Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris Rekindle The Spirit

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There’s also Harris and Crowell’s deliciously crafty reading of the low-slung blues number “Black Caffeine” and their re-do of the Crowell-penned “Bluebird Wine,” this time with her harmonizing and him delivering the melody with hiccupping, hillbilly jive. Long after he’d departed the Hot Band to do his own thing, they’d still sing together here and there – on his albums or hers, on the Grand Ole Opry, on T.V. shows and tributes. But they haven’t sung together like this in a good long while.

On the subject of vintage Crowell compositions like “Bluebird Wine” and “Here We Are,” his feelings about the prospect of revisiting those songs bring into focus the complex relationship a veteran songwriter can have with the work of his youth. Shares Crowell, “I was a little hesitant about ‘Here We Are.’ Emmy got me in the boat on that one. I was intimidated because I wrote it, but the first time I heard it sung was [when] George Jones and Emmy [sang it]. But in the end,” he continues, “my misgivings about it were turned into ‘Who cares? This is not about comparing. This is not a competition, nor a contact sport. This is just a record.’”

“Bluebird Wine,” though, brought on a comparison between Crowell’s present and past songwriting standards. “Honestly,” he says, “I wrote it very early in my formative years of songwriting. But Emmy’s recording of it was perfect for that time and place and for what it was. It was perfect for Emmy. Its tone was gorgeous. I was so proud of it.” He jokes that it was Harris’s fault that that changed later on: “We were talking about songs. And Emmy was doing her finger[-wagging] thing and going, ‘No soft rhymes!’”

“Yeah, but I broke that rule so many times,” she shoots back good-naturedly. “It was [a rule] from [Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter] Boudleaux Bryant. It had to be a classic rhyme.”

“And when Emmy said that,” Crowell resumes, “and attributed it to Boudleaux Bryant, from then on I was on a mission: no soft rhymes. I’d hear soft rhymes and I’d go, ‘Shame on you. That’s a soft rhyme.’ So there we were with ‘Bluebird Wine’ with a couple of verses with soft rhymes. And I thought, ‘Oh shit. What am I gonna do?’ So I just said, ‘Emmy, is it okay if I change this?’ I just rewrote it.”

“It’s still the spirit,” reasons Harris, who chose it as her inaugural Crowell cut all those years ago. “The spirit is the same.”

“I can’t say I made the song better than it was back then,” he says, chuckling. “The only thing I did was give it a proper rhyme scheme … You have to understand, by the time we got around to recording ‘Bluebird Wine’ [the second time], I was a published author and had been properly edited. [His memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, came out in 2011.] So it’s like I’m not at liberty to be blissful about rhyme.”

There have been times when Crowell has flaunted his freedom and seen unexpected payoffs; that’s how “Bluebird Wine” found its way into Ahern and Harris’s hands in the first place. Back when Crowell was an untested, unknown, new-to-Nashville songwriter, he landed an afternoon gig at a Green Hills watering hole called the Jolly Ox. The only rule was that he absolutely, positively had to stick to playing covers. Yet, after just two days on the job, he couldn’t resist announcing, “Here’s this new song I wrote.” With a tinge of pride, Crowell recalls, “The boss comes up to me and says, ‘Man, I told you you couldn’t play original songs. You’re fired.’ And Harry Warner [Jerry Reed’s manager at the time] just stepped right behind him and says, ‘Well good, ‘cause we want to record that song tomorrow afternoon – Jerry Reed, who’s sitting over there.’”

Crowell soon found himself with a publishing deal and the opportunity to demo songs, which came in handy during a chance encounter with Anne Murray bassist, Skip Beckwith. Beckwith offered to take a cassette tape of Crowell’s songs to Murray’s producer, Brian Ahern. And that tape made it into the pile of song demos Ahern had gathered for a new recording artist by the name of Emmylou Harris.

Says Harris, “I went up to Toronto and Brian played me demos all day long. [At his kitchen table, no less.] At first I would listen to the whole song. But I knew right away I didn’t like anything … He said, ‘It’s okay. After a few bars, let’s just move on. It’s not gonna bother me.’ So I didn’t hear anything all day long that I liked. And he said, ‘Well I’ve got one more thing.’ … I think we were both hearing it for the first time, because it was still in its paper that it was wrapped up in. It had ‘Bluebird Wine’ and ‘Song For The Life’ on it. I said, ‘That’s the ticket right there.’”

It was no less exciting a moment when Harris and Crowell actually got together and tried singing. “I had a notebook full of lyrics to old country songs,” remembers Harris, “because I was still in school, so to speak. After Gram died, I was just trying to pick my way down that road and figure out what I was doing. Rodney coming into my life was so extraordinary, because he loved the same things I did, and loved singing harmony. So we were homeschooled.”

By then, Crowell had learned from the showmanship required in wild-ass Texas dives, and studied the art of songwriting in a circle that included Guy and Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury. “Where I came from,” he explains, “language was really a big part of it, but it was presentation and honky-tonk persona, that Hank Williams was the perfect vehicle for. But when I got with Guy and started paying attention, I started understanding about the writing and about the language and the dedication to the craft. I got really swept up in that, and it was a really great crash course and I learned a lot very quickly.”

Harris has always written songs here and there, from her Parsons tribute “Boulder To Birmingham” to Crowell co-writes like “Amarillo” to Red Dirt Girl, the first album on which she either wrote or co-wrote every track. But even back then she considered herself more of a song collector. And it made all the difference in the world that she’d discovered a song source from her own generation, who shared her respect for country’s rural roots and her hippie-style openness. “It’s great,” says Harris, “to sing a song like ‘Sweet Dreams,’ but to have fresh material hot off the presses from Rodney right there, I think it gave me a sense that I was onto something that nobody else had at that point.”

In contrast, a lot of the songs on Old Yellow Moon had already been taken up by other performers; “Dreamin’ My Dreams” is identified with Waylon Jennings, “Invitation To the Blues” with Roger Miller and the Crowell co-write “Open Season On My Heart” with Tim McGraw. (It’s a safe bet, though, that few people will remember the Sissy Spacek version of “Hangin’ Up My Heart,” or that it appeared on her Crowell-produced, post-Coal Miner’s Daughter album.) The singular thing that Harris and Crowell bring to these not-new songs is a feel for how to sing them together right now; when to push against, shore up, make way for or get playful with each other. It’s a knowledge earned as they’ve watched each other weather marriages, parenthood, record deals and shifting commercial fortunes, and rooted for each other during seasons of artistic reinvention; like when she sought out an experimental new frame for her music on Wrecking Ball and when he began tapping the memoirist-songwriter vein with The Houston Kid.

Wrecking Ball really hit me profoundly,” says Crowell. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is Emmy stepping into her artistry wholly.’ Not that what she’d done before wasn’t fully informed artistry, but it’s just something about that [album].It’s no accident that sometime later I sort of found my bearings and made The Houston Kid, because it was inspiring. I didn’t want to make the record Emmy made, but I wanted to access in myself what I saw my friend access. That’s the way admiration and inspiration will work, if you know somebody and observe the process.”

And this is the way collaboration works when two singers are willing to bring the table – kitchen or otherwise – the gloriously messy range of their experiences: it makes the music feel more human.

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