Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Music Features Emmylou Harris
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When George Jones asked Emmylou Harris to sing a duet with him on his 1979 album, My Very Special Guests, she suggested a song by her longtime sidekick Rodney Crowell, “Here We Are.” It’s the story of a man and a woman who have spent too much time chasing after dreams and running out of back doors to escape trouble. Now, having hit bottom, they find themselves alone in a room and realize it’s better to love the one you’re with than to never love at all. The Old Possum and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo sing as if they’re getting ready to do just that.

Today, 34 years later, Harris is singing the same song as a duet, but this time with Crowell himself. It comes near the end of their first-ever album as equal partners, Old Yellow Moon, but it has a completely different feel from the Jones version. Instead of sounding like cats and dogs in heat, Harris and Crowell sound like two old friends who have traveled a long road—sometimes together, sometimes apart—and have arrived at a place where they both feel comfortable, comfortable enough to sing, “We’ve both grown tired of running after rainbows—here we are, darlin’, here we are.”

“When I wrote that song in the ‘70s,” Crowell recalls, “I was trying to impress a girl, which is a noble pursuit in itself, but as I got older the song became something else. It’s about coming to terms with being older; it’s about realizing that I don’t have anything else to prove, and Emmy doesn’t have anything to prove. We can just be ourselves: ‘Here we are.’ You can hear the same thing in ‘Old Yellow Moon’ and especially in ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’ on the album. The gentleness of that self-acceptance is as evocative and powerful as something with more youthful angst. In a way, I’m still trying to impress a girl; I’m trying to make my old friend Emmy happy every time we sing it.”

Harris and Crowell are terrific role models for how to grow old. She never dyed her long, dark hair once it turned a shining silver, and his baby-blue eyes still twinkle amid the lines around them. When country radio stopped playing their records in the early ‘90s, they refused the easy option of becoming oldies acts, but became more experimental and made some of their best albums, such as her Wrecking Ball and his The Houston Kid.

Instead of replacing their old dancehall two-steps about wine-soaked love with contemplative odes to longtime companions, they have added one to the other, implying that getting old is a process of addition, not substitution. They have now made an album that demonstrates how the flame of friendship may not burn as brightly as the flame of romance but burns more steadily and may still be flickering when the other is extinguished.

Their friendship began back in a Toronto apartment in 1974. Harris was still recovering from the death the previous September of Gram Parsons, the gifted singer-songwriter who had pioneered a new kind of country music infused with rock and R&B as a member of the Byrds, then as co-founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers and finally as a solo artist who used Harris as his vocal foil. In the wake of that death, Harris had more or less inherited Parsons’ band, his management team and his record label (Warner Bros.). Her manager had sent her to Canada to work with Brian Ahern, Anne Murray’s producer, on what would become Pieces of the Sky, Harris’ first major-label album.

“We started the first morning I got there,” Harris remembers, “and he played me demos of songs. I’d listen to the whole song, and then I’d say, ‘Not really.’ Finally Brian said, ‘Listen, Emmy, I know you know right away whether you like the song or not; you don’t have to listen to the whole track.’ After that, things sped up, and we went through a lot of tapes, but I still didn’t find anything I liked. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I wasn’t finding it. We came to the end of what we were prepared to listen to. And with some amusement he said, ‘Well, I do have this one tape that someone recommended, but I haven’t listened to it yet.’”

It was an audio cassette that an unknown Nashville songwriter named Rodney Crowell had given to Anne Murray’s bassist Skip Beckwith. “The first song was ‘Bluebird Wine,’” Harris continues, “and I said, ‘I love this,’ which is ironic, because I’m such a seeker of sad, depressing songs, and this one was so full of joy. A lot of it had to do with Rodney’s voice; I could tell he’d listened to George Jones, and George Jones was the Rosetta Stone for me at the time. The second song was ‘Song for the Life.’ I said, ‘This is it.’”

Ahern agreed and tracked down Crowell to offer him a music publishing deal and a plane ticket to D.C., where Harris was still living. It was in Washington that Parsons had first discovered her, and it was to that city she retreated after Parsons’ death. She had been a folk singer when Chris Hillman had first heard her at the D.C. singles bar Clyde’s in 1971 and recommended her to Parsons. Now she was back on the same circuit of Georgetown bars, but this time with a country band. Crowell first laid eyes on her at the Childe Harold and even sat in with her band. Later that night the two were sitting in a friend’s house in suburban Bethesda singing every song they knew to each other.

“The genesis of our friendship goes back to when Emmy and I first met,” Crowell recounts, “when we sat on the floor and sang Louvin Brothers songs at each other and Townes Van Zandt songs at each other. For Emmy and me, our conversation has always been about songs. I started out as a song confidant; she was still pursuing the education in country music that she had started with Gram. Given my family background as the son of a Texas country singer, I was able to answer her questions. I’d say, ‘Have you learned this Webb Pierce song?’ So we’d sing that together. She’d ask about Don Gibson’s ‘Sweet Dreams,’ and we’d sing that together.”

“He played me a song he wrote called ‘’Til I Gain Control Again,’ Harris recalls, “and if I had had any doubts about Rodney, that would have ended it. It’s still just about my favorite song of all time.”

For Harris, learning music wasn’t so much about listening to records or going to shows; it was about finding someone she could trust and learning songs with that person. There was something about the negotiation between the two voices in a song that was not only instructive but also reflective of the negotiation between men and women in the country songs she was learning. She had done this learning-by-singing with Parsons and the Seldom Scene’s John Starling; now she was doing it with Crowell.

“It was so important to have someone to sing with,” Harris explains. “That’s how I learned to become a singer. When you’re singing with someone else, you have to have some restraint so you fit with the other voice. But you can’t think about having restraint; you just have to go with the song. And you have to respect the melody in country music; you can’t go off on your own and do whatever you want. That’s another kind of restraint that’s helpful.”

“People said, ‘You sound good together,’” Crowell adds, “and we thought we sounded good together. Emmy and I are both fans of sibling harmony: Phil and Don Everly, Ira and Charlie Louvin, Buck Owens and Don Rich, John and Paul, Emmy and Gram. For whatever reason those voices go together well, Gram had that reedy and flinty voice, and mine’s reedy and flinty too, though in a different way. When you get Emmy up a third above that and arcing over it, it sounds great.”

“You know when it just feels right,” Harris says. “The song starts to shine. There’s a joyful thing about singing in harmony. When two voices join together, that’s different than someone singing by themselves; it tells a different story. You have two individuals with two very different perspectives but they’re singing the same song. I’ve always celebrated Rodney’s voice; I always thought he didn’t sound like anyone else. He just opens his voice and music comes out. That’s what we have in common.”

The first song on Pieces of the Sky, when it was finally released in 1975, was “Bluebird Wine.” It was a bouncy Texas two-step, an exuberant celebration of new love consecrated by a “belly full of baby’s bluebird wine.” Backed by three members of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band (guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin and drummer Ron Tutt) and the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon on banjo, Harris sang with such whooping, growling giddiness that it seemed she had a belly full herself.

“Bluebird Wine” also appears on Old Yellow Moon, this time with Crowell singing lead, Ahern playing the acoustic guitar riff and Harris singing the high, giddy sibling harmony. Crowell had never been happy with the lyrics he had written as a 24-year-old neophyte songwriter in 1974, so in 2011 as a 61-year-old veteran he took the opportunity of the new recording to fix the first two verses. Thus the original’s awkward second verse, which tried to rhyme “spend my evenings here at home” with “all the Bluebird we can hold,” instead rhymed “she’s got a million things to do” with “some pretty song about me and you.”

“Emmy had a sentimental attachment to ‘Bluebird Wine,’” Crowell explains, “and she said, ‘You never recorded it; you should sing it.’ I was unsure. In 1974 it was the best I had to offer, and it sounded so great when she was singing with that band flying behind her. But for me to sing it now, it needed to be better, so I rewrote the first two verses so there were no longer any soft rhymes.” Crowell has had similar second thoughts about “Shame on the Moon,” his composition that became a big hit for Bob Seger: “I’ve never done it live, because that last verse is so iffy. I asked Seger about it, and he said it was fine the way it was. But not for me, so now I’m working on a revision.”

“Bluebird Wine” is one of the new album’s four uptempo numbers that seem lifted straight out of a Texas dancehall. Old Yellow Moon opens with Hank DeVito’s bouncy, honky-tonk two-step “Hanging Up My Heart,” which finds Harris insisting that she’ll have “no more rodeo dances, no more howling at the moonlight,” even as she’s wailing her way through a rodeo dance song. That’s followed by Crowell singing Roger Miller’s country shuffle, “Invitation to the Blues,” which employs a boot-scooting steel guitar to reveal a broken heart. The fourth song is Crowell’s own “Bull Rider,” a rollicking tribute to a rodeo star who stays atop a steer “like a hurricane dancing with a kite.”

“I was keen to make this a country record,” Crowell acknowledges, “so the album needed those first two songs to be cowgirl and cowboy songs. I wanted our first foot forward to be country. My friend Emmy has some cowgirl spirit in her, and I like to energize that when I’m around her. When I think of me and her singing together, I think of country, because that’s how we started out, singing country and folk songs together. I wanted more of that at first, but I was shown that we could also sound good on something like ‘Back When We Were Beautiful.’”

