Two of a Traveling Kind: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell’s Musical Kinship
During a performance in Chicago last month, Emmylou Harris told Rodney Crowell that he was starting a song in the wrong key. He glided into his response: “She remembers the keys, but I remember all the words.” Indeed, after 40 years of friendship and collaboration, Harris and Crowell have grown so comfortable with one another that they tend to finish each other’s thoughts both onstage and off. But it’s more than their folksy patter that illustrates the duo’s deep intimacy and long partnership. Clearly, theirs is a relationship born out of deep trust, respect, and the love of singing good songs. During almost every song they sing together, one of them effortlessly slides into a melody while the other slips back into the harmony vocal. At other times, as evidenced both during their live set and on their new duo album, The Traveling Kind, Harris’s aching vocals weave around Crowell’s twang, wrapping listeners in a comfortable old quilt woven from scraps of familiar tunes. Like beloved guitars whose rich tones flow out of bodies mellowed from the nightly coaxings of their owners, Harris and Crowell’s duets embody the beauty of a chord well-played, the roughness of a stinging lead riff, and the gentleness of notes cascading over a bridge.
Harris discovered Crowell in 1975, when she was trying to find songs for her album Pieces of the Sky. “We were up in Canada, and Brian Ahern was playing me a bunch of different songs,” she remembers. “Nothing was really interesting me, and he soon could tell what I didn’t like. He told me he had one more song to play that even he hadn’t heard yet, and he put the tape on. It was Rodney Crowell’s ‘Bluebird Wine,’ and there was something about his voice and his lyrics. I was really excited about the song, and we used it as the first track on the album.”
The two met not long after, at the old folk club Childe Harold in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. “We tracked Rodney down and flew him to D.C.,” says Harris.
Crowell remembers walking into in that club. “She was sitting up there on the stage singing, willowy and beautiful; I was captivated. We went to John Starling’s place after the show, and we stayed up all night, sitting on the floor, playing music, and talking about songs. Our relationship was built on conversation about songs.”
“That’s when he sang me ‘Till I Can Gain Control Again,’” Harris adds. “And pretty soon we were traveling together – he was in my Hot Band – and I was always the first to get to use his songs back then.”
Their bond has grown deeper since then, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Harris and Crowell put out their first duets album, Old Yellow Moon. Their friendship and a long desire to work together motivated them to record that disc.
“We talked about doing this kind of album, right from the first time we met,” Crowell says, “but Emmy had a solo career, and I was doing other things.” One day Harris called Crowell and told him the time was right to make the duets album. “Emmy said we just have to put this on our schedules, on our calendars, and put a big circle around it. … [Then] we thought about songs we loved and wound up making a record.”
Of the 12 songs on that album, Crowell penned three himself and co-wrote a fourth with James T. Slater. Harris recalls, “Rodney brought songs and I brought songs, and we just sat around Brian Ahern’s kitchen table listening and talking about songs we loved.”
The album kicks off briskly with “Hanging up My Heart,” written by Hank DeVito, another alum of Harris’ Hot Band. It showcases the duo’s remarkable ability to weave their voices tightly around each other in order to produce a signature sound. If this were the only duet the pair ever recorded, Harris and Crowell’s musical brilliance would shine brightly; thankfully, it’s the opening track to an album full of such multifaceted gems. On the fiddle and steel-drenched version of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues,” Harris and Crowell carry us back to the dance-across-the-floor country tunes of Ray Price and Kitty Wells. “Chase the Feeling,” written by Kris Kristofferson, and “Black Caffeine,” penned by Donivan Cowart and DeVito, give the pair chances to explore their grittier side. The funked-up, swampy blues, especially in “Black Caffeine,” has Crowell delivering a growling narrative about the monkey on his back.
Crowell’s own reflective storytelling style shines through in the story of the devil-may-care attitude of a bull rider and his sorrowful, regretful, yet exhilarating life in a tune he wrote for Johnny Cash called “Bull Rider.” Cash recorded it on his 1979 album, Silver. There’s also a new version of “Bluebird Wine” on Old Yellow Moon, with slightly altered lyrics. This time, Crowell sings lead, with Harris backing him as he did on her version back in 1975.
But perhaps the most poignant song of that bunch is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” on which Harris tenderly captures both the agonizing mournfulness and the moving joy of growing old. With lyrics like “I guess I’ve gotten used to these little aches and pains/But I still love to dance,” Berg’s song could be an anthem for these two old friends who’ve not yet given in to age, and who continue to celebrate the joys they find in their friendship, collaboration, and experiences touring together.
