There is perhaps no more prolific a contemporary country siren than Emmylou Harris. In an extensive career, spanning nearly four decades, Ms. Harris has been a mainstay alongside the genre’s pillars, penning countless introspective and touching narratives to luminous melodies. Her April induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame seemed long overdue.
On her latest release, All I Intended to Be, Harris presents the listener with another wunderkammer of musical gems, a deep and broad curatorial collection of earnest ballads, harmonious duets and collaborations, and revisited memories that serves as a keystone to her ever comprehensive career. As she explains it, “I’ve always seen myself as a relentless song-finder, a singer of other people’s work whom I admire greatly, and an occasional songwriter.” In other words, Emmylou is still doing her thing.
Working with producer Brian Ahern — with whom she recorded for her first 11 years — All I Intended to Be took over three years to record, so it’s remarkable it maintains the lucid consistency it does. An amalgamation of original songs and documented treasures, the album blends eras, writers, and themes as effortlessly as Harris can lament another lost love (“Broken Man’s Lament”). The album gets its name from a line in the Bill Joe Shaver tune “Old Five and Dimers Like Me”, an outlaw-country ballad whose grim tone is revived by John Starling’s duet vocal and winding mandolin lines. Yet its somber self-awareness is elusive in the song’s confounding lyrics until the sobering last line: “An old five and dimer is all I intended to be”.
The opening song, “Shore of White Sand”, immediately envelops the album in a sense of custodial reverence that began with its conception. Written by Jack Wesley Routh, Harris idolized a 1982 Karen Brooks recording that featured the late Doobie Brothers/Southern Pacific drummer Keith Knudsen. Out of adoration for the track and respect for Knudsen, Harris cut the song using his original drum tracks with Brooks’ and Warner Brothers’ blessings. The result is an emotionally epic track with vivid water imagery and lush harmonies.
The rest of the album balances sorrowful songs with those of strength and retrospective wisdom. The former — manifested in the spacious arrangements of “Broken Man’s Lament”, the Appalachian sounding “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower”, and Merle Haggard’s lamentation “Kern River” — are flanked by accompaniments rich with subtleties that embellish each ache and sigh. On “Broken Man’s Lament”, it’s Ahern’s weaving baritone electric guitar that builds into soaring choric “Ooohs.” And the McGarrigle sisters’ vocals, according to Harris, are the “real treasure” of “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower”, one of the album’s most moving tracks. All the while, dobro, steel guitar, and John Sterling’s backing vocals provide the ache on “Kern River”.
But the above alternative sense of loss is righted by the redemptive tone of other tracks. Like the endearing “Hold On”, on which listeners catch Harris’s clear-like-glass falsetto and Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul”. The latter rumination on self-respect and virtue is a perfect example of Harris’s remarkable ability to reshape an already distinct harmony and tone into a euphonious ballad, not unlike her recording of “For No One”.
Harris’ own dialogue with God is captured in the meditative “Take That Ride”. It beautifully reflects the apparent futility in prayer and fate’s inevitability and mystery. Similarly, the closing track, Routh and J.C. Crowley’s “The Great Divide”, with an Eagles-esque conga lingering, looks ahead to a dusky, somewhat removed, Eden-like future.
As a whole All I Intended to Be seems like a docile album. But Harris ingeniously utilizes the affability of each song’s structure with grace and respect, employing her crystalline voice to buff its rough components into a jewel.