In the fall of 1978, Emmylou Harris was touring in support of her excellent album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town when she and her band popped into the studios of Chicago's WTTW-TV to tape a performance for the PBS music series Soundstage. Live in 1978 features 14 songs from that broadcast, as well as six more from a June 1978 radio performance recorded in Santa Cruz, California. At this point, Ricky Skaggs was playing guitar and fiddle with Harris' aptly named Hot Band, and for the Soundstage broadcast, Harris was joined by the country vocal group the Whites, and the performance is a splendid exercise in what Harris has jokingly called "regressive country," with Harris revealing once again why she was and remains one of the finest singers working in any genre of popular music, as the band picks up a storm. The June radio broadcast (apparently part of an environmental benefit) feels a bit different; instead of the full band, Emmylou is backed only by Skaggs and bassist Roy Huskey, Jr., with the song list dominated by classic bluegrass and hard country tunes, and the performances are spare, intimate, and emotionally effective, as Harris and Skaggs harmonize beautifully while demonstrating their passion and intuitive feel for this music, with the audience whooping and hollering with approval. Emmylou Harris' gift is that she has a gorgeous voice but never overplays her hand, knowing that subtle gestures can often communicate the songwriter's vision better than histrionics, and these two shows reveal how much magic she can work with songs as different as Dolly Parton's "To Daddy," Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner," Rodney Crowell's "I Ain't Living Long Like This," and Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You." The audio is a bit flat, but the performances are marvelous, and anyone who is any sort of Emmylou Harris fan ought to find something to love in Live in 1978.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming