If you want to legitimize your band in the pantheon of rock and roll, you can do a whole lot worse than a duet with Emmylou Harris. The silver-haired songwriter’s discography includes collaborations with Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and her contributions to albums by Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons are legendary. She’s also given the younger generation her seal of approval by way of her harmonies, blending her unmistakable voice with artists like Bright Eyes, The Low Anthem and Dylan LeBlanc.
You can now add Mumford and Sons to that list. Last night on CMT Crossroads, the massively popular British folk band teamed with Harris for an hour’s worth of songs; including songs from their debut Sigh No More and their brand new album Babel. But it was more than just a chance for them to play up their own music; it was a learning experience for them as well. They became Harris’ backup band for staples like “If I Needed You,” “The Road” and “Orphan Girl,” which Marcus Mumford said was “a dream come true.” If it wasn’t for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (which features Harris) they explained, Mumford and Sons may have never had a career in the first place.
Their union was made even sweeter with the addition of slide and dobro master Jerry Douglas, who joined the band throughout the evening. You can hear their first collaboration on Douglas’s latest album, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”
Here’s a suggestion; Douglas should join the band full time. His guitar work really adds a welcome dimension to their plaintive strums and banjo picking — in fact, there’s your “new sound” that many are complaining is missing from Babel.
Later, Harris helped turn Sigh No More’s “Awake My Soul” into Americana canon with her storied vocals. Hell, they should hire Emmylou Harris too. She completes them.
As good as their voices sounded together, it might have been their conversations around a table that proved the most entertaining. The lads would ask her earnest questions about songwriting and maintaining a career without losing your soul, and Harris would either answer with a pearl of hard-earned wisdom, or a joke.
“What do you call 100 banjos at the bottom of the ocean? A good start,” she blasphemed.
You can watch selections from the show below.