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, “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.”
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Richard Thompson website: www.richardthompson-music.com
Richard Thompson’s 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 Convention—the band that essentially invented the term “English folk-rock.” And that’s 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 Stone’s list of Best Guitarists of All Time. Richard Thompson’s 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 work—piercing, delicate, often both at once—brought him MOJO magazine’s Les Paul Award; his equally gripping songwriting earned him the 2012 Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him by Bonnie Raitt, and Britain’s 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 he’s 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 London’s prestigious Meltdown Festival. Not to mention that he’s an avid birder and hockey fan.
On Thompson’s new album, pointedly titled Electric, all of that is boiled down to its intense essence. Well, maybe not the hockey part—though there is a decidedly full-contact quality to his music and words, as always.
“The title’s Electric, and the music sometimes is,” 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 Thompson’s current, sharply honed trio: drummer Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra, John Cale)—who’s anchored his bands for more than a decade—and 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 Plant’s 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 “The Snow Goose.”
“It strikes that desirable balance between aggression and reflection that we are always aiming for,” he says, before reflecting, “I wasn’t being too serious with that. But perhaps it does work.”
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 “funk-folk, or folk-funk.” But that is to large extent just a matter of economy—and limitations—of language, something he’s employed to great effect throughout his career both in lyrics and interviews.
“I commented facetiously somewhere that its between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins,” he notes, wryly.
But as a starting point in getting to know the new music it’s a good description, if for no other reason than it was the starting point of the writing.
“I wrote this record very much with the trio in mind,” he says. “And I thought we could do something that was kind of folk, in an English-Celtic sense, and also funky, in the more ‘70s sense of the word. And I like the idea of sort of a “Celtic power trio.” So that was the idea I was aiming for when I was writing. And I think to some extent it is that.”
It’s very much that on the opening song, “Stoney Ground,” 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 Betjeman’s “Late-Flowering Lust.”
“People over 55 still have urges,” Thompson notes, cheerily. “I wanted to write a song I could hear [English folk great] Martin Carthy sing. He does songs in that rhythm and tempo really well.”
Is the leering gentleman a hero or a fool?
“Absolutely both. I think he’s a kind of a hero because he doesn’t care what people think about him. He cocks a snoot at society.”
Dichotomy, contrast, complexity, engaging uncertainties flow from there. The lyrical, rueful “Salford Sunday,” with some prickly mandolin touches, sees its conflicted narrator waking up left and lonely in the titular burgh, just outside of Manchester—the same place that inspired Ewan MacColl’s English folk classed “Dirty Old Town.” “My Enemy” features Kennedy’s voice in an almost ghostly shadow of Thompson’s, as he considers inextricable bonds one has with one’s nemesis, or nemeses. And in “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” 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.
“I was thinking of some of those old blues songs: ‘She’s been doing something wrong—I can tell by the way she smells’” he says, quoting his lyrics. “Those very earthy songs of suspected infidelity.”
Electric was recorded in concise, largely live sessions at the Miller abode. Miller’s role, Thompson says, was “to make the coffee—and do everything else brilliantly. He’s such a great musician, and also a great musical associate because he does what’s necessary. His ego isn’t a factor in making decisions. He’ll play rhythm guitar, or nothing. He’ll make the most self-effacing suggestions and also has really good ears. Everything he did was complementary to the project.”
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. Jerome’s drums on “Sally B” (a portrait of a woman of “unbelievable political ambition… so stupid and attractive” 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 “Stuck on a Treadmill.” Then “Straight and Narrow” adds a Farfisa-sounding organ for a garage-rocky touch.
Other times there are strong hints of country’s British folk roots. The yearning “Where’s Home” and the Celtic-country waltz “Saving the Good Stuff for You” spotlight Duncan’s fiddle, while “Another Small Thing in Her Favor,” Thompson says, reminds him of what Robert Burns did with old Scottish melodies.
And “The Snow Goose,” with acoustic fingerpicking and Alison Krauss’s heart-breaking harmonies, finds the narrator everything but free as a bird. Thompson, though, acknowledges that he’ll take a little heat from some of his fellow birders for the choice of said bird.
“I should apologize to listeners in Canada and the U.S. where the snow goose is a more common bird,” he says. “In Britain they are rare. In the lyric it’s pale and rare and footloose. The birding community will say, ‘You could have picked a tundra swan or something, Siberian warbler.’”
Common bird maybe. Common music, never from Richard Thompson.
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