Emmylou Harris website: www.emmylouharris.com
Rodney Crowell website: www.rodneycrowell.com
The title song of Old Yellow Moon 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, âwere picking songs as we sat around Brianâs 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.â Harris was going over Hank DeVito and Lynn Langhamâs âOld Yellow Moonâ with Crowell for the first time, but their impromptu performance together was so naturally emotive that Ahern decided to build a track around it. âThatâs 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.â Harris pauses to consider this before declaring, âI love the way records get born!â
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, Harrisâs singing and touring partner. They were auditioning song demos, but the session wasnât going too well, Harris remembers: âThere was nothing that appealed to me. I would listen to a whole song and Brian finally said to me, âYou know, Emmy, you donât have to listen to the entire song, youâre going to know right away, itâs going to pop out at you.â At the end of the day, Brian said, âI have one more thing, a songwriter I havenât even heard. I signed him on the recommendation of somebody whose opinion I value.â So, as I recall, we listened to Rodney, both of us, for the first time. The first song was âBluebird Wine,â 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 âTill I Gain Control Again,â and I knew my instincts were right.â
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 Bandâmany 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, Ainât 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 othersâand continue to be treasured over the years by Harris.
The spirited âBluebird Wineâ became the opening track of Harrisâs 1975 Top Ten country debut, Pieces of the Sky. Ahern and Harris insisted they revisit it on Old Yellow Moon, but Crowell had misgivings: âI said, âCome on guys, I wrote that when I was 21 or 22, somewhere back then, I can do better.â So I went home and rewrote the first two verses because, you know, the writerâs best friend is revision. So I revised those first two verses and I said, âOkay, thatâs a little more in keeping with my sensibilities now.ââ
Adds Harris, âThe meat of the song is the same but he took the writerâs license of being able to change a little bit that he felt reflected his life now. Itâs the same song musically, and the spirit of the song is the sameâitâs a joyful song. Being joyful at 20 or being joyful at 60, itâs still joy.â
The passage of timeâtime well spent, time misspentâis a recurring motif on Old Yellow Moon, especially on Matraca Bergâs heartbreaking âBack When We Were Beautifulâ and Crowellâs own preternaturally wise âHere We Are,â which Harris had originally recorded in 1979 as a duet with George Jones. Harris says, âI 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.â
As with âHere We Are,â Old Yellow Moon offered Crowell an opportunity to perform self-penned compositions heâd never gotten around to recording himself, like âBull Rider,â which his former father-in-law Johnny Cash had cut back in 1979. âBullriderâ has an almost cinematic clarity to it, drawn from Crowellâs own young life in Texas, which he also addressed in a 2010 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks: âGrowing up in Texas, we rode bulls the way inner city kids played basketball. Itâs just part of the culture, part of the rhythm of our lives. I always loved the language of the rodeo. Thereâs a poetic tone to it. I remember writing that song and wanting to capture that.â
For Crowell and Harris, a professed âsong hoarder,â Old Yellow Moon was a platform to showcase songs theyâd each been aiming to record or revisit for years, country-oriented tunes, especially honky-tonkinâ numbers, that also figured, one way or another, in their shared history. As Harris notes, âAll these friendships, all these beautiful threads came together on this record, a lot of it without any particular thought.â Opening track âHanging up My Heart,â 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 Spacekâs Coal Minerâs Daughter success. It was written by Hot Band member DeVito, who also co-wrote âBlack Caffeineâ with musician-engineer Donivan Cowart, another fellow traveler on this decades-long journey. Says Harris, âWe had always loved âBlack Caffeineâ but it was one of those very strange demos that always had intimidated us. But I think we nailed it.â Crowell was a big fan of Kris Kristoffersonâs 2006 album, This Old Road (he says he âlived inside that recordâ) and suggested cutting the more rueful âChase the Feeling.â
The delicate waltz of Allen Reynoldsâ âDreaming My Dreams,â made famous by Waylon Jennings, is a highlight of the disc but hadnât even been on the pairâs original wish list. They were referencing it as they rehearsed another song, and Harris finally asked, âWhy donât we just do it? Waylonâs 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 Brianâs production is gorgeous. It doesnât hurt to have [guitarist] James Burton on it too.â
