do the same set every night," she said. "With all the work I do, I'd get bored about the third day."
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for Whitney Houston's Sept. 26 show at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre cq. Tickets will be available Monday for Heart's Sept. 4 Irvine Meadows concert. Also added to the Irvine Meadows schedule: Santana (Aug. 20) and a Temptations-O'Jays show (Sept. 6). Tickets for both of these shows will go on sale Saturday. . . . A '60s rock lineup featuring the Turtles, Herman's Hermits, Mark Lindsay, the Grassroots, the Byrds and Tommy James will play the Pacific Amphitheatre cq on Sept. 6. Tickets will go on sale Monday. . . . African music returns to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Aug. 6 with the first Orange County performance by Chief Commander Ebeneezer Obey and His Inner Reformers Juju Orchestra. Waylon Jennings will play the Coach House Aug. 10 in place of a previously advertised concert at Santa Ana Stadium. . . . The Four Tops will be joined Aug. 9 at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim by Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and Eddie Kendrick & David Ruffin. Third World will play the Celebrity on Sept. 12.