Amazing Grace

A lot of ink has been spilled about Emmylou Harris’ intuitive ability to seek out great songs.

After spending three decades being a “song magnet”, it stands to reason Harris would have absorbed the creative knowledge behind writing a good song. Never mind the commercial dud of 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose, her first attempt at writing her own record.

So in 2000, Harris released Red Dirt Girl, her second album of self-written material.

The songwriting on Red Dirt Girl stood toe-to-toe with the work of Harris’ colleagues, but the album itself was often too achingly beautiful.

It didn’t seem able to cast off the looming shadow of Wrecking Ball, her most moving album to date.

When news came that Stumble Into Grace would be another set of originals, questions arose (at least in my mind) about whether this album could stand on its own.

Good news — it does.

This time around, producer Malcolm Burns, who helmed Red Dirt Girl, did away with the cathedral sonics of his mentor Daniel Lanois. Stumble Into Grace brings Harris front and center, and in doing so, makes her music even more intimate.

Sure, some of the residual Joshua Tree-era U2-isms still abound — the Edge would probably find Burns’ guitar work on “I Will Dream” very familiar — but with Harris in the foreground, it’s easy to forgive.

Audiophile considerations aside, Stumble Into Grace shows a remarkable maturation in Harris’ songwriting. An exuberent track such as “Jupiter Rising” was exactly what Red Dirt Girl needed to break its levity.

“Strong Hand (Just One Miracle)” takes on a stronger resonance when you imagine June Carter Cash (to whom the song is dedicated) standing by her recently departed husband, Johnny.

“Little Bird” adds a dose of sweetness to the album, while “Time in Babylon”, co-written with ex-Luscious Jackson member Jill Cuniff, gives it some seething grit.

Of course, Harris’ specialty is that achingly beautiful song, represented by the likes of “Lost Onto This World”, “O Evangiline” and “Can You Hear Me Now” (no relation to the Verizon commercials).

Balanced by more diverse moods, these songs don’t overpower Stumble Into Grace, which gives the album’s title much more meaning.

Graceful, indeed.