Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern

May 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark



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Anna McGarrigle (button accordion) and Kate McGarrigle (banjo) tracking with Emmylou Harris

Anna McGarrigle (button accordion) and Kate McGarrigle (banjo) tracking with Emmylou Harris

Few artists in any genre have created a body of work as substantive and rich as Emmylou Harris. Over the years, Harris has mined great songs from folk, country and pop music traditions and showcased their compelling power with her own unique readings. She has also been a selfless champion of many artists and writers, and has written a number of superior songs herself. Harris has received many awards for her work, and this year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Harris' string of hits stretches back to 1975, when she began working with producer Brian Ahern on a successful run of 11 albums that included a number of classic tracks and hits like “Together Again,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” “Sweet Dreams,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” “Two More Bottles of Wine,” “Beneath Still Waters” and “Too Far Gone.” White Shoes, which was released 25 years ago, was the last album the two made together. Since then, Harris has put out many fine and critically acclaimed albums, but it is her work with Ahern that has proven to be the most influential and enduring over time.

During the past few years, Harris and Ahern have occasionally revisited their creative dance, and most recently it has resulted in a beautiful new release titled All I Intended to Be. The seeds for this new collaboration began during a reunion of Harris' legendary Hot Band for the 2004 ASCAP Country Music Awards show, where Harris was presented with the Founders Award.

“Since the award was about history, she asked me to come in to supervise the rehearsal and to re-create the Hot Band session vibe,” Ahern explains. “After the show, we were sitting at dinner when she asked me to do another album.”

By that time, the two had already reunited for a number of recordings for various projects: Robert Redford and Ethan Hawke movies, duets with Willie Nelson and Rodney Crowell, and, with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, three songs for the re-issue of Harris' luminous Christmas album Light of the Stable. Especially moving was her version of Joni Mitchell's “The Magdalene Laundries” and a richly imagistic track called “The Connection,” which appeared on The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches and Highways, and earned Harris a 2005 Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

“We've always worked incredibly well together,” says Harris. “Even from those first sessions, when I was so unsure of myself, it wasn't long for me to feel comfortable because one of Brian's many talents is his ability to sense an artist's strengths and encourage them without putting you on the spot. He allows you to grow at your own pace and gives you just enough room so that you don't hang yourself, but you also start to get confidence. I really think Brian understands that every artist is completely unique and has a vision down there somewhere. He helps you discover that by giving you all the tools. I felt I had a safety net, that he was listening to everything, and sometimes just him not saying anything was exactly what you needed. It's a very nurturing presence.”

All I Intended to Be celebrates some of the people who have journeyed with Harris over the years on her artistic path, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and musicians Glen D. Hardin, Stuart Duncan, Steve Fishell, Richard Bennett (who has produced Harris) and the Seldom Scene. The album also showcases Harris' talent for gatherering great songs, as well as her own gifts as a songwriter.

Harris has long kept a huge library of stashed song-finds on what she calls “material cassettes,” and as always she shows her extraordinary knack for taking others' songs and making them feel like they came from her heart. Ahern's empathetic production and arrangements go a long way to making All I Intended to Be one of the most emotionally satisfying albums Harris has done in years.

Six of the tracks on the new album are Harris' own compositions. This is an area where she has shown tremendous growth during the past several years, as her songs on Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace show. One song of All I Intended to Be, titled “Gold,” is a stripped-down “three chords and the truth” gem of classic country. “Those are the hardest songs to write,” she comments, “because you're working in a very small framework and you can't get clever. You have to come out and say exactly what you mean.”

Most of the work on All I Intended to Be took place at Ahern's Easter Island Surround studio, which got its name from the 8-foot stacks of gear that surround the control room like the ancient Pacific Island statues. Among the projects Ahern has done there are Harris' Producer's Cut (a DVD-Audio surround collection of classic Harris tracks) and surround mixes for Johnny Cash and three Jimmy Buffett DVDs.

Looming behind the studio is the legendary 42-foot, lead-lined Enactron truck. Deployed for all the great Harris productions, it was also a highly sought-after mobile facility used by such diverse acts as Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor.

Even with these options, however, several basic tracks on Harris' latest required a larger band, and for those Ahern booked the Sound Emporium in Nashville, where he produced Ricky Skaggs and a Number One country record for Johnny Cash. “I like recording at home, but not playing host,” says Ahern. “So when the contingent exceeds two people, I book a studio.” Ahern mounted his 16-track headstack on Sound Emporium's Studer A827 to record bass and drums at 15 ips on 14-inch reels. “I like to use 14-inch reels because it cuts down on tape waste, and while you are changing smaller reels, the best performances could be slipping away.”

Another member of the creative team who has contributed to the excellence of this new album, as well as most of Ahern's productions since 1975, is engineer/mixer Donivan Cowart. “Donivan puts up with me. I'm getting old and irascible,” states Ahern. “But the common lingo tends to build after 30 years. He's become an irreplaceable asset.”

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