- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

With backing by singers including Linda Ronstadt, Julie Miller, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle and production from Malcolm Burn (who also produced Miss Harris’ 2000 Grammy-winning “Red Dirt Girl”), “Stumble Into Grace” would appear to have everything going for it.

In the name of “intimacy,” however, it winds up quietly plodding through six tracks before it finally hooks into a bouncy, pop-influenced “Jupiter Rising.”

The first glimmer of redemption comes with the tradition-inspired ballad “O Evangeline,” its acoustic guitar unfortunately buried underneath processed keyboard and electric guitar sounds.

Perhaps it is the lulling effect of the first nine songs that draws attention to “Plaisir d’Amour,” a song attributed to 17th-century French court conductor and composer Martini il Tedesco, and the only song of 11 on this disc not written or co-written by Miss Harris. It has an honest, unenhanced edge, sounding like friends enjoying a moment around a campfire with an accordion and fiddles.

The three concluding songs make enduring the preceding half-hour of music worthwhile. Miss Harris tackles oppression of women with “Lost Unto This World,” and spiritual faith in “Cup of Kindness.” Both are refreshing.

Miss Harris has spent three decades in the forefront of country-rock (she was a protege of one its founding fathers, Gram Parsons) and American roots music. Yet, just as a disparate group of younger alt-country songstresses — Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne and Gillian Welch, to name a few — has won critical esteem and carved a stable, if modest, commercial niche, Miss Harris has distanced herself from her roots. Certainly they are little in evidence on this recording.

Of the six opening tracks, “Little Bird” derives its melody from Peru and has something of an Appalachian feel, lyrically, but it has to struggle to emerge from its arrhythmic arrangement and the shadowy songs around it.

“Time in Babylon” points out social failings of the post-Vietnam upper-middle class and its attendant greed and preoccupations. Miss Harris sings, “put that conscience on the shelf/keep the best stuff for yourself,” but the message is muddied by apparently random percussion sounds and off-beat guitars coming from right and left. Miss Harris’ crystalline voice remains one of the finest natural instruments in popular music. Why obscure it behind layers of arbitrary ornamentation?

Miss Harris has won fame, praise and awards for her early work with Mr. Parsons and, more recently, with the Down From the Mountain spinoff tour from “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. III.” She is credited with helping bridge the gap between rock and country, making country music appeal to a wider, younger audience.

If “Stumble Into Grace,” is any indication, she has finished with that project and moved into a new genre of music altogether. This disc is neither fish nor fowl, neither country nor rock, and it deserves that most inauspicious of all labels — middle of the road.

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