Old Yellow Moon, the Grammy award-winning 2013 duo disc from longtime friends and collaborators Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, felt mostly effortless. Conjuring up the now-legendary folk-rock sound that Harris and her Hot Band forged in the 1970s with Crowell as a member, it sounded like two kindred spirits coming full circle, a return to their halcyon days of dramatically interpreting some of the very best singer-songwriter material coming out of Nashville.
In the years since, though, a lot has happened in both of their careers. Crowell, a songwriter who came out of the tight-knit songwriting community surrounding Guy and Suzanna Clark in Nashville, would increasingly get his songs in the hands of legends like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, as well as albums by contemporary country superstars Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. He would also have a bout of mainstream success with 1988's Diamonds & Dirt, an LP which spawned five consecutive No. 1 singles on the country chart.
Harris, for her part, continued to be a generous guest singer and collaborator with varying amounts of mainstream success. She also forged a more atmospheric, critically acclaimed sound in the 1990s and 2000s with producer Daniel Lanois. Famously more of an interpreter than a songwriter, Harris nevertheless penned almost the entirety of her 2011 album Hard Bargain.
The Traveling Kind, the duo's second full-length record together, is in many ways a testament to each performer's artistic growth. "We made that record Old Yellow Moon a few years back, and we didn't really spend any time writing for it. We just ended up picking songs that we wanted to play and record," explains Crowell. "For this one I said 'Emmy, let's write it — let's write most of it at least.'"
Although Crowell has spent his entire career as a songwriter, Harris, despite her success on Hard Bargain, took some convincing.
"Emmy kind of goes kicking and screaming into the writer's room, but once you get her in there and get her going, she'll outlast anybody," Crowell laughs. "She doesn't give herself full credit. She is a poet — I've always said Emmy has the poet's soul. Once you get her going, she comes up with really pertinent stuff."
The songs on The Traveling Kind prove as much. The title track, for instance, sees Crowell and Harris taking a melody crafted by their songwriting friend Cory Chisel and pulling from the long history of the music they helped create. "In the winds are names of poets past/ some were friends of yours and mine/ and to those unsung we lift our glass/ may their songs become the traveling kind," the two sing, invoking Don Quixote in describing how songwriters "brave this tilted world/ with our hearts laid on the line."
"I asked Cory if he had any melodies that might be different than what I'd come up with," Crowell recalls. "So he sent it to me, and I said 'Wow, this is cool. Let's get together with Emmy.' And we started knocking around and we came up with [the opening line]: 'We don't all die young, to save our spark from the ravages of time.' I knew we were talking about poets who were close friends, artists we had known who were gone. Suzanne Clark, Gram Parsons, to name a couple, but also Hank Williams, other artists who we love who had gone. And the narrative eventually arrived at the timelessness — we're temporary in this world, but with any luck and dedication we might do some work that stands the test of time after we're gone."
That sense of timelessness pervades the whole recording, which was produced by Joe Henry and recorded mostly with Harris and Crowell's touring band. "It's not produced music. It's performed music," Crowell says. "That's us singing and playing."
Some tunes, like the rambling blues jam "The Weight of the World," which features pianist Billy Payne, were one-take keepers, and you can hear Crowell asking at the end of the song if the engineers were recording.
"Billy Payne, who was playing piano at my house, he and [bassist] Byron House were kind of messing around with some of the tune," Crowell says. "So they knew it, and [guitarist] Jed Hughes and [drummer] Jerry Rogue didn't really know it, but because the bass player and the piano player knew it, the other guys just fell in. It was a genuine moment."
The carefree nature of the recording, though, belies the seriousness of songs like the mournful ballad "Higher Mountains" or the old-timer nostalgic sweetness of "No Memories Hanging Around." These are songs built on the kind of subtle sentiment and emotional resonance that much of country radio doesn't even attempt to match.
Crowell, who has called Nashville home for over 30 years, is in awe of the fact that he's made a living crafting the kind of tunes that he does. "I've always considered myself really lucky, because in the day when other people were recording my songs, other than me — artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Emmylou, and Johnny Cash — their particular sensibilities were so unique to their own artistic view," he says. "I don't feel qualified to criticize anyone or anything, but I would say that there was no formula then. Any criticism that I would level at country music today is that it pretty much reeks of formula. So, I consider myself in some ways lucky that I came around when the artists who were finding songs to record were as far from formulaic as you can possibly get."