Collaboration has, of course, always been central to Emmylou Harris’s illustrious career. From the first, now legendary, Gram Parsons duets through her work with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton as one third of Trio to her partnership with Daniel Lanois on the career-redefining Wrecking Ball, Harris has sought out (and been sought out by) a highly diverse range of musical partners. This has allowed Harris to continue to raise harmony singing to new heights of artistic genius with cameos on records by artists including Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Conor Oberst, Patty Griffin, the McGarrigles and many, many more. The best of these collaborations have served an important function for Harris, allowing her to explore all kinds of areas of the country-folk-rock palette and thereby keep her own particular brand of “cosmic American music” fresh, vital and surprising.
Old Yellow Moon, Harris’s latest collaborative project, has been a long while in the pipeline, it seems. Harris and Rodney Crowell first linked up in 1975, when she recruited him as guitarist and harmony singer in the Hot Band. Harris was immediately drawn to Crowell’s songwriting and chose to open her first solo album with a composition by her new bandmate: “Bluebird Wine,” which turns out to be one of the four Crowell-composed tracks that Old Yellow Moon revisits.
Overseen by Brian Ahern, Harris’s ex-husband and producer of her first eleven solo albums (and with whom she reunited—professionally, at least—on 2008’s All I Intended To Be), the new record is determinedly and deliberately retrograde in its stylistic approach, looking back affectionately on the country-rock blend that Harris and Crowell—alongside Parsons, Ronstadt, The Flying Burrito Brothers and others—pioneered in the 1970s. Accentuating the warmly nostalgic mood is the presence of other Harris accompanists, many of whom haven’t performed with her in many years: Vince Gill, Emory Gordy, Stuart Duncan Glen D. Hardin, and Mickey Raphael all pitch in at various points. The results prove perfectly pleasant but aren’t destined to rank as one of Harris or Crowell’s most essential offerings.
The problem, frankly, is mediocre material. Songs such as Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” and Crowell’s “Here We Are” and “Bull Rider” are blandly undistinguished, and the straightforward, tasteful treatments that they receive here don’t compensate for their lyrical shortcomings in a way that, say, Lanois’s more textured, atmospheric production might. Despite the professionalism of the playing, the album feels casually assembled, as if Crowell and Harris had picked the songs randomly, without too much thought for quality control.
On the stronger tracks, though, both artists deliver. Hank DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” opens the album with a snappy, infectious twang, with Vince Gill helping Harris and Crowell out on the harmonies. Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” has slinky appeal, and “Open Season on my Heart” is Crowell’s most committed and engaging moment. Harris wraps a reverent hush around Matraca Berg’s wistful “Back When We Were Beautiful” and does the same on an absolutely exquisite reading of Patti Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer” that’s augmented by lovely guitar work, mandolin, and accordion. (Next suggested collaboration: Harris and Scialfa.) And the title track—composed by DeVito and Lynn Langham—brings the album to a graceful and elegant close.
Modest, low-key, and unassuming, Old Yellow Moon is finally too conventional a record to rank as a major addition to either Harris or Crowell’s discographies. More solid than special, the record has undeniably lovely moments. But given the artists’ long history together, the listener may be forgiven for expecting an album that’s more consistently dynamic and distinctive than this.