It’s a natural pairing, yet the teaming of legendary Emmylou Harris and country superstar Rodney Crowell as a duo took decades. Old Yellow Moon has reinvigorated these old friends and music veterans once again.
Sitting with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on a cozy afternoon in one of London’s plushest boutique hotels, I’m struck by the vast musical legacies these prolific artists have accrued: dozens of albums, awards, accolades, plus countless shows and tours. As the conversation flows, Acoustic is relaxed in the company of these genuinely down-home Southerners. After all, Crowell and Harris are longtime compadres and collaborators, so the chilled vibe is baked into the proverbial cake.
Emmylou Harris built a career on the twin virtues of refinement and elegance. Her voice was, and remains, one of music’s most cherished. Early on, Emmylou’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ displayed her gossamer uniqueness. Harris co- pioneered the country-folk-rock lexicon with her mentor, the late trailblazer Gram Parsons (Parsons sought her for GP, and they made the lauded follow-up Grievous Angel). Ms Harris often describes herself as an interpreter of songs, but she’s also proven to be a compelling tunesmith in her own right.
Not content with treading a safe, artistic path, Emmylou traversed acoustic bluegrass, folk and country-rock with a diverse array of co-conspirators such as Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt (on their smash album Trio), The Band, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Griffin among others. She stretched herself on milestone albums such as Red Dirt Girl, Roses In the Snow, White Shoes, and Wrecking Ball. She appeared in Scorsese’s famed documentary The Last Waltz (capturing The Band’s final show) and contributed to the celebrated O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.
Fortuitously her voice remains intact, and at the age of 65-years-old Emmylou remains unguarded, energetic, and with decades of music under her belt, seemingly invincible.
Texan-born and bred Rodney Crowell has music in his veins. His body of work reads as a veritable who’s who of country music. Discovered by Nashville icon Jerry Reed in the 70s, Crowell remains a country triple threat as a producer, player, and songwriter (he penned country classic ‘Elvira’ among many others). His collaboration with Harris harkens back to her first band as he was the rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist in her Hot Band in the mid-70s, which also included members of Elvis’ backup crew. Crowell is a lean songwriting machine who is personable and laconic. His compositions popularised by Harris include ‘Till I Gain Control Again’, ‘Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This’, ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’, and the magnificent ‘Bluebird Wine’ – Old Yellow Moon contains a splendid reworking of this.
Crowell was once a member of the Cash family as he was married to Johnny’s singer-songwriter daughter, Roseanne Cash. Johnny covered one of Rodney’s classic songs ‘Bull Rider’ and recruited Rodney as a producer, too. But aside from hearing his vast song catalogue, I’d highly recommend his eminently readable memoirs, China Berry Sidewalks for the lowdown on his riveting life. One thing’s for certain: when Crowell and Harris tour in early summer to support their new release, sparks will be flying from the stage.
I heard that a chance meeting between the two of you served as the genesis for Old Yellow Moon…
Crowell: I went down Emmy’s street to take a shortcut through the Green Hills area (a verdant residential neighbourhood in Nashville, outlined in the song ‘Green Rolling Hills’ off Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town ) and saw her walking with her mother and her dogs so I pulled up nearby for a bit to say hello…
So who made the call to actually get back into the studio?
Harris: I did. It occurred to me that it’s getting late. You only have a finite amount of time to do everything and we kept planning to work together again and so I just thought “We should do it.” You don’t pass up something like this and we just threw out songs to each other, which is where we began our friendship years ago. It was the right time.
(Addressing Rodney) I’m intrigued that you included ‘Bull Rider’ on this album…
Crowell: Johnny Cash did ‘Bull Rider’ all those years ago, and he did make it iconic, and it was beautiful. Then two or three years ago Norah Jones recorded it on one of her albums, and when I heard it, it took me a moment to recognise it was my song. I played it over and over and over again because I loved it. Something about her version gave it back to me; that’s the only reason I brought it up for the sessions with Emmy. She always loved that song.
Harris: For me, the song that exemplifies this record and our friendship is the title track. It could be about a marriage; it could be about a brother and sister; it could be about friends. It’s just about a long, enduring affection for someone. So it’s about us.
I suppose one of the benefits of working together is that you know each other so well.
Crowell: We’ve been friends since the 70s. I don’t ever remember us having an argument. We still talk about the same things we always did – about our faith and passion when it comes to music, and our sense of wonder that these songs that we love even exist.
Harris: We lighten each other up. He’s one of those people whose friendship is so important to me. There are some people you just delight in, and Rodney’s one of those people for me.
Are you a perfectionist in the studio, Emmylou?
