june 2008

Not Your Usual Song And Dance…

By David McGee


Photo by Susan Storch

Emmylou Harris




Here I go again
Back to the feelin’…
‘Cause my heart’s been skippin’
Like a flat rock on water…
Some say I’m sinkin’
To the muddy bottom
(“Shores of White Sand,” by Jack Wesley Routh)

There are interpretive artists, and then there are artists who interpret to the point of self definition. The former flit along the surface of a melody, touching down in no particular place but that of beauty itself, averting their eyes from life’s niggling complexities as if avoiding the sun’s unyielding glare at the height of Summer. At that point, you are a song and dance man, fine and dandy; it can be a worthwhile calling.

Or you can be Emmylou Harris, whose All I Intended To Be Be reveals itself as a work of superior interpretive artistry and compelling emotional depth, its songs and its ethereal, often minimalist soundscape (as sculpted by producer Brian Ahern in his first pairing with his ex-wife in a quarter century) suggesting a Tolstoyan backstory of a search for moral truths in an alien environment. It is, also, a testimony to the power of art to spring unannounced and unexpectedly from the unlikeliest circumstances. Recorded in fits and starts over a four-year period, the album had no binding concept particularly as Harris and the accompanying musicians pursued their careers and came back to it when convenient. Now whole, All I Intended To Be defies its piecemeal origins to become something grander than its participants might have anticipated; dark as it can be—and it can be chillingly dark—the album affirms a commitment to, rather than a withdrawal from, life; it argues fearlessly, but not without painful consequence, for participation over passivity in matters of the heart. Sometimes the alien environment in which she finds herself is literal—the specific topography of Merle Haggard’s never-again-underrated gem “Kern River,” for instance, in which an unforgiving landscape serves as metaphor for a cataclysmically crushed personal relationship; most often it’s interior, in the wreckage of a person’s soul when something vital is extracted—the person Harris sings to in her own “Take That Ride,” when she queries, “Where were you when the world turned back/All those nights you never answered back”; or more devastatingly, in another heartbreaking original, “Not Enough,” when she whispers, “You’re in my heart/that’s not close enough,” at a moment when she she’s shattered and disoriented by a loved one’s death, knowing both parties had left too much unspoken at life’s ebb; but just when she seems to be “sinkin’ to the muddy bottom,” as she describes with wry detachment in Jack Wesley Routh’s “Shores of the White Sand,” which opens the album on a hymn-like note suggesting a journey of trial and triumph ahead, she finds in Patti Griffin’s “Hold On” the strength not only to accept responsibility for making bad choices but to persevere (“you threw away the simple joys/now you have to take a stand…pay the price and bear the loss…”), as the music mirrors her emboldened stand by rising from simply strummed acoustic guitar and mandolin to a full-on band sound fueled by stinging electric guitar interjections and velvety, assertive background voices chanting the title sentiment. Persevering is not exactly what Tracy Chapman has in mind for the woman who’s been played in “All That You Have Is Your Soul,” but rather a heightened Emersonian sense of values, self-worth and self-reliance, as Harris lays it out over a subdued, guitar-propelled ambiance. Harris is so immersed in these songs, and so mesmerizing when she sings, that it’s easy to overlook the odd, mismatched guest vocals that betray, one suspects, the flown-in nature of these parts. Still and all, the laconic country mood and existential ennui of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” is heightened by the graceful, warm vocals Harris shares with bluegrass giant John Starling on the track; and the McGarrigle sisters—no strangers they to the Emmylou legacy—are perfectly evocative in supporting Harris’s winsome reading of their “How She Could Sing the Wildwoof Flower,” an enigmatic, Appalachian-styled story song about lovers who were separated either by death or by callous fate. Even in its weakest moments, then, All I Intended To Be achieves grandeur and meaning on a profound scale that rewards repeated inspection. Song and dance men should take note, and take flight.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024