Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell Album 'Old Yellow Moon': Good For All Of the Things
For anyone with a country heart, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Old Yellow Moon is a long-awaited treat. This is the first Harris/Crowell collaboration since 1975, when Crowell joined Harris’ Hot Band and backed her on solo debut Pieces of the Sky. Even the most critical critics can hardly find anything very critical to say about the album. Almost 40 years after their first pairing, the duo is still just like a shot of apple pie moonshine on a cold winter night.
Old Yellow Moon’s sound is already guaranteed simple syrup, seeing as they are both two of the best harmonizers in the business, but ten seconds into the album’s opening track “Hanging Up My Heart” you know you’re in for way more than just the classic honky tonk croons of yesteryear. Harris leads the song with the citric assertiveness she’s know for when she’s not honeying up some harmony. Crowell follows sweetly behind her, just as she does when he takes the lead.
The best part of the album in my opinion is that it not only sounds like the past, but is a tribute to the past. Old Yellow Moon includes four original Crowell tracks, and eight covers (many by Hot Band originals, like Hank DeVito’s aforementioned “Hanging Up My Heart”). When I got to the album’s second track though, a revival of Roger Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” (not to be confused with the Tom Waits song), I had to hit "repeat" four times before I could go on. Maybe I’m a sucker for 50s country fiddles, but with the finesse of Harris’ backing and the sweetness of Crowell’s lead, their version proves how enduring a country classic can be.
Emmylou’s cover of Patti Scialfa “Spanish Dancer” is really what gives the album some character. It’s unexpected, and delivered with the confident smokey sweetness that only a great like Harris can bring to the table. The song has the effortless flow of a Bob Dylan ballad, if Bob Dylan could cross his legs and sing like a lady. Crowell’s original piano ballad “Open Season On My Heart” is the perfect somber note to follow, and comes as a sort of toast to the album being a tour through all different kinds of country.
Unless you’ve got no soul, the duo picking up the pace with their guitar driven cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase the Feeling” should make you want to put on some cut-offs and go buy a bottle of Jack. They give the song a rock-a-billy life of its own, that some how comes all too naturally for the country singers. The song is cleverly followed by a saloon-style rendition of Hank DeVito and Donivan Cowart’s “Black Caffeine.” The song not only adds some dynamism to the twangy tracks leading up to it, but adds some diversity to the albums’ themes as well.
The following track, a haunting, roomy retelling of Allen Reynold’s “Dreaming My Dreams” led with only spare guitar, fiddle and steel, is maybe the best song on the album. The understated grace of Crowell and Harris’ delivery is just another tribute to the way legends make music. Crowell then playfully takes the lead on a throwback to Pieces of the Sky with “Bluebird Wine.” The jaunty tune is a rambling mood elevator, and also offers a nostalgic nod to the two’s own musical past, which is necessary and tastefully done.
The reprieve is short lived. Harris’ crooney “Back When We Were Beautiful” is another time-standing-still tearjerker, one of those country songs you can only listen to once a year. Harris’ breathily powerful performance is lightened only slightly by Crowell’s harmonies at the chorus, just to make sure that you don’t get any kind of melodic break from crying. Crowell’s “Here We Are” follows as a sort of call and response to the sadness of “Back When We Were Beautiful.” It also goes to prove that Rodney Crowell can write one damn good love ballad.
The second to last song, Crowell’s rambling “Bull Rider,” is maybe the least well-received song on the album. I disagree; I find the open, folky, Gram Parsons guitar sound of the song to be a great addition to Old Yellow Moon’s highs and lows. Lyrically the song isn’t as strong as the others, as a more 80’s style character study, but it’s a nice note nonetheless.
The album’s closing, and title track “Old Yellow Moon,” the third DeVito song on the album, seems to be a very intentional way to wrap things up. The song features the most melded moments of the two singers' voices, as well as a traditional, soft country accompaniment. The album as a whole is a journey, full of pockets of different kinds of feeling.
There are songs about cowboys, songs about the country, songs about love, and songs about being wrong. “Old Yellow Moon” seems to tie in the tour through the times, with an ode to experience and old age. It’s a way of saying that all of those moments that you thought were gonna make you better, those moments you wrote those other songs about, well you don’t always end up better for it. All in all Old Yellow Moon is just as great as you’d expect an album from two heavy hitters of honky tonk legend to make. So listen to it, cry to it, dance to it, and drink to it, it’s good for all of the things.