Crowell, the son of a blue-collar Houston honky-tonker, grew up on country music and in 1974 took over Parsons’ role as Harris’ guide to the genre’s history. By the time of her second album, Elite Hotel, also released in 1975, he became her rhythm guitarist and primary harmony singer—a role that would be later filled by the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Barry Tashian, Carl Jackson, Jon Randall Stewart and Buddy Miller. In exchange for turning her on to country legends like Don Gibson, she turned him on to folk-music figures such as Richard Thompson.

“Though I never abandoned my love of folk music, my love of lyrics and songs, my love of Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie,” Harris says, “I did dive into country music. It was a very dramatic and intense sea change for me. The fact that I jumped into this whole other style of music with that folk-sounding voice gave me whatever style I had. Because I was an outsider, I had another take on it. There were two worlds coming together.

“That’s way music always evolves,” she adds. “Each generation has to reinvent music, but we have to draw from the past, because what we’ve listened to is everyone who has gone before us. We all start out trying to imitate the artists we love, but we learn that no one can be Joan Baez but Joan Baez, just as no one can be Dolly Parton but Dolly Parton. But in trying to combine their music I came up with something that sounded like neither of them. I read somewhere that style is the product of our limitations, and that’s true for me.”

The hillbilly dance numbers that kick off Old Yellow Moon are a reminder that long before they became adult-alternative acts with a refined, Americana art-pop sound suited for National Public Radio, Harris and Crowell were not just country singers; they were country stars. Between 1975 and 1992, Harris had 27 Top 10 country hits, including seven No. 1s, while Crowell had eight Top 10s and five No. 1s. Along with Crowell’s then-wife Rosanne Cash and Harris’s ex-band member Ricky Skaggs, they were able to penetrate the country-music establishment in a way that similar country-rockers such as Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Roger McGuinn, John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt never could.

The difference was Brian Ahern, who produced Harris’ first 11 albums (most of them as her husband) and Crowell’s solo debut. Ahern also served as a mentor to Crowell, Skaggs, Emory Gordy and Tony Brown, who went on to become successful producers themselves. It’s important to point out that Old Yellow Moon is a reunion not only of the two singers but also of Harris, Crowell, producer Ahern and engineer Donivan Cowart. Together they recreate the Ahern Sound.

That sound was different not only from business-as-usual on Music Row in 1975, where it was still standard operating procedure to rush through four songs in an afternoon on equipment that was a generation old, but also from the new country-rock sound in California, where rock bands bashed about in the studio as if they were on stage. Ahern, a bearded Nova Scotian, was more painstakingly obsessed with tone than his redneck colleagues in Nashville and more concerned with organizational clarity than his hippie colleagues on the West Coast. Moreover, he had a knack for blending acoustic and electric instruments that connected country music’s past to its future.

As a result his records had the glowing timbre of the Beatles’ late records but with a hillbilly twang—and when Ahern wanted you to hear a fiddle or steel guitar break, the instrument popped out of the arrangement because everything was cleared away around it. This was radically different from the Flying Burrito Brothers’ records, which were noisy, cluttered and imprecise; it’s no surprise that Harris’ singles found a place on country radio and the Burritos’ didn’t.

“Gram’s music was less crafted and more spontaneous,” Crowell told me in 2003. “They didn’t clean it up much in the studio. They either got it or they didn’t. Brian brought production technique onto the scene. In the beginning, I thought it was too orchestrated or too pop. Gram’s records had more in common with the Rolling Stones, in that the Stones sounded real messy, which I like. But Brian was evolving from producing Anne Murray, who made pop records, to making rock-based country records.”

“I emphasized the economy of the performances,” Ahern added in 2004. “I’d wait till I got the ‘can’t help it,’ irresistible urge to play from the musicians instead of cursory noodling. I stayed away from musicians who would come in with yesterday’s session on their breath. Technically, I removed annoying and useless frequencies rather than boosting the pleasant ones and relied on aggressive editing. If the simplification suited the song, I would erase a very expensive 22-piece string section.”

“I gained confidence as a recording artist from working with Brian,” Harris told me last week. “I got the feeling that if I had an idea and it didn’t work, it wasn’t because it was a bad idea but because it didn’t fit in the context of the song. So I grew more confident. Brian’s really good at recording voices and instruments so they sound very present. He’s also very good musician, and he’d often set the rhythm with his guitar. He hears things other people don’t hear. On ‘Boulder to Birmingham,’ for example, James Burton played this guitar lick one time. Brian heard that and said, ‘That’s the hook for the song.’ He brought James back in to overdub that lick throughout the song. I never would have heard that.”

Ahern also made a point of using the same musicians who played with Harris on stage to back her in the studio. These were high-caliber players—pre-stardom Vince Gill, Presley guitarist James Burton, Presley bassist Emory Gordy, Presley keyboardist Glen D. Hardin, Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer John Ware—and all these names join the reunion on Old Yellow Moon.