Harris: I like to be very prepared and rehearse a lot. I mean rehearse for tours, as you can’t for a record. Once I learn a song and know it, I just give myself over to the song. I’ve learned to honour the spontaneity of a live take. ‘Old Yellow Moon’ was the first song we sang together and we got that on the first take. I love the words to that song and feel so lucky we got a cut like that.
Crowell: I’ve never experienced Emmy as a perfectionist but she understands perfection. Perfectionist has a negative connotation. How about we say she has what you call integrity?
The producer of Old Yellow Moon is Brian Aherne, your ex-husband, Emmylou…
Harris: Yeah, it is. I have three of them.
I guess you’re done with marriage?
Harris: I’m very busy and I’m not looking around. But I’m not in the grave yet. [Giggles]
I suppose there was no awkwardness working with Brian, then?
Harris: None. The reason I know Rodney is because of Brian. He signed him as a writer and produced his first record so he brought him into my life. Brian is also a brilliant producer so I felt for those reasons he should be part of this equation. It felt right.
What did Brian bring as a producer to Old Yellow Moon?
Harris: He gets great sounds and knows how to record voices and has fantastic ideas for arrangements.
Crowell: Brian has a very creative sensibility and the three of us collaborating was valid. He could be a dispassionate voice if we needed it.
Harris: I’ve got to say that the recording worked pretty seamlessly.
At this stage of the game what aspect of making a record presents the most challenges?
Harris: You have to really want to do it because at some point, no matter how excited you are to make a record, it does become drudgery. So the desire to do it is the crucial element. You have to be excited enough to put yourself into that situation where it will become hard work and you could fail. And let’s face it; I have this dumb optimism because I’ve always worked with such great people. I’ve been surrounded by the best.
You also included ‘Bluebird Wine’ (from Harris’ Pieces of the Sky) on Old Yellow Moon.
Crowell: When Pieces of the Sky came out, I was in California with Emmy. We were in a boutique in LA and ‘Bluebird Wine’ came on the radio, and we were jumping up and down excitedly when it started playing. We went up to the cashier, and Emmylou said, “Listen, do you hear that? That’s me singing.” And I said, “Yeah, and that’s my song.” And the cashier sarcastically said, “Oh, yeah, sure.” We were like, “No, really. It is.”
Harris: Rodney had never recorded it himself, and it seemed like a new version would give everyone a chance to hear what I heard when I heard Rodney sing that song. And I suppose there was a certain sentimentality for me, because it is kind of how we got together.
How do you keep the songwriting juices flowing?
Harris: Well, the door is always opened for those ideas.
Crowell: I’ve used Emmys line, “Talking about songwriting is like doing card tricks on the radio” many times to try to describe it. It’s a constant reflex. Even if I’m watching a TV show chances are I’m watching how it has been written. Within entertainment, and being entertained, there’s a mindfulness that you’ve got to be invested in it day in and day out. That snow (gestures to the flakes falling outside the hotel window) brings lyrics to my mind. So even enjoyment of entertainment provokes thought on how it is conceived so I guess I’m ready at all times to do my craft. For me, the melodies are the easiest part. Sometimes they come in bulk together with words, other times it’s a long storied process. But I write a lot of shitty songs to get some good ones from time to time [laughs]. The melodies are instinctive but to find the words it can be challenging.
How about your guitars?
Crowell: The guitar loves of my life have all been given to me. I have a Gibson 1932 L-OO, the little black 12-fret with a white pick guard. For a small body guitar I can play it hard or gently. That one was given to me by Sterling Ball. Vince Gill (guitarist who appears on ‘Old Yellow Moon’) gave me a 14-fret Gibson 1937 L-OO. We were playing some shows when Vince gave me that one – it’s amazing. The other guitar was a 1961 Martin New Yorker given to me 28 years ago.
Harris: The guitar is the key to unlocking the song for me. I have to learn a song on the guitar. I just have to. It’s not only the chord changes – I have to get the groove, the phrasing, everything. It’s the vehicle that gets me to the heart of the song. I play a Gibson Montana, and a J-200 that Gram Parsons gave me. I also own a rosewood SJ-200 and a Gibson Country Western. I use Sunrise pickups and the Fishman Aura system.
What has been the highlight
of your career?
Harris: Obviously working with Gram because without him I’d just be another waitress. He made it all happen for me and through him I met Brian, Rodney, and then the album I did with Daniel Lanois (the groundbreaking Wrecking Ball) it reenergised me, broke my log jam with songwriting and set me on a path to songwriting again. So it’s all been amazing. Whoever’s writing the screenplay for my life, I’m very pleased with the way it’s going.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Old Yellow Moon is out now. They will tour throughout May.