Emmylou Harris laughs when she's asked how long her new album of duets with Rodney Crowell has been in the works. "Thirty years?" she says.
At least. Old Yellow Moon, due February 26th, is the latest entry in a long-standing relationship: Harris has been recording Crowell's songs since "Bluebird Wine," the opening track on her 1975 major-label debut, Pieces of the Sky. He played guitar and sang backup in an early incarnation of her Hot Band in the Seventies, and she backed him on his first solo album in 1978. They've been talking about recording an album together since then, but though they've been friends and co-written tunes over the years, the timing never worked out for a full-on collaboration.
"I think we always knew we would do a record together one day," Harris tells Rolling Stone. "I guess it was sometime last year that I said, 'You know, if we're going to do this record, we've got to put a fence around some time and get started.'"
It didn't take long once they did. Crowell offered four new songs for the album, which they rounded out with eight covers they chose from among various options each suggested while sitting around producer Brian Ahern's kitchen table in Nashville.
"Brian brought a bunch of songs, Rodney and I both brought songs, and we would listen every day. And if it was something that we liked, we'd set about finding a key and a sketch of an arrangement and make a demo of it right there at the table," Harris says. In fact, the title track is the version they recorded on the spot at Ahern's house.
"We were going to cut it with a bunch of musicians, but we decided that what we got in that moment was perfect," Harris says.
Choosing songs wasn't far different from how they worked in the old days. In fact, one of the tunes they recorded was from the old days: Harris and Crowell recorded a new version of "Bluebird Wine," cementing the full-circle aspect of Old Yellow Moon.
"I love the fact that although Rodney wrote it, he had never actually recorded it himself to put on any of his records," Harris says. "I thought it should be included because it was one of those early points of our collaboration as musicians and friends."
Crowell agreed, with one caveat: he wanted to touch up the words. "I wrote those lyrics when I was 21 years old. I could have done it better," he tells Rolling Stone. "I revised the first couple of verses and said, 'OK, I can stand behind this.'"
The tune was Harris' introduction to Crowell back in 1974, when Ahern (to whom she was married in the late Seventies and early Eighties) gave her a demo while they was looking for material for Pieces of the Sky. "The first song was 'Bluebird Wine,'" Harris says. "I loved his voice, I loved his material, so Brian got on the phone and started trying to track him down."
Crowell flew to Washington D.C., where Harris was living at the time, to play some songs with her. He had recently moved to Austin, and when Harris came through on tour, she offered him a job. "She said, 'Hey, I've got an extra ticket, I'm going to L.A. tomorrow, do you want to go?'" Crowell recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah, I'll go,' and I stayed seven years."
He spent three of those years in her Hot Band before striking out on his own as a performer and producer, leading to decades of crossed connections before they found the time to make Old Yellow Moon. It's not, strictly speaking, a country record – each has veered closer to folk and Americana over the past 20 years – but it follows a proud country tradition that Harris first learned when she sang with Gram Parsons in the Seventies.
"I came to country music through duet singing with Gram and hanging out with Gram," Harris says. "I love it. I love the sound of two voices together, whether it's two women or two men or a man and a woman. It just creates a third voice, and I love the conversational aspect of it."
Harris has been a sought-after duet partner for years, contributing vocals to albums by Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Mark Knopfler, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst, among plenty of others. Teaming with Crowell again, though, was like coming home. "It's kind of in our blood," she says.
Crowell elaborates. "There's never been a lack of chemistry for Emmy and I," he says. "For a lot of the time when she was putting together the original Hot Band, it was just she and I, and we sat around playing the Louvin Brothers' songs and looking for those arcane melodies that work best with two voices."
Their shared history means a shared repertoire for the tour that will accompany Old Yellow Moon, which begins March 13th in New Orleans. "I don't think we'll have any problem finding material," Harris says. "If there's any problem, it'll be that we have too much."
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