This article appears in our May/June issue. Subscribe here.
As Emmylou Harris answers the door of her Nashville home and ushers her duet partner Rodney Crowell into the kitchen, their conversation skips from lighthearted greetings to official matters. He’s offered to host the rehearsals for their upcoming tour at his house, and she’s inquiring as to whether his backyard would simultaneously accommodate their dogs’ first play date. That, too, is an important part of road preparation. If all goes well with their newly assembled group of top-tier pickers and their newly introduced, much-beloved mutts, soon they’ll have a tight little roots-country combo backing them on stage and one big happy blended canine family keeping them company on the bus.
Working out such comfy, cozy logistics is a luxury afforded tour mates who are long past the first-impression stage, not only with each other but with their respective audiences. Harris and Crowell have an entwined four-decade history of music-making. This is the post-coronation era of their careers; she’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and they’ve both received Americana Lifetime Achievement Awards, hers for performance and his for songwriting.
The reason Crowell and Harris have duo dates on the books is the same reason the two of them have now converged at her kitchen table – a table someone in her employ has generously spread with cheese and crackers, veggies and dip, fresh fruit and giant gingersnap cookies – ready to let an interviewer’s digital recorder capture some of their warm, familiar banter. They’ve recorded their very first duets album, Old Yellow Moon, and it’s been a long time coming.
“God, when did we start, a year and a half ago?” Harris ventures.
Crowell is thinking big-picture when he responds, rather impishly, “We started in August of 1974.” And he’s got a point.
* * * * *
Lately, the male-female duet has returned to prominence in country and roots music. Married duos Shovels & Rope and Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison have each released albums distinctively flavored with their personality-driven camaraderie. On the other hand, there’s an explicitly universal quality to the dating dramas Lady Antebellum and Thomson Square play out in their performances. Then there are those singer-songwriter pairings that let the audience feel privy to intimate romantic tension – like The Civil Wars, who play up the yin-and-yang contrast between their personas but are, in reality, married to other people, Rayna-‘n’-Deacon and Scarlett-‘n’-Gunnar, characters who frequently exchange meaningful glances while performing together on ABC’s Nashville, and Striking Matches, a hot-picking, real-life duo that’s supplied material for the television show.
These are but a fraction of the available examples. And none of them are close to having what Crowell and Harris have when they sing together: a long-running, non-romantic back story that’s given them empathy, trust and the ability to help free each other from self-consciousness.
Says Crowell of their motivations for finally teaming up they way they have, “We just wanted to sing together.” That strategically placed “just” isn’t there to make light of the act of harmonizing. What he’s getting at is that two longtime kindred spirits joining their voices is the main event, and plenty meaningful in itself; they didn’t feel the need to co-write a bunch of new songs in order to give it heft.
“My reputation is mainly as a songwriter, and most of the records that I make somehow have the stamp of my sensibility as a songwriter,” says Crowell. “In our conversations [about the album] it was always way more [focused on] singing. In hindsight I realized, had we been trying to rope this record into a songwriting thing, it wouldn’t have had the …” He searches for the proper descriptor, finally borrowing one someone else recently applied to his collaboration with Harris: “That guy in Germany kept saying ‘nonchalance.’”
Laughing, Harris rushes to his rescue. “I think there’s a sweetness,” she offers. “I think it celebrates our friendship, and where we are at this point in our lives. Which we could’ve done with [new] songs, I suppose.”
She was the one who made the first move, calling to see if Crowell could carve out time to make the album they’d always talked about making, then getting on the phone with producer Brian Ahern, who’d been their invaluable early guide in the recording studio, as well as Harris’s husband, for a time.
At the kitchen table of Ahern’s Nashville home, the three of them launched into a highly democratic song selection process that set a tone for the project every bit as unfussy as the setting. “You know,” muses Crowell, “it’s like you sit there at the table and you get giggly. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you get giggly. If I would start to take myself too seriously, Brian and Emmy would somehow diffuse that wrinkled brow approach to making some kind of statement with gravity or something.”
Adds Harris, with a knowing chuckle, “I started out bringing some songs that were probably way too folk-oriented, and that got immediately thrown out.”
As Ahern so indelibly put it in an email, his exact words on the subject were, “Please, no precious folkie yawners!”