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The Story Behind Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell's Album "Old Yellow Moon"

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell: "Old Yellow Moon" [cover]

The title song of Old Yellow Moon, due out February 26, 2013, on Nonesuch Records, may be the concluding track on the first official album-length collaboration between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, but it actually represents a starting point for this long-anticipated project, produced by Brian Ahern. These two old friends and occasional band mates, Harris explains, “were picking songs as we sat around Brian’s big kitchen table, with his extraordinary microphones hooked up to the computer just to make a demo. We would pick a key or toy around with an idea just to make a sketch.” Harris was going over Hank DeVito and Lynn Langham’s “Old Yellow Moon” with Crowell for the first time, but their impromptu performance together was so naturally emotive that Ahern decided to build a track around it. “That’s a kitchen table recording. Brian later brought in Lynn to play the piano; she had a certain feel that only she could do to really honor the song and the reading we had given it. We added a few other things and it became the title track.” Harris pauses to consider this before declaring, “I love the way records get born!”

It was nearly 40 years earlier, in 1974, when Harris first heard Rodney Crowell. At the time, she was also sitting at a table with Ahern, then based in Toronto, who was tasked with producing her first solo recording for Warner Bros. Records following the sudden passing of Gram Parsons, Harris’s singing and touring partner. They were auditioning song demos, but the session wasn’t going too well, Harris remembers: “There was nothing that appealed to me. I would listen to a whole song and Brian finally said to me, ‘You know, Emmy, you don’t have to listen to the entire song, you’re going to know right away, it’s going to pop out at you.’ At the end of the day, Brian said, ‘I have one more thing, a songwriter I haven’t even heard. I signed him on the recommendation of somebody whose opinion I value.’ So, as I recall, we listened to Rodney, both of us, for the first time. The first song was ‘Bluebird Wine,’ and from that first bar of music, I just knew. It was the bomb. Brian immediately tried to get in touch with Rodney, who was on a plane. We were finally able to hook up in Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, and he played me ‘Till I Gain Control Again,’ and I knew my instincts were right.”

A year later, as Crowell recounts, Harris was passing through Austin, where the Texas native was then living, and offered Crowell a plane ticket to Los Angeles. Crowell went on to become rhythm guitarist and harmony singer in her now legendary Hot Band—many of whose original members joined Harris and Crowell in Nashville for the Old Yellow Moon sessions, along with such guests as singer-guitarist Vince Gill, violinist Stuart Duncan, and Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne. Crowell soon landed his own solo deal with Warner Bros., releasing his Ahern-produced debut, Ain’t Living Long Like This, in 1978. Harris would quickly be recognized as one of the finest young song interpreters on the nexus of country, folk, and rock, and Crowell himself would become a sought-after songwriter, producer, and performer, whose work would be covered by Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, Etta James, and Bob Seger, among countless others—and continue to be treasured over the years by Harris.

The spirited “Bluebird Wine” became the opening track of Harris’s 1975 Top Ten country debut, Pieces of the Sky. Ahern and Harris insisted they revisit it on Old Yellow Moon, but Crowell had misgivings: “I said, ‘Come on guys, I wrote that when I was 21 or 22, somewhere back then, I can do better.’ So I went home and rewrote the first two verses because, you know, the writer’s best friend is revision. So I revised those first two verses and I said, ‘Okay, that’s a little more in keeping with my sensibilities now.’”

Adds Harris, “The meat of the song is the same but he took the writer’s license of being able to change a little bit that he felt reflected his life now. It’s the same song musically, and the spirit of the song is the same—it’s a joyful song. Being joyful at 20 or being joyful at 60, it’s still joy.”

The passage of time—time well spent, time misspent—is a recurring motif on Old Yellow Moon, especially on Matraca Berg’s heartbreaking “Back When We Were Beautiful” and Crowell’s own preternaturally wise “Here We Are,” which Harris had originally recorded in 1979 as a duet with George Jones. Harris says, “I love that song. And even though I had done it with George Jones, it seemed to fit this project. It can be a song about lovers, about a relationship, but this record for me is all about friendship.”

As with “Here We Are,” Old Yellow Moon offered Crowell an opportunity to perform self-penned compositions he’d never gotten around to recording himself, like “Bull Rider,” which his former father-in-law Johnny Cash had cut back in 1979. “Bullrider” has an almost cinematic clarity to it, drawn from Crowell’s own young life in Texas, which he also addressed in a 2010 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks: “Growing up in Texas, we rode bulls the way inner city kids played basketball. It’s just part of the culture, part of the rhythm of our lives. I always loved the language of the rodeo. There’s a poetic tone to it. I remember writing that song and wanting to capture that.”

