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Savannah Music Festival: Rodney Crowell 

Reunion with Emmylou: 'I don't think we're sitting on our laurels from music we created in the past'

Their collaboration began nearly 40 years ago with "Bluebird Wine," a song of his, that she used as the leadoff track on her very first album.

Emmylou Harris soon became the standard-bearer for contemporary country music, for the artful way she combined it with rock 'n' roll and folk music. Today, the catch-all word is Americana, and to some it probably seems like it's been around forever.

But it has not. Harris learned how to do it from Gram Parsons, her first singing partner, and from Brian Ahern, who produced a remarkable string of albums for her, forever refining and re-defining the way people thought about country music and what it could be.

"Bluebird Wine" was the first Rodney Crowell composition Harris championed, and she has recorded dozens and dozens of them between then and now. A good many are considered touchstone classics of the 1970s and beyond.

For three heady years, Crowell was her wingman in the legendary Hot Band; their harmony vocals, onstage camaraderie and obvious joy in the music set yet another standard that's still pretty hard to match.

Crowell went on to a sizeable solo career — first as a songwriter and producer for other artists, then as a country superstar, then as one of the most respected Americana artists of the present generation.

He still sings on Harris' records; she still sings on his.

A full list of their respective credits would take up half of this magazine, so we'll just cut to the chase and say that the fact that they've just made their first album as a duo, Old Yellow Moon, is a cause for celebration.

And the tour that brings them to the Johnny Mercer Theatre April 3, well, that's going to be something special. It might be another 40 years till they do another one.

OK, why did it take so long to get this duo project going?

Rodney Crowell: Some greater intelligence holding it off until we were ready, you know? If we'd have made a record 20 years ago, it'd probably have been pretty good, but it wouldn't have been Old Yellow Moon. It would've just been another record. I think maybe 20 years ago I had more to prove, and I would've wanted to try and fill it up with my own songs. Instead of sitting down together and talking about some songs we wanted to sing, and approaching it as a couple of singers. More than any other record I've ever been a part of, I approached this one as a vocalist.

I remember, somewhere in the mid 1990s, Emmy telling me it was about to happen.

Rodney Crowell: Oh, we talked about it 35 years ago! I remember once I called her and said "OK Emmy, I'm ready, let's go," and she said "I can't, I got something." The time wasn't right, wherever she was. She called me sometime later and said "OK, I'm ready — let's do this," and I couldn't. The time wasn't right.

The first time you sang together, in 1974, you both said you could tell immediately that your voices blended well.

Rodney Crowell: I think so, yeah — they have a kind of a nice reedy sizzle when we're in the right key.

How did you choose the songs to record for this album?

Rodney Crowell: Of my songs, the only one I said I wanted to do was "Open Season on My Heart." Oh, and "Bull Rider," Johnny Cash had put his stamp on that one, I thought forever, until I heard Norah Jones do it. And she inspired me that I could do it myself. So I was fresh off that revelation and I said "Hey, let's give this a go." Emmy and Brian brought out the others — pitched my songs to me. "Here We Are" and "Bluebird Wine" were Emmy and Brian, respectively.

Was it a little weird to revisit "Bluebird Wine"?

Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I had to re-write it. I revised the first couple of verses, not because of anything so far wrong with the original, because a few years down the line the value of revision has become more important to me!

What about the Patti Scialfa song, "Spanish Dancer"?

Rodney Crowell: Emmy had a passion for the Patti song. A girl thing. What it says, and the longing. I said "This is a good vehicle for you, Emmy. This song is full of longing and heartbreak. Go!"

Why bring Brian back in and recapture that '70s Hot Band sound?

Rodney Crowell: That was Emmy's vision from the get-go. At first I was scratching my head about that, because you can't go back. But over the course of it I came to see the beauty of that vision. And came to share it.

How about the live show? You had a million songs to choose from.

Rodney Crowell: We sort of went historical, in a way. We're doing some of the Gram & Emmy stuff. We're doing "Grievous Angel" and "Love Hurts." If you look at "Invitation to the Blues," from the beginning to the end Emmy and I use the two voices as one. Gram and Emmy used two voices as one — that was the beauty of what happened there. We do "Wheels," and we get that sound. That's really cool when we're having fun. Of course, we have a section in there where we do songs from the album.

The last time I saw you, you played pretty much the whole The Outsider album, with hardly any of your old songs.

Rodney Crowell: Well, the good news is that I stuck by that for the last 10 years! And now I'm actually having fun. Emmy and I are going back and doing songs from the '70s. The way I view it, I don't think we're sitting on our laurels from music we created in the past ... Carrie, my youngest daughter, came to hear us the other night. She has pretty discerning taste, and she doesn't really ever go intellectual about it. She has an interesting take on music which I admire. She came back and said "Hey, Dad, I really like those songs." And I got where she was coming from, you know? She liked the songs.

Well, none of us are the same people we were. "You can't go back," as you said. But is it indeed fun singing those old songs again?

Rodney Crowell: Yes, it is. Singing "Wheels" and "Boulder to Birmingham" is good fun. We do "Luxury Liner," and it's a guitar rave, you know? The audience seems to love it. Inasmuch as I can read an audience.

The beauty of this is that I'm collaborating with Emmy every night, and my excitement is getting out there and matching my voice with Emmy and creating a sound that's joyful. And giving those songs life.

See rodneycrowell.com, emmylouharris.com
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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

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Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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