When Emmylou Harris visits Chicago on Tuesday, she’ll celebrate a singular milestone from her decades-long career.
Released in 1995, Harris’ 18th studio album “Wrecking Ball” marked a point of reinvention. “It broke up a creative logjam,” says Harris. “Sometimes you need to hear something different, and you don’t even know what it is.” (The album’s anniversary also is being celebrated in a special three-disc remastered set on the Nonesuch Records label, featuring previously unreleased material and a behnd-the-scenes DVD.)
Harris discovered fresh territory on the album through a potent working relationship with Canadian musician Daniel Lanois, known for producing key albums by Peter Gabriel, U2 and Bob Dylan.
“At that point, my two favorite records were Daniel’s solo record ‘Acadie’ and the record he produced with Dylan, ‘Oh Mercy,’” says Harris.
“I grew up listening to her,” says Lanois, who recalls the lean vocal-and-guitar demo he received from Harris. “I thought, ‘this might be a wonderful opportunity to work with one of America’s great singers, and still have an open canvas about what we could do musically.’”
“I was rewarded from almost the first downbeat,” says Harris. “I knew something special was happening in the way I was singing, feeling, and relating to the music. It was the sound and the rhythms that Daniel surrounded me with.”
Lanois’ mandolin and impressionistic guitar playing gave “Wrecking Ball” its shimmering sonic identity, though he shares credit with other session musicians including recording engineer Malcolm Burn. “Malcolm was playing this really nice upright piano,” says Lanois. “It was a magic instrument.”
Lanois’ own trio will serve as Harris’ band at the Vic. Tuesday’s performance will feature the full “Wrecking Ball” album, alongside selected favorites. An avid pedal steel player, Lanois looks forward to Harris’ classic “Boulder to Birmingham.” “It’s an opportunity for me to accompany her on steel,” says Lanois. “‘Wrecking Ball’ doesn’t have any steel.”
“Wrecking Ball” songs have remained on Harris’ set list since the album’s release. “I do ‘Orphan Girl’ almost every night,” says Harris. Other enduring songs include “Blackhawk” and “Sweet Old World.”
The live, full-album treatment allows hidden gems like Jimi Hendrix’ emotive “May This Be Love” to rejoin the set list. Although the psychedelic rock song may have seemed like an odd choice for a country artist, Harris recalls that it made sense to Lanois. “He said, there are certain pop songs that’ll have country melodies,” says Harris. “He started singing that song, and I just came right in with a duet.”
“I always felt that part of Jimi’s playing was very country,” says Lanois. “You could hear it on ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ or ‘Little Wing.’ I thought [“May This Be Love”] would be a fascinating visit for Emmy. It’s always touching, that one. It’s a perfect man-woman song, when you think about it.”
The new “Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition” includes thirteen extra songs. Unlike his compositions that debuted on the original album, “Still Water” first appeared on Lanois’ own “Acadie.” “I’m so glad our version is finally seeing the light of day,” says Harris. “When you have a beautiful track like that, you figure it will find its home.”
“We also dropped one of Emmy’s songs called ‘Gold,’” says Lanois of another bonus track that missed the original album. “When I heard that again, I thought, why did we leave that off?”
Harris’ experience on “Wrecking Ball” informed ensuing work, particularly her albums “Red Dirt Girl” and “Stumble into Grace.” “It’s definitely carried forward,” says Harris.
Although Harris and Lanois have performed together several times since 1995, there has been no attempt to recapture the magic of “Wrecking Ball” in the studio. “That was mainly Dan’s decision,” says Harris. “He didn’t want to repeat himself.”
Lanois confirms this. “I thought, ‘We made something really beautiful and touching, and everybody loves it,” he says. “I didn’t have a vision for a second record. Now, I think we could [do it], because I have ideas.”