June 18, 2008

A Grievous Angel In Her Glory: Emmylou Harris Resplendent On New LP

As I stood outside the stage door of the Tampa Theatre, I hoped to get an autograph, but my chances seemed unlikely given the number of other likeminded fans wanting the same thing. The concert that had preceded this street assembly, on the night of May 27, 2005, marked the first time Emmylou Harris had come to town in years.

My aspiration dwindled ever more as the crowd grew in size and restless enthusiasm until Harris walked outside, not with any grand entourage or escorts, but with her dog, a rescue pet that’d slept onstage during the performance. Putting on no airs whatsoever, she corralled us all around her tour bus, where she’d invite everyone on board one at a time.

Upon meeting her, I was anxiously aware that I was speaking with the woman who’d cut her teeth with Gram Parsons and whose inimitable voice graced Bob Dylan’s Desire as well as yielding so many of her own classics. Not wanting to appear completely bowled over, I complimented her vocals on Elvis Costello’s most recent album, The Delivery Man, which got her talking about how much she admired Costello’s songwriting.

At last, I timidly asked if she’d autograph one of my album covers as I shuffled through a small stack, struggling to pick a favorite. In sensing my difficulty, Harris kindly grabbed and signed them all (Roses In The Snow, Cowgirl’s Prayer, Wrecking Ball, and Stumble Into Grace). She could not have been more gracious, personable, or down to earth and, because of that, she put this utterly starstruck guy at ease.

I mention this fleeting encounter not as a means for self-indulgence, but to offer a first-hand impression of Emmylou Harris’ genuineness. She’s the real deal as much in person as on record and her latest album, All I Intended To Be, is certainly no exception.

Harris works once again with Brian Ahern, who – in addition to being her second husband – produced her first eleven albums. In doing so, she summons the homespun grandeur of those works while sounding ever the wiser and insightful. She interprets Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song” and Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” with her signature aesthetic, inflecting each lyric like a sage storyteller. And on the Billy Joe Shaver chestnut, “Old Five And Dimers Like Me,” she sings with bluegrass artist John Starling, their duet sounding tailor-made for some honky-tonk jukebox.

Harris doesn’t write as many songs as perhaps she should, but the ones she penned here further (and superbly) illustrate her forthright, narrative affection. Two songs in particular stand out, the first being “Take That Ride,” on which she renders a strikingly ominous fate. She sings, “One of these days I’m going to take that ride/There may be nothing on the other side/I’m too old for changing, my true blues have all been tried.” Her phrasing is incisive and grounded, Dylanesque in a sense.

Similarly, on “Gold,” she acknowledges how it feels to fall short in another’s eyes, singing, “I finally gave up counting the ways you said I let you down” before conceding, “No matter how bright I glitter, I could never be gold.” Her lyrics resonate much like her vocals – emotive, straightforward, and sincere – thus enriching the depth and integrity of the album overall.

Authenticity, by definition, cannot be contrived or manipulated and, on All I Intended To Be, Emmylou Harris illustrates how it can harvest resplendent, poignant music. To put it plain, she’s delivered one of her finest albums to date simply by being herself.