Although Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama she didn’t grow up in the south. The daughter of a career military man, she had a peripatetic childhood moving throughout the mid-Atlantic states.
At age 16, Harris’ Grandfather bought her a $30 Kay guitar from a pawn shop. Even then country music wasn’t even on her radar. Harris was keen to be a folksinger.
Once she finished school, Harris relocated to Greenwich Village in New York City. But by the late 60s, the Folk scene had been supplanted by more Psychedelic sounds. Following a brief marriage to fellow Folk singer Tom Slocum, Harris and her young daughter returned to her parents’ home in Washington, D.C.
She began playing the small Folk clubs in the D.C. area. A chance encounter with Flying Burrito Brother (and ex Byrd) Chris Hillman resulted in an introduction to Gram Parsons.
Parsons, had been honing a blend of Rock & Country styles that he dubbed “Cosmic American Music.” He had been in the Byrds and co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, but had recently abandoned that group for a solo career. He was looking to add a female voice to his new Fallen Angels band.
The harmonic convergence of Gram and Emmylou was like lightning in a bottle. Parsons’ influences were equal parts Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Sr. , the Beatles and the Louvin Brothers. He immediately became Harris’ musical mentor, schooling her in the ABCs of Country music. They recorded two albums together, GP and Grevious Angel.
Sadly, their musical symbiosis was short-lived. Parsons died of a drug overdose in Joshua Tree, September 1973. Harris was shattered, but she picked up the pieces.
Emmylou Harris was determined to carry the torch for Cosmic American Music. Setting aside her grief, she signed a solo record deal . The label matched her with Canadian producer Brian Ahern. The pairing took a personal turn. Beginning with her solo debut, 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, the couple created a series of albums that redefined Country Music. (Her debut also included “Boulder To Birmingham,” a heartbroken tribute to Parsons).
Right about this time, Harris and Ahern assembled her crack touring ensemble, the Hot Band. Drummer John Ware, bassist Emory Gordy, Jr. and Pedal Steel player Hank DeVito hooked up with Singer/Songwriter Guitarist Rodney Crowell.
Crowell had grown up in Texas. As a songwriter he had #1 hits for Crystal Gayle and Bob Seger. His tenure in the Hot Band was brief, soon he had a successful solo career and married another musician, Roseanne Cash.
Meanwhile, Emmylou Harris couldn’t lose. Between co-writing hits with Crowell, or re-interpreting C & W chestnuts like Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe,” or Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” Harris was worshipping at the Cosmic American alter.
As the years progressed, Harris explored Pop and Bluegrass. She collaborated with Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison and recorded a traditional Country record with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton called Trio.
A restless spirit, Harris couldn’t be hemmed in by the narrow confines of Country Music. By 1995, she recorded her most ambitious effort, Wrecking Ball. The album was produced by Daniel Lanois (by now she and Ahern had parted company, personally and professionally). Lanois had produced everyone from U2 and Peter Gabriel to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Harris tackled a set of covers from artists as disparate as Neil Young, Dylan, Gillian Welch, Jimi Hendrix and Steve Earle. The album was a triumphant success.
In 1999, Harris properly paid homage to Gram Parsons by producing Return Of The Grievous Angel. An all-star tribute, the album featured Elvis Costello, Beck, Victoria Williams, The Pretenders, Evan Dando, Wilco, Cowboy Junkies, and David Crosby with Lucinda Williams singing Gram Parsons songs.
In the intervening years, Harris has recorded more solo efforts, contributed to the phenomenal “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack and recorded with ex-Dire Straits leader, Mark Knopfler.
Her new album reunites Harris with producer Brian Ahern, musicians Hank DeVito and John Ware, and most importantly, Rodney Crowell, front and center. For years the two had discussed collaborating again. The result is Old Yellow Moon.
The album kicks into gear with the rollicking quick-step of “Hanging Up My Heart.” Harris and Crowell trade verses as gun-shy ex-lovers… “Well, I’m hanging up my heart, dim the lights in the bunkhouse I don’t want to be wounded by the wrong kind of love/No more rodeo dances no more howling at the moonlight.”
Crowell has written four of the 12 tracks on Old Yellow Moon.He glides easily between the twang and the tears. Couched in a whipcrack melody, anchored by swooping fiddle and banjo, “Bull Rider” uses the rodeo as a metaphor for life… “You’re just outside the bucking shute, you lose a spur and you lose your seat and you lose yourself.”
“Bluebird Wine” originally appeared on Harris’ debut. The tune is slightly reconfigured as a duet. It definitely has twang, but this incarnation is more Chuck Berry than Bill Monroe. The track features sprightly mandolin fills, sharp staccato guitars and a rippling baritone Harmonica solo, courtesy Mickey Raphael.
Crowell’s slower songs connect on a visceral level. “Open Season On My Heart” is a self-lacerating take on devastating heartbreak. Conversely, “Here We Are” is a lovely declaration of love. Harris & Crowell’s tandem vocals wrap lovingly around the verses. Here the instrumentation blends tangy Fiddle runs with saccharine strings.
Old Yellow Moon gives Harris & Crowell an opportunity to lovingly cover favorite songs. On the distaff side, Singer/Songwriters Patti Scialfa and Matraca Berg each supply killer cuts, “Spanish Dancer” and “When We Were Beautiful.”
The former , wrapped in shimmering accordion fills and piquant mandolin riffs, provide a perfect backdrop for Harris’ crystalline vocals. Crowell gives her room to breathe, chiming in on the chorus.
The latter offers a vivid recollection of halcyon days. An elderly woman revisits the past but remains ruefully engaged in the present. Harris’ performance of this song is hushed and evocative.
The album’s centerpiece is “Dreaming My Dreams” by Allen Reynolds. A keen exegesis on heartacheand laced with regret. It’s the record’s George Jones/Tammy Wynette moment. The couple sing to one and other, not with each other. The romantic frisson is palpable.
Other highlights include Roger Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” and Hank DeVito’s “Black Caffeine.” All three evoke an era of classic Country. “Invitation..” pivots on syrupy Opry Strings, gamboling guitars and piercing Pedal Steel fills that dance like fireflies. “Chase..” tethers gutbucket guitar riffs to Kristofferson’s Outlier/Outlaw take on drug addiction.
Finally, “Black Caffeine” weds a finger-snappin backbeat to jittery Hammond B3 fills. Harris & Crowell’s tight harmonizing echo the familial blend of the Everly Brothers,( if the Everly Brothers ever waxed rhapsodic about coffee).
The album closes with the title track. Simultaneously ragged and pristine, echoing Crowell’s weathered croon and Harris’ dulcet tones.
Old Yellow Moon is clearly a labor of love. More of a dialogue than a traditional duets album. It feels like a conversation. That’s what makes it special.