Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell owe their musical partnership to a happy accident. Back in the mid-Seventies, Harris just happened to hear a few of Crowell’s songs on a cassette tape intended for Anne Murray, who was making an album at the time. But so was Harris, who claimed one of those tunes, “Bluebird Wine,” for her debut album. She was so hooked by the voice on the cassette that the singer tracked him down to hear more. Striking up an immediate friendship, Crowell joined Harris’ Hot Band and became her frequent songwriting partner and sounding board.
Still, it wasn’t until almost four decades later that the musicians teamed for an entire album, 2013’s critically-lauded Old Yellow Moon. Fresh off its Grammy-winning success, the wheels started turning for another duets LP, but this one with a bit more of a hands-on approach, at least when it came to songwriting. The Traveling Kind, released this month, is a snapshot of the longtime friends’ musical kinship. As Harris and Crowell discussed (and demonstrated) in Rolling Stone‘s New York studios, before performing two of the album’s songs, even music pros can still surprise and inspire each other.
It took a few decades for you to record an album together for the first time, but your second project of duets came quick. Was it easier this time around?
Harris: I don’t think our comfort level ever changed. We’ve always been comfortable, but as far as the process, Rodney can tell you it was pretty quick.
Crowell: Two different records, two different processes. The first record was a conversation about, “What do you want to do?” And we felt it was kind of a covers thing, and then with the second, our conversation was about writing songs. That, combined with the fact that we had a really fine band and we’d been on the road for a year.
Harris: Yeah, we were hot off the road. Good and greasy.
Crowell: It made it easy. We didn’t have to search for anything.
So the songwriting process wasn’t as daunting as you might have thought it could be?
Harris: Well, I thought it could be daunting because I always assume the worst, but Rodney makes it easy. I’m so comfortable with him and I know what a good writer he is.
Crowell: I refuse to think of anything other than a blast to get to do it in the first place.
Harris: if you’re co-writing and it’s with a friend, even if you didn’t come up with a song, you had a nice visit. Rodney and I always did come up with a song.
At this point, how much are you still learning things from each other and pushing each other, in terms of songwriting?
Crowell: I find myself feeling really good as a vocalist, singing with Emmy. That feeling opens the doorways where I hunt and find things that I might probably wouldn’t do on my own. The last two or three years that Emmy and I have been working together have been very beneficial to me as a singer. I would presume that the flipside of that is that Emmy may feel good about herself as a songwriter.
Harris: I’ve always loved Rodney’s voice from the first time I heard it on a little cassette, way back in 1974, and then when we met and sang together it was just as natural as anything. We used to have fun working up a song – “OK, now you take the lead. OK, let’s do it in a different key and you take the lead,” — and it always sounded great both ways. It’s not a matter of who sings lead; it’s just like a dance. Even though I’m not much of a dancer!
How did you end up hearing that cassette?
Harris: Well, I had been signed to Warner Brothers because of my appearance on Gram Parsons’ two records [Grievous Angel, Sleepless Nights], so I had gotten a contract and they put me with a producer, Brian Ahern, who had a very successful track record producing Anne Murray. I was up in Canada to listen to material and we started in the morning and I didn’t like anything, but I wouldn’t say anything. Brian had the sense to say, “You’ll know right away if you like it. It’s OK if you don’t like it.” There wasn’t anything that really appealed to me, but he had gotten a tape of Rodney through a friend who worked with Anne Murray.
Crowell: Skip Beckwith had just happened to be coming through Nashville. He knew a guitar player that I knew. Somehow they wound up at my house and he says, “You got any songs?” I said, “Here’s five songs on a cassette.”
Harris: But he sent them to Brian to play them for Anne Murray, right?
Crowell: Yeah. [Laughs].
Harris: Because he didn’t know anything about me. . . But Brian, when there was nothing left, said, “I got this cassette.” It was still in the little mailing wrapper and he said, “He comes highly recommended by somebody whose opinion I value,” so we listened for the first time — “Bluebird Wine,” “Song for the Life”. . . We got excited and Brian started trying to contact Rodney. I had to go back to D.C. the next day so Brian arranged for Rodney to meet him there. He came to my little gig at a place called the Childe Harold, which unfortunately is no longer there. We sat in on some things and the next day he played me “Till I Gain Control Again” and I thought, “Man, I have found the mother lode here.” For a long time, I was the first person who heard everything he would write.
And now, 41 years later, how do you still find that spark with each other?
Harris: I just love Rodney’s company, and he also happens to be a great guitar player, great singer, great songwriter, and he’s got a great energy about him that I really feed off of.
Crowell: And vice versa. I’ll put it this way – Emmy’s mother used to say, “You’re like Emmy’s little brother,” and I always took that in the spirit in which she said it, that there’s some kind of sibling sort of friendship that is really easy to pick up where we left off.
How has being on the road together changed through the years?
Harris: We get to bring our dogs now! [Laughs]
Crowell: Yeah, we just didn’t think of it then.
What kind of dogs do you have?
Harris: Mutts. He’s got a little mutt, I have a big mutt.
Crowell: You don’t get paid to play music. You get paid to travel. We travel somewhat more luxuriously now than we did as younger folk, but the whole thing is you get to get up on stage and play music and people like you, and for the most part, everybody goes away happy and you feel like you’ve contributed something. It’s a blessed pursuit to do what we do.
Harris: It’s almost like a blessed responsibility to have that gift, because I feel like music comes through you. You can say, “I created this,” but there’s a feeling that somehow you’re a vessel for it.
