Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Right now in a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles, a classic is being re-born.  One of the landmark albums of the 1990's, one that has made a deep impact on roots and Americana, and the way we appreciate country music, is being polished and reconfigured, readied for the road starting Thursday, April 3.  The Wrecking Ball is swinging again.

Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball was released in 1995 to great acclaim, and rewrote the rules on singer-songwriter and traditional folk music.  Produced by sonic wiz and spiritual musician Daniel Lanois, the collection went deep into the soul of both artists, brooding and beautiful, a sound that brought old values into new musical landscapes.  It certainly challenged and changed Harris, who went back to songwriting thanks to this collection, and opened up her own sound.  It's pretty much the album to hear if you want to know what Americana and passion is all about.

In the last few years, Harris has teamed up with Lanois at various benefits, performing some of the Wrecking Ball numbers.  That includes Lanois' annual Harvest Picnic festival near his home of Hamilton, Ontario, promoting local organic farmers.  It's seen Harris join with Lanois' band, casual but solid shows, as true professionals can deliver.  They have a natural chemistry, and the open-air venue only heightens the natural beauty of the sound and material.  Now, Wrecking Ball is getting a brand-new release, expanded to three discs, a second CD of out-takes and unreleased songs, and a DVD documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball, a making-of piece with lots of special guests including Neil Young (who provided the title track), the McGarrigle sisters and more.  There's always been a heavy Canadian content to the album, from Lanois right through.

To mark the re-release, Harris and Lanois are hitting the road for a series of select concerts in North America and Europe, including a Canadian date at Massey Hall in Toronto, April 15.  Rehearsals have been going on for a couple of weeks, under the band leadership of Jim Wilson.  He's been Lanois' go-to bass player for nearly a decade, and has a growing solo career of his own.  I reached him in Los Angeles, well into the rehearsals, and he's already familiar with all the songs.  "We've done Wrecking Ball six times now, as benefit shows, including Nashville, and anytime we've done shows were Emmylou plays with Daniel, we do some of it.  But this time we're going to get it down, we're really going to practice, get our harmonies tight. we're doing the whole album, plus six or eight from Emmy's catalogue, and even a tribute to Phil Everly on a duet.  Daniel's going to play pedal steel on some.  Dan's going to open the show, then play with the band, then after a half-hour Emmylou will come on."

In other words, a dream show for fans.  It's not the biggest-seller in either of those artist's careers.  Lanois can point to producing U2, Dylan and many others, and Harris has had number one hits all over country radio, solo and with the acclaimed Trio recordings with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.  Artistically though, Wilson says this is holy stuff for both of them.  "Dan is very proud of it, and so is Emmylou.  I asked her one time what her favourite album is, and she said Wrecking Ball is the most important."

Wilson's a big fan too of course, and describes his role as a dream gig.  "It's really cool, Daniel's given me the gift of being kind of a musical director, and when things work great, it's just so awesome, I'll get smiles from both of them.  They give me total freedom, I don't copy what's on the record, Daniel wants the right feel.  And before I met Emmylou, I didn't realized how great a rhythm guitar player she is.  I always feel like she's the real deal."  Plus, Harris and Lanois have no ego when it comes to the musicians.  Wilson gets full billing on all the posters and ads for the concerts, as does drummer Steven Nistor.

"That first happened in Nashville," says Wilson about the billing.  I got there, and there were posters everywhere, with my name on it.  It's really nice that she gives us all this opportunity.  It's so cool, and such a great opportunity.  It's in all the newspapers here in L.A.., I'm getting all these texts and congratulations, I'm really honoured.  My dad's thrilled, because he's a big country fan.  Every time I hear Emmylou say my name, 'good morning Jim,' it's such a thrill.  She's so nice, she had us over to dinner at her house, just sitting around, I got to see her pictures of Gram Parsons, so amazing."

Wilson's name is getting around these days.  The former record store clerk got a big break when he handed a disc of his band Mother Superior to customer Henry Rollins.  He loved it, bringing them in eventually as the new players in Rollins Band, plus using Mother Superior as an opening act.  "We gained a European audience," says Wilson, "a big fan base in Spain, and then Lanois saw the group play at LA's Troubadour, came back stage and said hi, and he really felt it.  I talked to him at the parking lot after, he was on his motorcycle, and we said to stay in touch.  A couple of weeks later we were invited to his house.  For awhile we doing both, playing with Daniel and Henry, and finally Henry just felt like he'd had enough."

Since then Wilson's made his own solo album, and been on-call for whatever Lanois has going. He's toured with the classic band Sparks, and does production work as well, his latest project the new album coming out soon for Pearl Aday, daughter of one Meatloaf (Marvin Lee Aday).  He also has his beloved on-line vinyl radio show, Deep Nuggets once a week.  But another major development just happened, and it's a blast from the past.  It seems Mother Superior still has lots of famous fans, including Scott Ian, the singer for Anthrax.  For his birthday, Superior freak Ian asked Wilson to come and play in an ad-hoc band featuring friends Joey Vera from Armored Saint and drummer John Tempesta of The Cult, all huge Mother Superior fans.  It turned out such a blast, they've been given a record deal from Metal Blade to bring back Mother Superior.

But for the next month, he's riding the Wrecking Ball, and paying tribute to an album he loves.  "It's going to be fun taking it around the world," Wilson says.  The re-issue of Wrecking Ball is out Tuesday, April 8 on Nonesuch Records.

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