Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Keeping Promise: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell's Old Yellow Moon

Confidence and a refined sense of music making is the foundation of Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch, 2013), this superb new album from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. It’s a welcome return for these musicians who first collaborated on Elite Hotel (1975), one of Harris’ most popular and familiar albums. Crowell was a member of the Harris’ Hot Band in the mid-70s and oddly enough this is their first album. Old Yellow Moon is a no-nonsense country music record from start to finish. It features the busiest fiddler in music, Stuart Duncan and some members of the original Hot Band. The production values are strong and the song selection is mix of new and old with just a dash of nostalgia to keep everybody honest. And honesty is a key value to this record and for these two experienced artists.

I first heard Emmylou Harris on Elite Hotel and her stand out version of the Lennon/McCartney ballad, “Here, There and Everywhere.” It was one of those songs that crossed over into pop with just enough Nashville twang to gratify the purists. Since that release, and some 26 albums later, Emmylou Harris has been one of the most interesting vocalists in music. Her unmistakable voice is a sweet, earnest sound makes you sit up and take notice. But she’s no pushover because she’s rocked with the best of them. Consider her work with Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, or Steve Earle. Not to mention her electric band with Buddy Miller, called Spyboy, Harris has been successful at blending the edgy side of rock 'n' roll with the sweeter, gentler sounds of country.

Rodney Crowell’s career in music has been less consistent and often troublesome by commercial standards, but his real strength has always been writing songs. Like Harris, he released his debut album in the late-70s, Ain’t Livin Long Like This (1978) to little success, commercially, but it firmly established his career as a songwriter. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters most in Nashville. Suddenly his songs were now being covered by a variety of different singers ranging from Waylan Jennings to Bob Seger. By 1988, Crowell hit gold with the release of Diamonds & Dirt (Columbia). He was now being taken more seriously as an alt-country artist and not just Rosanne Cash’s husband and producer. Crowell has released some very good records over the past ten years such as Sex & Gasoline (2008) produced by Joe Henry. Last year he quietly released a record called Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr (Vanguard). This album had Crowell setting music to the lyrics of Mary Karr, an American poet and scholar from Texas. Crowell was born and raised in Texas, in 1950 hence the kinship. There are four songs on that album performed by Crowell along with featured singers Norah Jones, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.

Old Yellow Moon fulfils a long standing desire both singers had to do an album together, a goal that was set over 30 years ago. It was worth the wait, considering the enormous task of choosing the right songs and getting the right musicians for the recording. The album opens with Hank Devito's “Hanging Up My Heart.” It’s the perfect up tempo song that sets the tone for the whole record. The harmonies are strong and the mix is just about perfect. This is followed by the very fine honky-tonk classic, "Invitation to the Blues," written by Roger Miller, that was a deserved hit for Ray Price back in the late 50s. One of the more interesting choices is Rodney Crowell’s song, "Blueberry Wine," the very first song on Harris’s 1975 debut, Pieces of the Sky (Reprise). It was the tune that immediately impressed Harris for its earthy lyric and juke joint feel. This new version has that spirit, but this time Crowell gets the lead vocal, supported by Harris. It’s a solid, off-the-floor recording with some tasteful mandolin fills.

Crowell and Harris took the time, with input from Brian Ahren, their producer, to carefully choose songs that they still liked, or hadn’t heard in a long time. “Black Caffeine”, written by Hank Devito, is great song for veteran musicians who've been on the road for many years. It reflects both the roughness of the road and the weight it carries like no other. The rest of Old Yellow Moon is equally strong; with not a dud among the dozen tracks that grace it. It will undoubtedly make a lot of Top 10 lists for 2013.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are on tour with Richard Thompson this spring.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra.

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