CD Review of All I Intended to Be by Emmylou Harris
Recommended if you like
Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin,
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Label
Nonesuch
Emmylou Harris:
All I Intended to Be

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
here aren’t supposed to be any second acts in American lives, but that old saying must not apply to country music – at least not in the case of Emmylou Harris, whose career has gone through at least two acts and an intermission by now. And with All I Intended to Be, a collection that gently retraces the steps of her early work, she might even get to raise the curtain on a third.

Intended reunites Harris with Brian Ahern, the legendary Nashville producer who helmed her classic country albums; it’s been 25 years since the two worked together – and over a decade since she broke away from the country mainstream with 1995’s stunning Wrecking Ball album – but they still make a great team. Harris’ autumnal voice fits hand in glove with Ahern’s stark, stately production, casting a gentle sepia glow over the proceedings; the record sounds like a sunset stroll through a dogwood grove.

If anything, it might be a little too beautiful, at least for fans who loved Wrecking Ball’s scuffed edges – especially since, at this stage of her career, Harris is more of an interpreter than a singer. Never gifted with the widest range, her vocals have grown wobblier with time, and at several points on All I Intended to Be, she substitutes a whisper for an upper range. The overall effect isn’t unsettling at all, though – Ahern’s crystalline production provides an excellent contrast to Harris’ weathered vocals.

Happily, the material lives up to the production. Though recent releases have found Harris relying perhaps a little too much on her own songs, Intended sees her returning to one of her main strengths – namely, selecting smart covers. Among the pack here are songs by Patty Griffin (“Moon Song”), Billy Joe Shaver (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”), and Merle Haggard (“Kern River”), mixed in with six originals that Harris wrote either on her own or with Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Harris’ own songs end up being some of the album’s best, particularly “Gold,” a lover’s lament featuring stellar background vocals from Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.

Does it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Wrecking Ball or Roses in the Snow? Certainly not, but then again, not many albums do. Still, it’s another admirably solid entry from a performer who’s been making some of the genre’s best music for over 30 years. Bring on the third act, and don’t be surprised if Harris has an encore or two up her sleeve.

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