“Let’s Do This” Again
Now, two years after Old Yellow Moon scored Harris and Crowell a handful of awards from the Grammys and Americana Music Association, Harris says, “Rodney called and said, ‘let’s do this.’ … It was important to Rodney that we write some new songs for this album.” So, The Traveling Kind contains only two songs written by others: Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and Amy Allison’s “Her Hair Was Red.” Both they’d considered for Old Yellow Moon. “Amy’s song is one of these gems,” Harris says. “Elvis Costello gave it to me, but it covered sort of the same territory as ‘Back When We Were Beautiful.’”
There’s one song written by Crowell alone and one he co-wrote with Mary Karr during their highly lauded Kin project in 2012. When Crowell got together with Karr, they mused on the kind of song Hank Williams would write if he were alive today, and came up with “Just Pleasing You.”
“Writing with Mary Karr was a luxury,” Crowell recalls. “She’s so facile with language. She told me, ‘I’m a poet, not a songwriter’ … but she’d get up to turn on a light and she’d just spit out this incredible line or two.” Indeed, with its true-to-the-bone melody and opening line – “I used to get drunk all by myself” – the song is a fitting rival to Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” for the title of perfect country song.
In addition to that collaboration, Harris and Crowell co-wrote the album’s remaining seven songs with others, including Cory Chisel, Will Jennings, and Larry Klein. “We had most of the material when we went into the studio,” recalls Harris. “We had this great band, and it took only about a week to record the album.”
According to Crowell, there was at least one song they were considering that didn’t make it onto The Traveling Kind. “We were chasing a Bob Dylan song in the studio,” he says, “and I had this vision of Emmy doing the narration of the song. When we finished, Emmy asked Joe Henry, our producer, ‘Is that working’? To which he replied, ‘Well, no.’” He laughs. “So we didn’t put that song on the album.”
Harris admits that the process of collaborating was at first a bit daunting. “I have to chain myself in a room and try to create a space where I can sit and write. Rodney was very supportive and encouraging of my writing, though, and when he said right away, ‘It’s time to write,’ I looked on this as another way to spend time together. When I’m collaborating, I try to come into a room with a blank slate.”
“You know, Guy Clark once told someone that he likes to write with Rodney Crowell because the first hour we just sit and giggle,” Crowell adds. “And that’s how Emmy and I worked and how I try to collaborate with others. You get together; giggle for a while, then start looking under rocks, and you find some chords, and then you know how some of the song is going to take shape.”
Although Crowell confesses that “talking about songwriting is like doing card tricks on the radio,” he admits that the more he gives himself to his craft of songwriting, “the bigger a mystery it becomes; mystery is the most compelling part of it.” This should come as no surprise to his fans. One mark of Crowell’s brilliance as a songwriter is his ability to uncover the depths of mystery in the depths of misery, and to pull it off with humor. For example, one of The Traveling Kind’s more ironically poignant songs, “No Memories Hanging Round,” unfolds a number of layers to reveal the emptiness one feels at the loss of a lover after an affair. In one layer, a husband and wife are mourning the loss of their respective paramours. In another, two lovers who are married to others admit “I ain’t yours, you ain’t mine,” and the heartache grows out of their having to relive old memories. Meanwhile, the husband and wife are the “two old hearts [that] just want love again” and the memories of their individual affairs “keep standing in the way.” The ingenious stroke of the song, however, is the last line, where Crowell shifts from the third person plural “they” (“they don’t need no memories hanging ’round”) to the first person plural “we” and changes the verb—“we don’t keep no memories hanging around.” In that single line, Crowell reveals the struggle between ambiguity and certainty that marks all love relationships.
That’s just one example of how intuitively Crowell knows the mark of a great song. When asked, he explains that it comes when the “first verse of inspiration lasts through the whole song. Part of being a professional songwriter is understanding how to be patient and to wait for the true narration to come around. You know, a song can be at 75 percent and survive, but it won’t be memorable and last. … There are a few pieces of writing I can stand back from and say, ‘that one works’, and ‘The Traveling Kind’ is one.”
Collaboration and Kinship
Like Old Yellow Moon, The Traveling Kind digs into a variety of musical styles that reveal Harris and Crowell’s deep musical kinship. The duo’s friendship has grown so deeply after all the miles they’ve traveled together, all the times they’ve shared the same stage, all the times they’ve sat around talking about songs, that they know by now almost instantly which songs will work for them and which will not. The range of musical styles that Harris and Crowell traverse on this new album illustrates their deep comfort with each other’s ability to find melodies and lyrics that suit them and their voices. Indeed, every song on this album displays the comfort and ease each feels sliding from harmony to melody, even on lines in the same verse. The natural ease of their collaboration grows from their earliest work together, when Harris knew immediately that Crowell’s songs were what she was looking for, and when Crowell wrote songs explicitly with Emmylou in mind.
