Emmylou Harris returns to her roots

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When chatting with country-music legend Emmylou Harris, even the most seasoned interviewer can get a little nervous. The preternaturally beautiful singer-songwriter exudes such a magic, such magnetic calm, that just seeing her perform once can stick with a person for years, so much so that being starstruck is inevitable.

One might be inspired to quote Washington Post music critic Josh Freedom duLac: “Emmylou Harris is like bacon. She makes everything better.”

That’s a great analogy, but, over the phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her mother and runs a dog shelter, the 61-year-old with the crystalline voice demurs.

“Well, I don’t know if I like that,” she says, “because I’m a vegetarian.”

Eeep. While another singer of Harris’s stature might make a person feel a fool for such a gaffe, the Alabama-born musician offers up a slice of southern hospitality and quips “How about cheese? Let’s say cheese.”

It’s this quick-witted and gentle nature that made the title of her last full-length record, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, so apt. A gifted songwriter in her own right, Harris is also dazzlingly adept at taking other songwriters’ pieces and effortlessly making them her own, be it a well-known Beatles hit or the work of some unknown-yet-genius Nashville tunesmith.

Her newest album, released in June, is no less grandly titled: All I Intended to Be is nothing if not evocative, especially for a woman who has accomplished so much.

“It encompasses all the different hats I’ve worn—songwriting, doing covers, working with so many great people,” Harris says. “In a sense, it was a return to a sound that’s been with me throughout my career.”

Indeed, the album, which features collaborations with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, revisits the icon’s country-music roots, which she broke from in 1995 with the Daniel Lanois–produced Wrecking Ball. Since then, Harris had been exploring a more rock-based sound, with her albums focusing on her own songwriting.

All I Intended to Be, by contrast, boasts an evenhanded mix of self-penned compositions and the work of other writers. What’s more, the album sees the return of producer Brian Ahern, who helmed most of Harris’s albums in the ’70s and ’80s.

“I’ve been comfortable with everything I’ve done,” Harris says. “When I did the records with Daniel and Malcolm [Burn, producer of 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace] I was very comfortable and very excited by that music. It really inspired me and got my creative juices flowing. But it seemed like at this point, this [return to country] is the sound that’s coming through me right now. I have to give the credit to Brian. I started this not knowing exactly where I was headed.”

The result of this freewheeling approach is the country veteran’s best album in over a decade, a critically acclaimed gem that features covers of songs by Tracy Chapman, Billy Joe Shaver, Patty Griffin, and Merle Haggard. As is often the case, many of the remakes end up better than the originals—Haggard’s “Kern River”, gilded with harmonies, sparkles where it previously dragged, and Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” strikes a fine balance between wryness and sincerity.

Harris’s own contributions are also strong. “Gold”, which employs the voices of Parton and Gill, is a confidently produced lament of self-doubt. “Not Enough”, a tale of love lost—which turns out to be about the animal-loving songwriter’s dearly departed dog—is the album highlight.

The striking faith of Harris in her own musical vision may be the key to her exalted state of grace.

“When it comes to music, I’m confident,” she says. “I’m lucky that I have that arena where I can truly be myself. We’re all searching for that inner peace, and I have it in my work.”

Emmylou Harris plays the Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday (July 23).