Harris also brought in E Street Band singer-guitarist Patti Scialfaâs lovely âSpanish Dancerâ from Scialfaâs underrated 1993 Rumble Doll collection: âIt speaks to something very central to the female experience; itâs 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 Iâm over the hill, maybe I canât give it the proper reading at this time in my life, but I think some things are universal so it doesnât really matter. You never stop yearning for certain things, no matter what age you are.â
Getting back into the studio with Harris, says Crowell, âfeels 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 weâd intersect on occasion. But when we finally got together, it was as if no time had passed. Weâre blood in that way.â
Echoes Harris, âWeâve 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 donât take the time to say, âAll right, weâre going to do it.â It was always something that was going to happen. Iâm glad itâs happening now, at this point of our lives and our careers.â
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, âThe truth lies in the fact that neither Emmy, as far as I can tell, nor I come to a dayâs work with any self-congratulation. Whatever weâve done before was only the beginning. Itâs just like, okay, letâs make a record. Isnât it great that we can make them? And thatâs 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 itâs a commitment to the art of the song so we can give it to an audience and it can become theirs.â
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Richard Thompson website: www.richardthompson-music.com
Richard Thompsonâs latest album, Electric, produced by Buddy Miller, comes in what is arguably his most creatively productive period in a career that stretches back some 45 years, back to his emergence as a teen guitarist and songwriter with the groundbreaking Fairport Conventionâthe band that essentially invented the term âEnglish folk-rock.â And thatâs saying a lot, with his dozens of albums consistently high on critics polls and guitar skills that have earned him a Top 20 spot on Rolling Stoneâs list of Best Guitarists of All Time. Richard Thompsonâs many facets only seem to get more, well, multifaceted.
And multi-fascinating. The recognition continues and has become even stronger in the last few years: his long-acclaimed guitar workâpiercing, delicate, often both at onceâbrought him MOJO magazineâs Les Paul Award; his equally gripping songwriting earned him the 2012 Americana Music Associationâs Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him by Bonnie Raitt, and Britainâs coveted Ivor Novello Award; and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen University in his ancestral Scotland.
Oh, and there was that Order of the British Empire (OBE), bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth for service to music, summing up the whole artistic package.
All the while heâs been expanding his roster of accomplishments into theater with his multi-media extravaganza Cabaret of Souls, scoring the gripping Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man and curating Londonâs prestigious Meltdown Festival. Not to mention that heâs an avid birder and hockey fan.
On Thompsonâs new album, pointedly titled Electric, all of that is boiled down to its intense essence. Well, maybe not the hockey partâthough there is a decidedly full-contact quality to his music and words, as always.
âThe titleâs Electric, and the music sometimes is,â he says.
Mostly electric, to be accurate, and always electrifying. Whether featuring electric or acoustic guitar, the songs are built around the tightly focused core of Thompsonâs current, sharply honed trio: drummer Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra, John Cale)âwhoâs anchored his bands for more than a decadeâand bassist Taras Prodaniuk (Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello) complementing and often pushing the leader through a full range of emotional explorations.
The album was produced in Nashville by Buddy Miller (Robert Plantâs Band of Joy, not to mention his own acclaimed albums both solo and with wife Julie Miller) at his cozy home studio. Miller provides rhythm guitar here and there, Stuart Duncan guests on fiddle, Siobhan Maher Kennedy (of the English band River City People) sings harmonies on five of the songs and the incomparable Alison Krauss duets on the achingly lovely âThe Snow Goose.â
âIt strikes that desirable balance between aggression and reflection that we are always aiming for,â he says, before reflecting, âI wasnât being too serious with that. But perhaps it does work.â
It works very well, both as a description and as a body of work, a new chapter in his ever-unfolding musical saga.