Even The Traveling Kind’s cover art tells the story of their long friendship. Shaped like a photo album, it features photos from their early days on the road together, the album cover photo from Old Yellow Moon, even photos of their parents, about whom they wrote the song “Higher Mountains.” Above all, though, The Traveling Kind is a celebration of memories, both happy and sad, and the joys that grow out of their collaboration.
The steel-drenched country weeper “No Memories Hanging Round” opens with Harris singing plaintively of love lost. Later in the same song, after the bridge, Crowell takes the lead with his own version of the tale, as Harris weaves her silken harmonies around his voice. The funky “Bring It on Home to Memphis,” which recalls Chuck Berry’s rockers, urges “sweet Lucinda” to find her way home from Los Angeles, promising that she’ll find her hometown much the same as she left it. The song features a shouting recitation from Harris that’s a nod to the musical history of Memphis.
Harris and Crowell join pens on a classic-style country crooner, “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” – a tale of love gone wrong and the I-can’t-quit-you-baby feeling of regret and rejoicing that comes with the parting of lovers’ ways. The crisply elegant ballad “Higher Mountains” traverses the territory of death and longing, as does the album’s title track, which as Crowell recalls, “I wrote with Cory Chisel and Emmylou. I asked Cory if he had any melodies that fit the little scribble of chord changes I sent him, and we got together in one short afternoon and the song came out.
“The first line [‘We don’t all die young’] is about Ben Bullington,” Crowell continues, referring to the Montana doctor who died in November 2013 from cancer. A singer and songwriter in his spare time, Bullington became friends with Darrell Scott, who, during the last three months of Bullington’s life, started sending the doctor tapes of Scott singing Bullington’s songs. Last month, Scott released 10: Songs of Ben Bullington, a beautiful tribute to this father of three whose songs are timeless and powerful. On May 19, Crowell joined Scott and numerous others to play a release party for the album in Nashville. The story obviously resonated deeply with both Chisel and Crowell, who says that after penning that opening line, “Our conversation turned to Gram, Johnny Cash, Waylon, people we were close to and that we lost. The song deals with all of these individuals we’ve traveled with, but you know, if you’re at all able in your vision and musical gift, you’re able to achieve this kind of legacy.”
Although both Harris and Crowell are too humble to admit it, both have achieved a lasting legacy that grows stronger and runs deeper with every one of their albums. Whether performing duets or putting out solo albums, both artists always follow their own musical instincts while plumbing the depths of the music on which they came of age, preserving it for new listeners, with new arrangements, all in service of the song. As Crowell explains, “I want to find a way to make records that challenges my skills and my abilities, especially as a performer and an arranger.”
The duo’s legacy, too, grows out of the deep love and respect they have for each other. Talking with both of them, this affinity for one another is beyond apparent. “Rodney’s got so many ideas; they’re just popping out of him all the time,” says Harris. “He’s a great songwriter, but you know, he’s a great guitar player, too. The groove he puts into every song is so affirming for my own guitar playing.”
Crowell, meanwhile, says Harris has “the heart and soul of a poet. Poets are my favorite people to hang around. Emmy inspires loyalty, and she’s extremely loyal. She’s not an ego-driven artist; she knows what she wants, and she’s a hard worker.”
On both Old Yellow Moon and The Traveling Kind, Harris and Crowell know what they want: the chance to sing duets on songs that move them; moments to write songs together that explore the depths of loss and love, regret and hope, death and memory; and the opportunity to share these songs with others. After 40 years, they know each other’s hearts and, on stage at least, seem to be able to read each other’s minds.
While some might compare Harris and Crowell to classic country duos like George Jones and Tammy Wynette or Johnny and June Carter Cash, they’re much closer both in voice and spirit to classic family duos like the Everly Brothers or the Louvin Brothers, whose songs gained their power and beauty from the intimate knowledge each artist had of his brother’s musical range and style. Considering that kind of magic, and with the success of these two albums, will the duo give us another album of duets? Harris says she doesn’t plan that far ahead but that they do have the material. “I guess we should go for the trifecta,” Crowell enthuses. “As long as we’re having fun doing this, we have enough songs.”