Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell: "Chasing art with great intent sometimes leads you to dangerous places"

The Americana pioneers team up for their second collaborative album, "The Traveling Kind"

Published May 14, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell        (David McClister)
Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell (David McClister)

Before we begin our interview, Emmylou Harris takes a brief moment to tell her old friend Rodney Crowell that she has an old photo of his. “It’s a little picture of your father as a boy,” she tells him. “I’m going to put it in a safe place for you.” The black-and-white image, nearly 100 years old, is one of many personal artifacts that appear on the cover of their second collaborative album, “The Traveling Kind.” When the designer returned the materials, this small snapshot of James Walter Crowell was apparently sent to Harris by accident, but her partner knows it’s in good hands.

The artwork for “The Traveling Kind” features an assortment of personal memorabilia both old and new: archival photographs, pages of sheet music, stamped passports, ancient lapel pins, matchbooks from who knows where, pressed flowers, and all the ephemera accumulated in a musical life. It’s a shrine or perhaps a small museum exhibit about their parallel careers in country music, and each item tells a story: about Harris being heartbroken by the death of her friend and mentor Gram Parsons, about Crowell moving to Nashville to learn the songwriting trade, about their first concerts together in the mid 1970s, about the decades-long transformation of country & western music into Americana.

First as a duet partner with Parsons and later as a solo artist whose earthy presence and deep knowledge of musical history cut against the glitz of ‘70s Nashville, Harris has always pushed against the boundaries of the genre, her crystalline voice caught between the romance of the past and the promise of the future. She recorded his song “Bluebird Wine” on her 1975 album "Pieces of the Sky" and invited him to play guitar in her backing band.

As fine a picker as he was, Crowell was always a better songwriter. He took to the craft like a born storyteller, with an eye for the details of southern life and a keen understanding that a good song should have a specific perspective and contain unique characters. That approach made him a favorite of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill, Lynn Anderson and Rosanne Cash (his first wife), among many others. His greatest success as a solo artist may have come in the late 1980s, when the neo-traditionalist movement was in its heyday and he won a string of Grammys, but even after his commercial peak, he has continued to write and record some of his best material, in particular his 2001 musical memoir “The Houston Kid” and 2012’s “Kin,” a songwriting collaboration with Mary Karr.

It took Harris and Crowell nearly 40 years to record an album with equal billing, but the charm of “Old Yellow Moon” wasn’t how it presented them as roots-rock royalty but how it showed them simply enjoying each other’s company on an array of old and new tunes. A similarly easy camaraderie defines “The Traveling Kind,” which looks back on their careers and their place within the country continuum. Songs like “Bring It On Back to Memphis,” “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try,” and “Pleasing You” (which features Crowell sounding like the ghost of Hank Williams) don’t wallow in the kind of nostalgia that afflicts so many aging artists. Instead, they quietly ponder what all those photos and all those songs mean at the end of the day. “In the wind are names of poets past,” they sing together on the title track. “Some were friends of yours and mine, and to those unsung we lift our glass.”

Harris and Crowell spoke to Salon about their collaboration, their musical heroes and inspirations, and the bountiful merits of Southern food ("Here’s what we have to offer: hot-buttered biscuits and dewberry pie").

The title track talks about songs as “the traveling kind.” What does that mean to you?

Emmylou Harris: Rodney, I’m going to let you take that.

Rodney Crowell: Are you? OK. My notion about the traveling kind is, Emmy and I are intuitive writers so sometimes we have no idea of what we’re going to say. When we were writing these songs, the music and the tonality of the melody start speaking to us, and we fall into that old folkie tradition that Emmy comes from and that I always love. The narrative just started to present itself to us. We’ve lost a lot of beloved artists who we worked with and were great friends with—Susanna Clark and Gram Parsons. I was never close to Gram. I didn’t really know him, but Emmy and I both shared a close friendship with Susanna. That was the basis of “The Traveling Kind.” Basically, the notion is that we’re all just passing through.

