TWO OF A KIND
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were a fine songwriting match from day one, but they’re even better for the miles travelled.
In country music, duet singing is a fine tradition. Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.
It was Parsons who discovered Harris and brought her into his band and the studio. He taught her about country music, a form that had not previously interested her.
“I was listening to the Louvin Brothers and all this fantastic music that I had turned my nose up at before,’’ Harris has said of that experience. “Suddenly I heard the soulfulness of George Jones. It was almost like the Red Sea parting, it was that huge for me.’’
Parsons died in 1973 but he had started a fire in his singing partner. Harris launched her major-label career with the 1975 classic Pieces Of The Sky. It contained songs by Merle Haggard, the Louvins, Dolly Parton, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Among an album of songwriting diamonds picked from the top shelf, there was one tune by a 24-year-old songwriter, guitarist and singer who played in her band, Rodney Crowell.
Both would go on to have major careers, flying the flag for classic country songwriting and storytelling as commercial country grew glossier, more produced and more distant from the music’s rural roots.
Now, Harris and Crowell are singing together again and country music has a duet team truly worthy of the tradition. Their 2013 set Old Yellow Moon won a Grammy for best Americana album. New album The Traveling Kind is even better than the first, a pure country gem.
What took them so long to get back together?
“We first met in Washington DC in 1974 and clicked immediately; she was like my long-lost sister,’’ says Crowell.
“For a lot of years we were busy doing our own thing but when we came back together it was like no time had passed. To be able to sing and collaborate with her again, I feel like the handsome prince.’’
Harris has recorded many Crowell songs but something special occurs when they write and sing together.
The album includes six new songs, a new version of Crowell’s No Memories Hanging ’Round and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ I Just Wanted To See You So Bad.
Perhaps best of all is Higher Mountains, a song addressing a loved one who has died.
“I started that song 18 years ago when my mother was a widow. I had the first two verses and a part of the chorus but could never get any further with it, so it lay fallow all these years,” Crowell says.
“When I started working with Emmy again, her mother was near the end of her life. It was Emmy who came in with the narrative that helped me finish the song.’’
Crowell’s acclaimed 2010 autobiography, Chinaberry Sidewalks, shows he can devote himself to long-form storytelling just as well as he does in a three-minute song.
The memoir focuses on his hardscrabble early years in Texas and his parents’ volatile but loving relationship, and since it was published, some people have told him they were sorry to hear he had such a tough childhood.
“I say, ‘Oh no, it was perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing.’ It’s just that my parents were colourful and crazy. Loveable and beautiful people, but they were creative and out-there.’’
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell can duet with the best of country’s greats.