Connection and chemistry at the heart of Old Yellow Moon
MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason
• There’s a resounding buzz across Europe and North America around the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon tour. Folks who have experienced the two-and-a-half-hour show are using words like “epic” to describe online what they shared live in Paris, New York, London and LA, from Berlin to Belfast, Toronto, Quebec and Ottawa.
The long-awaited recorded collaboration earlier this year was four decades in the making. Subsequent performances – including six cities in Western Canada in early November – are something else, a showcase of deep connections and a sum much greater than its considerable parts.
Even the opening act is special, featuring Richard Thompson, whose seminal work with Fairport Convention in the early 70s led to inspired songwriting and performance standards and a nod from Rolling Stone as one of the “20 Greatest Guitarists.”
But it’s vocal harmony and unique chemistry that are the heart and essence of international encores, what Emmylou calls a “celebration of a 40-year friendship.” She has recorded more than 25 albums and earned 12 Grammy Awards. The most prominent harmony vocalist of our time and go-to-girl, her voice has blended elegantly with everyone from Bob Dylan, to Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in Trio, Elvis Costello, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Roy Orbison and Mark Knopfler, among others.
“From the first time Rodney and I sat down on a floor and across a kitchen table, messing around with two guitars and our two lead voices, it was obvious and inevitable that we’d be friends, cohorts and collaborators,” Emmylou recalls.
“Two unique voices in a duet can create a third voice, like nothing that has ever existed before. Obviously, the songs have to be good, but like instruments that add emotion and shading, voices raised together create some kind of joy. And being joyful at 20, or being joyful at 60, it’s still joy, ” she adds.
Crowell, a songwriter’s writer and singer is also a multi-Grammy Award winner. His work has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, Norah Jones, Etta James and the Grateful Dead. In 1988, his Diamonds & Dirt album generated five #1 singles. The 2010 publication of his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, earned global acclaim and a recent recording, KIN, with fellow author Mary Karr, debuted at #1 on Americana and Country charts.
“If the songs are good, you get to lay it on the line and deliver a worthy performance,” he reports. “You don’t think about, it but lose yourself in the moment. Get in there unconsciously and the chances of achieving something somewhat timeless go up exponentially.
“Come up to snuff enough times and you’ve got a record. Everything else is precious and I guess it’s a commitment to the art of the song that we can offer to an audience.” Crowell describes Harris as having “the soul of a poet and the voice of an angel and a cowgirl with a broken heart.”
Back in 1967, as an aspiring folksinger, she had arrived in New York expecting to meet Dylan, Baez, et al. But the scene had moved on, a marriage also faded quickly and as a single mother she also had to work as a waitress.
“Music was a way to make a living, the only thing I knew how to do well,” she recalls. “I didn’t have focus, direction, passion or a point of departure until I started making music with Gram Parsons. That’s when everything started to come together.”
However, her mentor and soul mate would overdose on heroin, leaving behind a legacy and a still lingering influence on everything from alt.country to the Rollin’ Stones.
“All of a sudden, the lights were turned out and I had to figure out how to make my own way in the dark. Through Gram and osmosis, I had developed an ability to hear the beauty and the poetry, the restraint that is in music and gives it its power,” Emmylou says.
In 1974, shortly after Parson’s tragic demise, while struggling with her debut solo album, Pieces of the Sky, Harris first heard the then unknown songwriter Rodney Crowell on a demo tape. “In the first few bars of Blueberry Wine, something went boom, something in his voice, in the music and the energy that was there,” Harris recalls what became the opening track, later prompting an invitation and air plane ticket to join what would become her legendary Hot Band.
Crowell says, “I went out and stayed seven years. We started touring with Elvis Presley’s band when he wasn’t working, hippie kids working with really high-price musicians like James Burton, Glen Hardin and Emory Gordy.
“We were young and foolish and that was lovely and the world was all out in front of us. We found our voice so many years ago, a certain tone we can get. Now that we finally got together again, it’s as if no time had passed. We’re blood in that way, a blend more about chemistry than precision.”
Harris and Crowell bonded over sibling harmonies such as the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers, internalizing them, creating another dimension as compelling as their solo voices – a classic pairing as unique and shimmering as the similarly influenced Simon and Garfunkel or Lennon and McCartney.
Blueberry Wine was revisited and revised on Old Yellow Moon. “I wrote it when I was 20 and knew I could do better. The writer’s best friend is revision and now it’s a little more in keeping with my current sensibilities. In some ways, we were sillier when we were younger, and we took things like this for granted. This process, this day’s work, is a bigger blessing than we understood it to be back then,” Rodney says.
The passage of time – time well spent, time misspent – is a recurring motif on Old Yellow Moon, including Matraca Berg’s heartbreaking lament for lost youth Back When We Were Beautiful and Crowell’s own preternaturally wise Here We Are.
Travelling back and forth across their careers and shared and separate history, listeners are offered rare balance and authenticity as well as an acknowledgement of the artist’s maturity and fallen comrades, such as Parsons and Harris’ touching farewell to Kate McGarrigle.
Sometimes mournful or timelessly yearning, anything but nostalgic, sometimes rollicking, Old Yellow Moon, the album and upcoming concerts, showcase the deep connections between ever evolving musical powerhouses, right now.
Concert dates for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, with Richard Thompson:
Nov 6: Vancouver: Orpheum Theatre. Nov 8: Nanaimo: Port Theatre. Nov 9: Victoria: Alix Goolden Hall. Nov 11: Edmonton: Jubilee Theatre. Nov 12: Calgary: EPCOR Centre. Nov 14: Winnipeg: Burton Cummings Theatre. Tickets through www.ticketmaster.ca
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org