“We wanted players with integrity,” Ahern told me in 2004, “not people who played in a derivative way. They didn’t have to be country musicians. At that time, most artists did not record with their bands. I disagreed with this process. Here bands did all the rehearsing and the bonding on stage, and went through the exhaustive work, only to be dismantled with the purpose of assembling studio musicians to get a natural band feeling back. I thought why not just spend more on a better road band, go on the road with them to fine-tune the arrangements and then when you finish your tour, you can record with them. It worked.”

You can hear the distinctive Ahern sound on the new album. When Harris sings Patti Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer,” for example, the producer establishes the storyline of a young woman frightened by her own feelings for a dashing dancer by having Harris sing in a whispery hush over an acoustic guitar. Slowly but surely Ahern adds musical equivalents for the narrator’s infatuation—an accordion and mandolin from the Mediterranean and finally Gill’s gut-string guitar solo, suggesting the dancer’s flamenco steps. When Crowell sings his own “Open Season on My Heart,” he similarly establishes the subject of midlife crisis by singing confidentially over a piano. His feelings of vulnerability are echoed in Tommy Spurlock’s steel fills and in Harris’ shadowing harmonies.

Whether it was Ahern producing Harris; Crowell producing himself, Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark; Skaggs producing himself and the Whites; Gordy producing Gill, Steve Earle and Patty Loveless; or Brown producing Crowell, Earle and Lyle Lovett, the Ahern Sound permeated country radio in the 1980s. In a way that seems unimaginable now, all these artists were scoring Top 10 country singles with smart, subtle songs.

“It’s all about the radio stations,” Crowell argues. “In the ‘80s, we were still close enough to the ‘60s, to that cultural revolution started by Elvis, the Beatles and Dylan, to artists who wanted to express themselves in a poetic way, that radio was willing to play songs like that. But along came the ‘90s and radio changed. The stations started targeting listeners and what music would make them spend their money on the advertisers, and it wasn’t what Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson were doing. If you stick ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ in the middle of what’s on country radio today, it wouldn’t be good for the other songs.”

“I love to quote Steve Earle when he talks about the ‘Great Credibility Scare’ of the late ‘80s,” Harris says, “when the Rodney, Rosanne, the O’Kanes, John Anderson and others were all out there. We said, ‘This is great, everybody’s coloring outside the lines; you don’t have to be told who’s singing because each singer has such a unique voice.’ And then all of a sudden it went to vanilla.”

When it did go to vanilla, and radio was no longer playing their latest singles, Harris and Crowell had a choice to make: Should they do what countless country stars before them had done when their radio luck ran out and become oldies acts recycling their hits for loyal fans? Or should they shift gears and create new material for an adult-alternative audience? Harris and Crowell gambled on the latter course.

“We both had good audiences who were not there just for the hits,” Harris points out, “so we were able to keep doing whatever was exciting at the time. As a writer, Rodney always had great songs to sing. As a singer, I always had wonderful people who wanted to work with me: Mark Knopfler, bluegrass musicians, Daniel Lanois, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello. So I had plenty of things to keep me busy and keep me inspired. I had a loyal following, who cared about more than the hits, and I could sing whatever I was excited about and they’d go along with me. It can be a real morale killer if you have to sing the same songs every night; I don’t know how people do it year after year.”

In other words, Harris and Crowell found a new way to age gracefully in country music. Even when you’re no longer a photogenic star with records on the charts, you can still create interesting music and find enough of an audience to keep going forward. It’s no longer about making a name for yourself and attracting new fans; it’s about deepening the dialogue with the fans you already have and with the friends you’ve made over the years. That’s what Harris and Crowell are celebrating on Old Yellow Moon: the liberation of old age. Because they no longer have to worry about building a career, they can concentrate on making the music matter.

On the title track, written by DeVito and Lynn Langham, Ahern establishes the aura of satisfying maturity by having Langham play a relaxed parlor-piano melody as Harris sings to her old friend, “With you right by my side, I’ve got nothing to hide.” Crowell’s whispery harmony bolsters Harris as she makes the point that her life is far from over: “Still I’m making my way into the heart of an unknown highway.” A similar combination of parlor piano and hushed harmonies leads to a similar sentiment on Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” “I don’t feel very different,” Harris sings. “I guess I’ve gotten used to these little aches and pains. But I still love to dance … I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully.”

“Time is going to go by whether you want it to or not,” Harris says, “so you might as well take make your peace with it. Especially as you grow older, your friendships are more important. Rodney and I have been through marriages and divorces, deaths and the births of children and grandchildren, hits and non-hits, good times and bad, and we’ve stayed friends through it all. You can’t replace that. Now to make music together like this in a project like this, there’s a joy and a sweetness that comes across to me—and I hope to the listener too.”

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