LOS ANGELES — There’s close to 40 years’ worth of symmetry on “Old Yellow Moon,” the new album from longtime friends and country-rock trailblazers Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
Though it’s taken until now for them to make their first full album as duet partners, the singers started out as a couple of unknowns who came together in the vibrant music scene of 1970s Los Angeles.
“At one point it was just me and Rodney — two lead singers and two rhythm guitar players — sitting on the floor working up things like ‘Sweet Dreams’ and all these country songs, waiting for the band to show up,” Harris, 65, said recently over lunch in Los Angeles with Crowell. “Right now, we’re back where we were, sitting on the floor.”
“We’re still putting a band together!” Crowell, 62, said with a snicker when asked who’d be accompanying them on their “Old Yellow Moon” tour. It certainly won’t be the same lineup they brought to the Troubadour in West Hollywood on the eve of the Grammy Awards, an all-star show that featured guests including Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Damien Rice, the Zac Brown Band and Joan Osborne.
The high-profile and emerging artists who shared the stage with Harris and Crowell that night turned what originally was billed as a show for the two of them into a broad-based celebration of literate songwriting and top-drawer song interpretation.
Both qualities can be found in abundance on “Old Yellow Moon.” The album’s dozen songs course from the sprightly farewell to tortuous relationships in Hank DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” through Patti Scialfa’s anguished trek down romantic memory lane in the ballad “Spanish Dancer” to Kris Kristofferson’s soul-searching “Chase the Feeling.” Many reflect hard-won realizations about compromise and disillusionment that come with age, yet there’s a tone of liberation—not defeat—they bring to those insights.
Harris and Crowell’s close, longtime friendship figured into the tone of the album, which Crowell said steered away from the easy out of romantic longing.
“You know how duet singers will often try to superimpose a romantic aura?” he asked. “We wanted to superimpose a conversation that was more based on what our lives are really about. Like survival.
“If someone asked me to describe my friendship, my relationship, with Emmylou, I’d say it’s a 40-year conversation. Because that’s really what it is. It’s a conversation, mostly subjective. ‘What’s going on with you?’ That’s also the beauty of songs at their very best — and that’s why we need a producer, so we can live an entirely subjective existence.”
Added Harris: “We just wanted to sing together songs that we really loved. There was not really a theme, except a theme that sort of comes out, in a way, about mortality and age and friendship. ... Rodney and I, our lives have paralleled. We’ve known each other through marriages, divorces, the birth of children, the death of friends and parents, and now grandchildren. So I think it doesn’t tell a specific story, but I think all that is there in the material.”
They make no bones about the gravity in the songs they settled on. “I don’t reckon we’ve got any ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ in here,” Crowell said, shorthanding Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s oft-repeated axiom that “There are two kinds of songs: the blues and ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’” Crowell continued: “‘Bluebird Wine’ is, maybe,” he said, referring to the song he wrote that was the first thing Harris recorded for her 1975 debut album. But since he never recorded it himself, Harris insisted he sing it on the new album.
“No,” Harris responded fluidly extending the conversation. “It’s very hard to write an unadulterated joyous song that is not ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ Because in a good joyous song that’s not ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ there’s always a back story implied. Like ‘Together Again,’” she said, referring to the Buck Owens country classic that she rerecorded for her first No. 1 country single in 1976.
“To me that’s like, ‘I’m gonna do an almost happy song, because the reason there’s so much joy in these people being together again is that obviously ...,’” her voice trailing off as if it were unnecessary to point out that the couple had broken up.
There also numbers by many of their favorite writers, including DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds and Matraca Berg, whose compositions have figured into the ongoing conversation as their lives and careers intersected over the succeeding four decades.
During that time, both carved out careers as pioneers of what came to be known as Americana music, freely drawing from country, folk, blues, gospel, soul, R&B and rock on their individual recordings. In 2011, Crowell expanded his artistic palette to include another kind of writing with the publication of a well-received memoir, “Chinaberry Sidewalks.”
“You know, when guitar players get together, they talk about vintage guitars or some pedal or something?” Crowell said through his still honeysuckle-sweet Houston drawl. “Every time Emmy and I would get together, we’d talk about songs: ‘Hey do you know…? Have you heard ...?’ That was always the conversation. ‘Do you know this?’ I’ve recently discovered guitars,” he added with a laugh, “but I’m still a song guy first.”
Case in point: Reynolds’ “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” a song that’s been recorded by dozens of country, folk and pop artists, perhaps most famously by Waylon Jennings on his 1974 album that drew its title from the song, “Dreaming My Dreams.”
It packs a lifetime of emotion into two concise verses and a chorus, in which the singer vows not to let a broken heart poison his or her capacity to care:
I won’t let it change me,
Not if I can
I’d rather believe in love.
And give it away as much as I can,
To those that I’m fondest of
“It is one of the great songs ever,” Harris said, with Crowell stepping in to extend the thought, something they took turns doing over the course of the hourlong conversation. “It’s a big favorite,” he said. “I don’t think it was ever a really big hit, but everybody has some sort of relationship with that song.”
Some songs on “Old Yellow Moon,” including “Dreaming My Dreams With You” and “Bluebird Wine,” date to the era when Harris, Crowell and other colleagues were sharing a big house in Coldwater Canyon. Other songs were written later, including Kristofferson’s latter-day “Chase the Feeling” and “Spanish Dancer,” the latter sung at the Troubadour by Harris after she confessed that for years “that song had kind of intimidated me.”
They’ve also rounded up many of the same musicians they traveled with during that time, along with Harris’ former husband, producer Brian Ahearn, who oversaw most of her early recordings and who introduced her to Crowell’s music after signing him to a songwriting contract.
“Emmy was playing at Armadillo World in Austin, and I was in Austin thinking I was going to live there the rest of my life,” Crowell recalled. “I sat in and sang a few songs. After the gig Emmy was standing there, and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to L.A. tomorrow and I’ve got an extra ticket. Do you want to go?’”
“What was I doing with an extra ticket?” Harris asked.
Crowell: “I don’t know, but you did, and it was first class!”
Harris: “Was it? I never flew first class.”
Crowell: “Yeah, you did, you had a first-class ticket. You had two.”
Harris: “Oh, my God.”
Crowell: “Midflight, Brian and I traded seats. And that’s how I wound up here. And for seven years I stayed.”
And the conversation continues, effortlessly, joyfully, 40 years down the line.