When it comes to partnerships in the music industry, there are few as enduring – and indeed endearing – as the one between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
Crowell first met Harris in the early 1970’s when she was breaking away from unknown folk clubs and he was pitching songs to producers. They would go on to record and tour together, first in the Hot Band and decades later as a duo, and, along the way, write the odd song together.
The longevity and true musical depth of this partnership was no better demonstrated than on a set they shared at the City Winery in Nashville on November 29 before both an audience and global live-stream. This was the latest in a series of gigs Harris has recently done with other artists as part of a fund-raising endeavour for her dog shelter “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and other Nashville charities.
Two of the most prominent were in April when she shared the stage with Steve Earle and on November 10 Harris did a set with the “musician’s musician” Buddy Miller. But both of these paled into comparison with what she was able to achieve with Crowell. The pair were simply superb.
The addition of fiddle maestro Eamon McLoughlin certainly helped. Emmylou's long-standing bass player Chris Donohue, who was there for the Earle and Miller gigs, returned, but the inclusion of McLoughlin, who also does mandolin and backing vocals, puts some real flesh into the acoustic arrangements.
It also helped to have Crowell’s extensive, and inventive, song-writing repertoire to call on. Crowell is in the top-echelon of Nashville songwriters and his work has been covered by numerous artists – Harris being among the first in her early work, often referred to as the Warner Bros albums.
Cue the opening number. Harris sets the scene by proclaiming “I’m going to start with a Rodney Crowell song” before launching into the foot-stomping “Even Cowboys Get the Blues” which was on her 1979 release Blue Kentucky Girl when Crowell played acoustic lead.
Compared to her buddy, Harris is a song-writing novice. But the third number was one of her finest compositions and album title-track, the evocative “Red Dirt Girl.”
Unlike those two earlier shows, duets were predominant, with Harris and Crowe really in the groove with supporting vocals – perhaps aided these days by their matching hair tones. It is no surprise that the pair are at their best together on numbers from their two albums – Old Yellow Moon (2013) and The Traveling Kind (2015). Two songs off the Grammy-winning first, “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams,” produced near-perfect harmonies.
Then again, it was an old Gram Parsons classic, “Return of the Grievous Angel,” which proved a real crowd pleaser, as did the Louvin Brothers “If I Could Only Win Your Love” from Emmylou’s first Warner album Pieces of the Sky.
The current buzz among the Nashville in-crowd is the recent release of the film Without Getting Killed or Caught which examines the convoluted relationships between singer-songwriter Guy Clark, his wife Susanna and troubled Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt through the absorbing diaries of Susanna, who died in 2012, four years before Guy. Crowell, a close friend of all three, makes a major contribution to the documentary directed by Guy biographer Tamara Saviano.
It was only a matter of time before any of the three got a mention. And it was Susanna, a songwriter in her own right, who gained this distinction when Harris did a beautiful version of “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose,” a Susanna song Harris included on Luxury Liner, released in 1977, two years after Dottsy had a number one country hit with the same song.
Harris concluded: “Susanna was in the room I swear.” This provided the perfect introduction for Crowell to perform certainly his most poignant song “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which he wrote during the last weeks of Guy Clark’s life. The lyrics are among the best he ever penned and reflect the imminent loss of a true friend: But when down on my luck kept me up for days/You were there with the right word to help me crawl out of the maze
Townes Van Zandt’s time came when Harris performed his classic ballad “Pancho & Lefty.”
Her version, of Luxury Liner, is regarded as one of the finest covers of the genre and was in fact the interpretation which inspired Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to record their 1983 version which became a number one country hit. Harris meandered through the song with soft and soothing due-reverence, ably assisted by McLoughlin on mandolin.
She introduced the ballad by recalling when she first met Townes, while playing at a club in New York. “He had something I had never heard before. It was country and folk, but with something else I just can’t explain.” It was this sort of in-between-songs banter which made the pairing click so well, certainly in contrast to the earlier Harris double-acts.
Harris also remembered the first time she uncovered a particular Crowell song, whether it was with then-husband/producer Brian Ahern when they discovered “Bluebird Wine” – the opening track on Pieces of the Sky – or Crowell’s signature number “Til I Gain Control Again” which one-time Hot Band member John Starling introduced her to.
The 19-song set lasted just short of two hours and ended with Harris performing, as an encore, her 1975 masterpiece “Boulder to Birmingham,” the song she co-wrote with Bill Danoff as a tribute to Gram Parsons, who had plucked her from obscurity. “I know you’ll want me to do this song,“ she quipped.
She could not have made a more important point. For this was a concert made magical by two performers who knew exactly what their audience wanted from them.
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation