It seems only fitting that exactly forty years after their fortuitous pairing began, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris are back at it with their lovingly spare duets collection, The Traveling Kind. Featuring a collage of photographs and mementos from the intervening years, the album’s cover carries with it the easy familiarity inherent in the pair’s artistic output. Coming only two years after their last album together, it’s a welcome reminder of just how well these two work together.
From their earliest associations (Harris was an early supporter of Crowell as a songwriter, opening her debut album Pieces of the Sky with Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine”) through Crowell’s three-year stint in Harris’ Hot Band as guitarist and vocalist to the recent rekindling of their collaborative efforts on 2013’s Old Yellow Moon, theirs has been a partnership forged in country music heaven. These eleven songs lyrically and thematically encapsulate their decades-long friendship, one that has seen them through their own fair share of hardships and time apart.
Stepping out on her own in 1975 following the 1973 death of her musical sparring partner and early champion Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris seemed to be seeking to fill an immense void. As if through divine intervention, Rodney Crowell arrived to do just that, helping Harris pick up where she and Parsons had left off. Together, their earthy vocals proved an ideal pairing, one which remains fully intact throughout The Traveling Kind. While both artists time and again have proven themselves able collaborators with a number of other artists, together they exude a quiet confidence and sense of ease that elevates their combined efforts to another level entirely.
On the opening title track, a gently sauntering acoustic ballad bearing allusions to the late Parsons and others lost too soon, their voices mesh in a manner so effortless it almost feels like one. Shadowing each other’s every vocal nuance and subtle phrasing, they show why theirs is a pairing so revered within Americana circles. Going beyond mere duet singing, Crowell and Harris possess a level of emotionality that allows every song, every feeling to come across as intensely personal and autobiographical. Knowing their respective backstories, it would be near impossible not to attempt to read into every single line. But the reality is more that both are such exceptional songwriters and performers they can make even the most mundane lyric seem immensely intimate.
Thematically of a piece with “The Traveling Kind”, “No Memories Hanging Round” again hints and the loves and losses suffered by both Harris and Crowell. Where lesser artists might rely more on the maudlin elements, Harris’ keening vocals help imbue the lyrics with a lived in quality, the feeling of knowing exactly the feelings she’s singing about rather than playing a part. When she sings, “You lost her / I lost him / two old hearts just won’t love again” the sentiment behind the phrase, while ultimately universal, can’t help but feel intensely personal. Doubling the line, Crowell adds even more gravity and nuance to the phrase to the point that, when they sing, “’Cause I want her / and I need him / two old fires just won’t burn again” it transcends mere lyrical delivery and feels more an emotional catharsis, one which only the intervening years could have facilitated.
Fortunately it’s not all sadness and longing. While certainly inherently melancholic, the majority of The Traveling Kind is deceptively upbeat, relying on tempo and arrangements to mask the lyrical sadness. The coolly strutting, almost jazzy “The Weight Of The World” features some of the album’s fieriest playing, electric guitars and keyboard simmering and slashing atop a strolling bass line. “Did you guys record that?” Crowell asks with a laugh as the band resolves into the song’s closing chord, knowing full well the performance to have been one worthy of documentation.
Similarly, Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” carries with it a certain level of pathos hiding within the song’s up-tempo, big production feel. It’s a fine performance from both Crowell and Harris, one that borders on the eerie when Crowell hits a vocal timbre reminiscent of Parsons as he stretches “so” to its breaking point. One can’t help but feel the pairing of Crowell and Harris as a natural progression that began with Parsons in the early ‘70s, his death serving as a springboard of sorts for Harris as she, along with Crowell, carry the torch into the 21st century.
While mainstream country music may be suffering a crisis of identity, having too firmly embraced contemporary pop and losing sight of its musical roots in favor of an idealized lifestyle aesthetic, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris serve as stark reminders that the flame of country music still burns brightly within a select few. And while the shadow of Gram Parsons continues to loom large over nearly everything she has done with and without Crowell, together they have long since proven themselves as equally influential and fine a pairing. Were there ever any doubt, The Traveling Kind rightly sets the record straight. There is no better vocal pairing working today.