The first line on the first song of your new album is pretty profound: “We don’t all die young to save our spark from the ravages of time.” What inspired that?
Crowell: That was the first line that came to me, and that’s when I went hollering. It was Cory Chisel’s melody. He gave me this melody and that line came to me and then I’m yelling, “Emmy! Cory! Let’s get together at this.” And that line came to me because a friend of mine had passed away, a songwriter from Montana named Ben Bullington. He had pancreatic cancer so I was thinking about him, but that line led to conversations about shared friends that have gone on.
Harris: It’s about the continuum.
Crowell: Yeah, people who have the poet’s soul and have something to say and we’re going to discover them and it’s going to be great, so that song. It came with a life of its own.
And “Weight of the World” is about some politically-charged environmental issues. What inspired it?
Harris: Well, Rodney came with a great groove. He had the first couple of verses and he said, “OK, we’re talking about the industrial revolution and how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.” And then I had my personal grievances. I was involved with the NRDC’s campaign against mountaintop removal, which is just one of the most unbelievable atrocities. I mean, these mountains, they seeded the entire North America, right? And these people come in and blow the tops off something that took millions and millions of years, destroying lives and wildlife. . . The arrogance of it! If anyone has ever seen overhead photographs of what they’ve done, it’s like a moonscape. They’ve destroyed something that was beautiful and pristine for millions of years and got away with it. We both knew about, “Where have all the plastic bottles gone? They’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
Crowell: We have a responsibility to be truthful but I also take the responsibility. I don’t think that “The Weight of the World” is all about politics. It’s like how the environment and how the natural topography of this planet would ever fall into a political division, debate, just leaves me confused.
Harris: The line that sums it up really is, “We do all live downstream.” I saw that on a bumper sticker and it’s so true. We’re soiling our own nest. And we have a responsibility. How much more can everybody do? You’re on a bus traveling down the road and you’ve got thousands of these [water bottles] and no place to recycle them. That bothers me sometimes. I wish there was more chance to recycle our own waste that we musicians contribute.
Emmylou, you must get asked about Gram Parsons in almost every interview. Are there any things that people don’t ask about? Are there any things that people don’t really know or understand about him?
Harris: I am in the process of writing a book and tell my side of the story, along with a lot of other things. I want to talk about my parents. My parents had a beautiful, serendipitous meeting and beautiful marriage and things like that, but yeah. . . [Gram] really loved gin, a Ramos Gin Fizz for breakfast.
Crowell: And what did you say the other day? That he was an accidental death and you said he would have been. . .
Harris: This is what Barry Tashian [the guitarist who played with both Parsons and Harris] said: “Gram would have been more surprised than anybody that he died, because it was an accidental thing. It was like, ‘Whoops, my bad.'”
Dolly Parton recently revealed there will be another Trio album of the songs you did with her and Linda Ronstadt.
Harris: We had a lot of outtakes. I didn’t realize how many. That will come out in September. And it is some pretty great stuff. I go back and say, “Damn, we sounded good. Why didn’t we put that one on there?”
Speaking of projects that were a long time coming, why this decade for both of your duets albums and not four decades ago?
Harris: This was the right time. As we’ve gotten older, I don’t want to say we’ve mellowed but maybe we’ve gotten deeper with everything we’ve gone through. I mean, Rodney and I have gone through marriages and divorces and deaths of friends and births of children and grandchildren, and I think you get fuller and maybe you have more to say.
Crowell: We might have done it anytime. But I think Emmy called me at exactly the right time for me.
Harris: And we’ve brought the years of our experience. It becomes a conversation between two old friends who have played music together and apart and shared some experiences and had separate experiences and we bring that together, and so we have something to offer people — not just our music, us singing together, but our lives. At that moment, we can say, “This is us.”
Crowell: And then when we get in the right key and get really hooked up and get going, we really do sound good together.
It’s funny you say that this comes from being in the right part of life at the right time, but it’s also the way your relationship started, just having this cassette happen to be in the right place.
Harris: I’m a member of the church of serendipity. My whole life has been just one little surprise after another.
Crowell: It’s a matter of public record that Emmylou started recording my songs and shortly thereafter a lot of other people did, too. People were listening to Emmy’s records and then saying, “Well, who’s this guy writing this stuff?” So Emmy changed my life. In another way, in kind of a sweeter, deeper way, it’s these few years that have been life-changing. The fact is, you’re out there as a solo artist and you do the work and it’s a good job to have, but when you get a pal, suddenly you’re in a band and you’re a teenager again and that’s cool.
So now that this is going so well, do you see it being a regular thing every few years?
Harris: Well, who knows? When they asked Willie Nelson if he was going to retire, he said, “Well, I only play music and play golf. Which one do you want me to give up?” [Laughs].
Rodney, you’ve joked about having to play protective older brother when it comes to men with crushes on Emmylou. When was the last time that happened?
Crowell: Yeah, it happens! These guys I know, they say, “You’re Emmy’s friend? You know, Emmy’s a single gal. . .”
Harris: Rodney’s my pimp!
Crowell: “I could fix you up,” I said [to the guy], “but you’re gonna have to step up.”
Harris: You’re gonna have to come up with the goods, baby.
Crowell: And they melt. Emmy, as sweet as she can be, wouldn’t harm a fly, and is a kind and considerate person. Emmy is so beautiful and has so much presence.
Harris: All right, all right, enough.
Crowell: No, they melt! They do. You know this.
Harris: I’m just a girl.
Crowell: Well, that’s true. It’s just these boisterous boys.
Harris: I’m just a girl with some Grammys. [Laughs]