Harris: We’re part of a continuum. There’s so much that went before us that we had contact with. We draw form the music people made before us and there will be many others after us. We’ve been putting in our time. We’ve got some miles on us. And I think it’s important to say that we’re glad to have them.

The first line of that song—“We don’t all die young to save our spark”—seems to sum that up perfectly.

Crowell: People have died young. There have been a lot of accidental deaths in our line of work, and I don’t think they were passing out of this particular realm of existence to get away from having to grow old. But they’re spared the physical decay that happens to you. It’s death by good intentions, sometimes.

Harris: A friend of mine said, Nobody would have been more surprised by what happened to Gram than Gram. He certainly didn’t mean to check out.

Crowell: That’s the basis for that opening line. That’s really what it’s conveying. Chasing art with great intent sometimes leads you to dangerous places, and you don’t even know you’re going there until you’re there.

You’ve both managed to chase art for a long time. How do you save your spark?

Harris: For me it’s so much about the collaborative process. Working with Rodney these past few years has certainly sparked me. It’s not that I ever lost excitement, but when I was searching around for what to do next, I went back to the fact that Rodney and I had been talking for 35-plus years about doing a record. I thought, Why not now? I don’t really have anything that’s driving me, but I had always wanted to do a record with him. So these two records have been very exciting and inspiring for me. There’s the lonely process of coming up with ideas on your own, but when you make the record and go out on the road, you have this fantastic company. I’ve been fortunate to have that all my career—not that my career is over, but it is in the last stages. So to save the best for last, for Rodney and I to be out there doing this now…

Crowell: [singing] Oh darling, save the last dance for me!

Harris: I did save the best for toward the last. Rodney and I have talked about this, and we could have made this record years go. It probably would have been a good record, but I think what we have to offer as two old friends and two old traveling kinds is our experience and our friendship. It comes across on the record and when we’re out there playing.

Crowell: I would only add an ibid to what Emmy said, and I would add to it that although she alluded to this being the summing-up part of her career, you have to believe you’re still getting better at it. I don’t know if I’m truly better at it, but I try to believe that I am. And collaborating and performing with Emmy as intently as we have the last few years has contributed to my feeling that I’m a better performer and a better singer—that I’m continuing to grow.

Harris: From my point of view, Rodney came out of the box complete. I always knew he was inevitable from the first time I heard him, but I’m the happy beneficiary of being able to work with him now.

How was the process of making this record different from making “Old Yellow Moon”?

Harris: We made it faster.

Crowell: We breezed through it. I think it was seven working days on “The Traveling Kind,” which as you know, the traveling kind move pretty fast.

Harris: But we did put more time into writing.

Crowell: We didn’t write anything new for “Old Yellow Moon.” It was a gathering of songs that we already had. But we started writing songs for “The Traveling Kind.” That made the recording go faster, because we had already crafted the songs.

Harris: We wrote a few with Cory Chisel, and there was a song with Will Jennings, who’s a very good friend of mine and Rodney’s. But I’d never worked with Cory. I didn’t get to know him until we sat down in the writing room with him. He was absolutely delightful—a very talented young man.

Crowell: Great singer.

Harris: I usually only write with people I’ve know for years and I just want to hang with. So if you don’t come up with something, at least you have a nice visit.

One of the covers on here is Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.” What made you gravitate to that song?

Harris: Actually, we were seriously considering that song for the first record. It was in our short list, but we didn’t get to it. It wasn’t like it wasn’t up to snuff, because we love the song. I could happily do a whole record of Lucinda Williams covers. Rodney, that was the first thing that you said: We definitely have to cut that one for this record, because we didn’t get to it the last time.

Crowell: I remember the first time I heard it on Lucinda’s record, I just said whoa. That’s really good. Even through the years, there were a couple of times I was producing some different records for different artists, and I kept saying you ought to record this song. Nobody jumped on it.

