County Legend Emmylou Harris, a self-described “finder of songs and gatherer of songs” has outdone herself with what deserves to be regarded as one of the year’s most remarkable country albums. Her first solo album since 2003, “All I Intended to Be” showcases Harris’s unparalleled gift for song selection. The album’s thirteen tracks are masterfully crafted pieces treating such timeless country themes as loss, regret, soul-searching, perseverance, and the final separation of death.
Perhaps more than any other county singer of her generation, Harris’s music career has been defined by the strength and power of her songwriting. “All I Intended to Be” is a worthy continuation of that legacy. Harris herself wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s tracks. The other tracks spring from equally heavy-hitting songwriter artillery, including Patty Griffin, Billy Joe Shaver, Tracy Chapman and even Merle Haggard. The end result is an album full of rich imagery, powerful emotion, and clever metaphor.
None of this is to downplay the album’s musical quality. Harris’s rich, soulful alto voice borders on the haunting and is an ideal vehicle for the songs presented on this album. Those in search of up-tempo “good times” country music should look elsewhere – the focus of “All I Intended to Be” is squarely on the introspective, the melodic, and even the downright mournful. While many of the songs make use of electric instruments, the album has an unmistakable down-tempo, acoustic feel. The selection of backing instruments: heavy on mandolins, accordians, slide guitar and gut-string guitar, accentuates the moody, acoustic atmosphere of Harris’s lyrics.
Country music’s ancestral roots in traditional Celtic music are well understood. However, few contemporary artists make that pedigree as gloriously obvious as Harris. Her haunting voice and her approach to the selections on “All I Intended to Be” lay bare those Celtic roots. At some points on the album, particularly “Shores of White Sand” and “Take that Ride,” the ear hears precious little difference between her introspective, melodic brand of country music and contemporary Irish or Scottish folk music.
“All I Intended to Be” shows Harris at her powerful and emotional best. Dedicated Harris fans (and, make no mistake, there are few fans more dedicated in all of country music) probably already have this album in their collections. It is a masterpiece of the introspective, melodic school of country music – one of the best examples of that genre to emerge in many years. Every aficionado of this sometimes underappreciated style of country will find “All I Intended to Be” a breath of fresh air that is as inspiring as it is melancholy.