Thompson terms the Electric material âfunk-folk, or folk-funk.â But that is to large extent just a matter of economyâand limitationsâof language, something heâs employed to great effect throughout his career both in lyrics and interviews.
âI commented facetiously somewhere that its between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins,â he notes, wryly.
But as a starting point in getting to know the new music itâs a good description, if for no other reason than it was the starting point of the writing.
âI wrote this record very much with the trio in mind,â he says. âAnd I thought we could do something that was kind of folk, in an English-Celtic sense, and also funky, in the more â70s sense of the word. And I like the idea of sort of a âCeltic power trio.â So that was the idea I was aiming for when I was writing. And I think to some extent it is that.â
Itâs very much that on the opening song, âStoney Ground,â a stomping beat by which to tell the tale of an unashamedly lustful senior citizen. The song, Thompson says, puts him in mind of popular English poet Sir John Betjemanâs âLate-Flowering Lust.â
âPeople over 55 still have urges,â Thompson notes, cheerily. âI wanted to write a song I could hear [English folk great] Martin Carthy sing. He does songs in that rhythm and tempo really well.â
Is the leering gentleman a hero or a fool?
âAbsolutely both. I think heâs a kind of a hero because he doesnât care what people think about him. He cocks a snoot at society.â
Dichotomy, contrast, complexity, engaging uncertainties flow from there. The lyrical, rueful âSalford Sunday,â with some prickly mandolin touches, sees its conflicted narrator waking up left and lonely in the titular burgh, just outside of Manchesterâthe same place that inspired Ewan MacCollâs English folk classed âDirty Old Town.â âMy Enemyâ features Kennedyâs voice in an almost ghostly shadow of Thompsonâs, as he considers inextricable bonds one has with oneâs nemesis, or nemeses. And in âGood Things Happen to Bad People,â an attractive melody carries the dark delight of schadenfreude, as the bad person of the title is set up for a inevitable, if perhaps not imminent fall.
âI was thinking of some of those old blues songs: âSheâs been doing something wrongâI can tell by the way she smellsââ he says, quoting his lyrics. âThose very earthy songs of suspected infidelity.â
Electric was recorded in concise, largely live sessions at the Miller abode. Millerâs role, Thompson says, was âto make the coffeeâand do everything else brilliantly. Heâs such a great musician, and also a great musical associate because he does whatâs necessary. His ego isnât a factor in making decisions. Heâll play rhythm guitar, or nothing. Heâll make the most self-effacing suggestions and also has really good ears. Everything he did was complementary to the project.â
Throughout, the music conveys the subtle shades and wide range of emotions in the songs as compellingly as the lyrics. At times it echoes classic groups with its power-trio instrumentation. Jeromeâs drums on âSally Bâ (a portrait of a woman of âunbelievable political ambitionâŚ so stupid and attractiveâ that Thompson met at a fundraising event) evoke a bit of the free swing of Mitch Mitchell on the early Jimi Hendrix Experience albums. And the beat leans to the Led Zep thump on âStuck on a Treadmill.â Then âStraight and Narrowâ adds a Farfisa-sounding organ for a garage-rocky touch.
Other times there are strong hints of countryâs British folk roots. The yearning âWhereâs Homeâ and the Celtic-country waltz âSaving the Good Stuff for Youâ spotlight Duncanâs fiddle, while âAnother Small Thing in Her Favor,â Thompson says, reminds him of what Robert Burns did with old Scottish melodies.
And âThe Snow Goose,â with acoustic fingerpicking and Alison Kraussâs heart-breaking harmonies, finds the narrator everything but free as a bird. Thompson, though, acknowledges that heâll take a little heat from some of his fellow birders for the choice of said bird.
âI should apologize to listeners in Canada and the U.S. where the snow goose is a more common bird,â he says. âIn Britain they are rare. In the lyric itâs pale and rare and footloose. The birding community will say, âYou could have picked a tundra swan or something, Siberian warbler.ââ
Common bird maybe. Common music, never from Richard Thompson.
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