Harris: We both jumped. I think we were able to bring something to it. Her version is fantastic, of course, but a duet always brings a different story. There’s a certain urgency to it, isn’t there?

Crowell: Lucinda is the queen of smeared-lipstick yearning. Emmy and I often talk about conversation in songs. We’re more inclined to go toward conversation as two old friends rather than trying to put forth something else. A lot of duet partnerships put forward this romantic connection, but Emmy and I look for other narrative conversations: old friends, someone just lending an ear. “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” just seemed like it was a parallel story for both singers.

Harris: We’ve both been there.

Is that the same Lucinda you mention in “Bring It On Home to Memphis”?

Harris: Not her specifically, Rodney, right?

Crowell: No, just the name. Of course, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have written that opening line had I not known Lucinda. But the song is not specifically about her.

Harris: But it’s the essence of Lucinda.

Crowell: It’s a great name and all that it conjures. Actually, “Bring It On Home to Memphis” is an example of certain stories and narrative flows that Emmy and I look for. That song really at the end of the day comes down to a longing of parents for a wayward child to come home. There’s Emmy’s recitation in the middle of it, which I’m really proud of because it’s not that often you get a church-house narration in the middle of a rockabilly song. But it’s from the point of view of a mom saying, Come on home, gal!

Harris: Come back home where you belong.

Crowell: Here’s what we have to offer: hot-buttered biscuits and dewberry pie.

Harris: There’s so much colorful imagery about the South, even the food. Rodney and I aren’t from Louisiana, but we’re both from the South. So we’ve got that in our DNA.

Crowell: Hot-buttered biscuits and dewberry pie wouldn’t be the same if it was veal parmesan.

Harris: Or spaghetti and meatballs.

There’s such a strong sense of communing with the past on this album—engaging with histories both personal and public. That’s something you’ve both done a lot in your careers.

Crowell: For me it started with Hank Williams, who came and went like a comet. As time went on, Hank led me to the Louvin Brothers, who bounced me forward to Merle Haggard and then back to Hank Snow. I went back to the Carter Family and then back to old Blind Blake and Howlin’ Wolf recordings. The greatest inspiration for me right now is the legacy that these traveling kinds have left along the way. It’s like breadcrumbs out of the forest.

Harris: We can only be influenced by what came before us, but we’re very grateful for it. Discovering music as a teenager, when the folk explosion happened, I was like every other thirteen-year-old listening to Frankie Avalon and all these teenage angst songs. I know it sounds crazy, but Peter Paul & Mary was the strangest thing I’d ever heard, and I loved it.  That brought me to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and I was listening to folk programs on the radio, which turned me onto country blues like Sonny Boy Williamson and then the Carter Family and Bill Monroe. Why did it affect me? I was a white Protestant girl, very protected, and I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. But it was gonna happen because they were talking about issues that are very primal and shared by anyone living in this world and in this life. These are the people who were telling us what it’s all about. Now we all have to find it in our own particular way and through our own particular journey. But these were the voices that woke me up.

Crowell: The process of making “The Traveling Kind” was really very intuitive because I don’t think we set out with anything in mind other than, Let’s write some songs. Which is a faith-based undertaking. Let’s sit here and hope something comes to us. And what comes to you is very intuitive. Once you start to construct what’s basically coming to you from some other source, we know how to put it together and how to craft something out of it. You start building that house, and then someone else listens to it and it resonates with them in a different way, so they start to tell their own story about it. I think when you get songs right, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the listener.

Harris: I’m loving what you’re saying. An album is a string of pearls. Because they’re all strung together, they become something else. It’s not like there’s a method to it, but I always believe that a group of songs will make a statement to people, but I don’t always know where I’m going when I get started. I trust the fact that I loved a song enough to write and record it. I think Rodney shares that with me. All the songs we’ve recorded are songs that spoke to us.

By Stephen Deusner

MORE FROM Stephen Deusner

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Emmylou Harris Lucinda Williams Music Nashville Rodney Crowell The Traveling Kind