For Crowell and Harris, a professed “song hoarder,” Old Yellow Moon was a platform to showcase songs they’d each been aiming to record or revisit for years, country-oriented tunes, especially honky-tonkin’ numbers, that also figured, one way or another, in their shared history. As Harris notes, “All these friendships, all these beautiful threads came together on this record, a lot of it without any particular thought.” Opening track “Hanging up My Heart,” which features a harmony vocal from Gill, originally appeared as the title tune to the lone country album made by Sissy Spacek in 1983 and produced by Crowell, in the wake of Spacek’s Coal Miner’s Daughter success. It was written by Hot Band member DeVito, who also co-wrote “Black Caffeine” with musician-engineer Donivan Cowart, another fellow traveler on this decades-long journey. Says Harris, “We had always loved ‘Black Caffeine’ but it was one of those very strange demos that always had intimidated us. But I think we nailed it.” Crowell was a big fan of Kris Kristofferson’s 2006 album, This Old Road (he says he “lived inside that record”) and suggested cutting the more rueful “Chase the Feeling.”

The delicate waltz of Allen Reynolds’ “Dreaming My Dreams,” made famous by Waylon Jennings, is a highlight of the disc but hadn’t even been on the pair’s original wish list. They were referencing it as they rehearsed another song, and Harris finally asked, “Why don’t we just do it? Waylon’s version of it is one of the most perfect records ever, but to make it a conversation between two old friends, I think that it adds something; it takes the song to another place, which you always have to do when you cover a song that already has a place in musical history. I think Rodney and I could really bring something to it, and Brian’s production is gorgeous. It doesn’t hurt to have [guitarist] James Burton on it too.”

Harris also brought in E Street Band singer-guitarist Patti Scialfa’s lovely “Spanish Dancer” from Scialfa’s underrated 1993 Rumble Doll collection: “It speaks to something very central to the female experience; it’s so beautiful. I had it on my list of things to do for years, and I thought it never was going to happen. I kind of reluctantly brought it to the table. I felt, maybe I’m over the hill, maybe I can’t give it the proper reading at this time in my life, but I think some things are universal so it doesn’t really matter. You never stop yearning for certain things, no matter what age you are.”

Getting back into the studio with Harris, says Crowell, “feels the same as it always had. We were young and foolish and that was lovely and the world was all out in front of us. Then you go on. Emmy and I have always been close over the years, but she went down one road and I went down another, and we’d intersect on occasion. But when we finally got together, it was as if no time had passed. We’re blood in that way.”

Echoes Harris, “We’ve always said from the first time we sat down with two guitars and our two lead voices, sitting on the floor of the studio and singing Don Gibson songs, just messing around, that we would do a record together someday. It seemed inevitable, but nothing is really inevitable if you don’t take the time to say, ‘All right, we’re going to do it.’ It was always something that was going to happen. I’m glad it’s happening now, at this point of our lives and our careers.”

Old Yellow Moon is full of fond memories and deep connections, but it is very much a document of where the ever-evolving Harris and Crowell happen to be right now, as musicians and as friends. As Crowell puts it, “The truth lies in the fact that neither Emmy, as far as I can tell, nor I come to a day’s work with any self-congratulation. Whatever we’ve done before was only the beginning. It’s just like, okay, let’s make a record. Isn’t it great that we can make them? And that’s when the songs come into play. If the songs are good, you get to lay it on the line and deliver a performance worthy of the song, and if you come up to snuff enough times you got a record. And anything other than that is precious. I guess that it’s a commitment to the art of the song so we can give it to an audience and it can become theirs.”

—Michael Hill

Comments

We have waited so long for this to happend. This two great singers are really one of the most respected artists of their genr. They have both done a lot of differnt music, and they really know what tehy are doing.... Emmylou and Rodney knows what a good song is and they bring a quality to their work, that not many artists do these days.... Its really great that Emmylou now are getting out some country music songs, she has not made a country record since her 1993 record " Cowgirls Prayer " . We have got a lot of great music from Emmylou through the years. but its been awhile since we have heard her do a real full blooded honky tonk country record like " Last Date " etc...
As For Rodney he has also been doing some more rock/pop music but also a lot of country music.. Rodney is probably one of the best songwriters out there, he just has a way with words..... when he writes, you can really feel the song, I guess they both has a way with the song, that makes you feel it instead of just listening to it..........
I Have personally been wating for a record from them for years, and now we are getting it , we have to hold our breath for one more month, but im sure its worth the wait.... and the tour? oh Lord , there is a lot of fans out there wo are exited now and are going out to see these two legends togheter.... 2013 is going to be a great music experience for us fans.... the queen ais back with her buddy, and they are gonna blow us all away...... YYYYYYEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A masterful recording, long overdue. I think the Lindsey Bickinghamesque background vocals on "Hanging up my heart" fit perfectly... sometimes an artist has to live long and hard to fit into a song correctly, clearly both Crowell & Harris have reached that moment!

Thanks for this great article! Really loved the background and context you provided on the songs Emmy and Rodney will be sharing with us on this new album and their perspectives on working together. I was not aware until I read this piece that they will be doing Matraca's "Back When We Were Beautiful"--I often listen to Matraca's own version of that song and it chokes me up every time. Although the sadness of it may be overwhelming, I am looking forward to hearing Emmy and Rodney's interpretation of this song. So looking forward to the album!

Reading this chronology takes me back 40 yr's to when I'd first was turned onto the sweetest singer I'd heard playing at a Pub in Georgetown,DC-Childe Harolde;Emmy was playing for tips and wowing everyone who heard her! Then Gram, Fallen Angel band,and alas Hot Band with John Starling the wonderful singer from the Seldom Scene doing many vocals;Emmy used to go to Red Fox Inn and sit in with them,and I was hooked into a genre and fantastic collection of musicians-Lowell George, Linda Rondstat,Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, Ricky Skaggs,the list is quite long,and they met at John's home and jammed creating a new sound from all these great players;then I heard Rodney,at first I wasn't sure he was a great fit taking Starlings spot,but as fortune would have it the next several yr's my ex- and I kept running into Emmy and Hot Band from DC to Santa Cruz, to Amsterdam, and many more cities and performances which resonated;Rodney was such a great songwriter and singer/performer that Emmy seemed to blossom! Now the circle is alas swinging around and I await the new CD as I'm certain it will bevery special;again lineup of talent is awesome;even have my Fav,James Burton!Thank you Carl for this and for the day we spent with Rodney tossing horseshoes years ago!

Good article. Really looking forward to hearing the whole CD and what was achieved in the atmosphere of creativity provided by Brian Ahern. His productions have always been my favorites.

Pieces of the Sky is my all time favorite recording. That record got me through my 20's. I am so thrilled to see that this incredible group of artists remain close and have put together another treasure. I have known Lynn Langham for years and toured with her and Carolyn Hester in Women in the Round on the road and could not be happier that she has joined this group on an album that I just can't wait to play over and over again. Old Yellow Moon can't come out soon enough for me. The Vocal power of Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill is beyond words and touches every emotional chord in my body. This combination is pure magic!

Thank you for the Beautifully written article about the creative process of Old Yellow Moon. And Thank you Brian Ahern for putting this crew back together again. . I love a good story.

So many artists don't keep their artistic integrity. This is the first time I've been really excited to sit down with a recording in
years. Bravo Lynn Langham for your contribution. Big Hugs from Women in the Round on the road.

Got tickets for the opening night of the tour at the HOB in New Orleans. I expect they will put a very good (and hot) band together!

Got lucky this year and caught three shows by the Rodney Crowell Band during the Cayamo Cruise 2013 last week. The new guitarist, Jedd Hughes, fits right in line with James Burton, Albert Lee, Stuart Smith and Will Kimborough. Was walking back to the ship in San Juan and Rodney said Jedd would be playing lead guitar on the Rodney/Emmylou and Richard tour. Couldn't be happier about that! Am pretty sure Byron House, from Band Of Joy, will handle bass duites. He said they hired a hot shot steel player from LA but I can't recall his name now. Most of the original Hot Band had given up touring now but some did play on the recording. Looking forward to catching the tour in Durham, North Carolina in the perfect setting of the DPAC. Rodney left after San Juan to, I guess, join Emmylou in London for a radio show on the BBC. Here are some pictures taken from the 4th row: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=16829435&size=lg, http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=16814222&size=lg, http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=16814221&size=lg, http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=16814212&size=lg

Saw the show in Chicago last night--just terrific. Congratulations! The band sounds great and the crowd loved it. We saw great artists who have produced an amazing body of work.

Thanks!

We saw them in De Oosterpoort in Groningen (The Netherlands). It was great! I'am a fan for more than 40 years.

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