By Brian Wise.
The musical relationship between Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris goes back more than 40 years to when she recorded his songs and enlisted him as a member of her Hot Band. Though each of them then pursued their own very successful solo careers they reunited in 2012 for the acclaimed recording Old Yellow Moon, which won them the 2014 Grammy for Best Americana Album. Earlier this year they released The Traveling Kind, produced by Joe Henry, and are headed to Australia for their first tour here together.
When I catch up with Crowell by phone he is at home near Nashville and, having visited him there last year, I can picture him sitting in what he likes to call his ‘man cave.’
A few months after I met Crowell I also saw him during the Americana Festival with his band, featuring guitarist Steuart Smith, at the City Winery in a superb show that highlighted songs from his latest album Tarpaper Sky.
“I remember I was working on a movie at the time,” recalls Crowell when I tell him how much I enjoyed the show. “So we’d been working round the clock. I went to that show and I was the perfect amount of exhausted, when you just get so exhausted you don’t give a shit. That makes for good performances I think. Like, I’m so tired I don’t care. You’re either going to like this or not.”
It has been a busy few years for the 64-year-old Texas-born and bred Crowell. As well as promoting his own solo album in 2014, he was the musical director on the soundtrack of I Saw The Light, a feature film of Hank Williams’ life, directed by Marc Abraham. Crowell says the film tells the story of the singer’s life ‘after he married Audrey [Mae] Williams’ and he says the film is along the same lines as ‘Walk The Line’ the biopic of Johnny Cash.
Crowell also appears in the new documentary about Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed Or Caught, directed by Tamara Saviano. “He deserves to have the very best documentary film made about him that is possible,” says Crowell, who appeared on stage with Clark at the 2012 Americana Conference.
As well as those projects, he alo found time to write and record The Traveling Kind with his long-time friend Emmylou Harris, who has recently been awarded the Polar Prize and been the subject of an all-star tribute in Washington.
Crowell and Harris have already done some dates in America and after their six shows in Australia, they head off for a series of 28 shows in Europe and North America between July and October.
Congratulations on the new album The Traveling Kind. You must’ve been very pleased with the success of Old Yellow Moon the other year, so maybe you were even a bit daunted at having to follow it up.
Nah, we weren’t daunted following it up because it’s a totally different record. We wrote almost all of Traveling Kind, and the Old Yellow Moon we were doing covers, even my songs that we did were covers. The material is more original on this one.
You must’ve been really pleased with the success of Old Yellow Moon. Did that take you by surprise?
No, no. I’ll be honest with you. I figured Emmy and I are getting together, there’s going to be a lot of good will for us. I’m a respected artist and Emmy’s a super-respected artist, so I didn’t figure it could go wrong.
Now, it got a lot of acclaim, it won a lot of awards; that doesn’t necessarily translate into other things, does it?
Well, that doesn’t mean that the one that we’ve made now is going to get acclaim and win awards and stuff because sometimes you get all of that good stuff happening because people are just glad that you got together. It wasn’t daunting to follow the Old Yellow Moon because it’s a totally different thing and it’s going to do what it’s going to do.
If we don’t have pictures put out there and win awards and stuff it won’t be because the music’s not good, it’ll just be because the other time was our time. Sometimes the best work goes unnoticed because it’s just not your time.
The album’s produced by Joe Henry who told me last year when I interviewed him that if it was 1969 he would’ve gone out and bought a new Cadillac on the way home from the studio he was so impressed with the songs.
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good line. If it were 1969 we’d probably all be strung out on some bad juju too. Who knows? But certainly country music such as it is today is not in a position to recognise something like this.
In terms of what – airplay? Is that what you’re talking about?
Well, it doesn’t fit the formula.
Nevertheless, Joe was pretty impressed with the songs and so it’s going to get an audience, isn’t it. Obviously it’s going to get an audience.
Emmy and I have a loyal audience and it’s a good audience and it’s an educated audience and we’re damn lucky to have them.
Apparently the album was recorded in just six days. Now, I know there’s a lot of other work that goes on around an album but that’s a fairly short time in the studio.
You know on Moon we didn’t spend any time writing the songs but we took a lot of time recording. On this one we spent four or five months writing songs together and then went in and recorded them in really a week. Took a day off, you know, six days. I like that. What we did is we went in and we played the songs and we didn’t fiddle-faddle with over dubbing or anything. We just played it. What you hear on that record is what we sang on day we recorded it.
Where did you record it?
The Sound Emporium in Nashville.
You’ve used that before, haven’t you?
I did Tarpaper Sky there.
Can you tell us about that studio? Do different studios in Nashville have different sounds?
It’s a magic studio. My favorite studio in Nashville is Sound Emporium. It was built in 1964 by the great Jack Clement and the late, great Townes Van Zandt was recorded there, back in ’72. All of those great Charley Pride records were recorded there. Don Williams records were recorded in there. It’s just one of those magic rooms like Studio B at Columbia and The Woodlands Studio. Some rooms have just got a magic feel and Sound Emporium has it.
What contributes to that feel? Is it the kind of ambiance of the studio, the set up?
Yeah, it’s an ambiance. You can’t define what makes it, it’s just music. It’s just one of those rooms. You could build a room, the same room next door and it may not have the same vibe. It’s that inexplicable magic thing that happens in a room. It’s pretty much the same way it was in 1972.
I’ve been in Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis and I’ve been amazed looking at the incredible records they made in such a humble looking studio.
I know, I know. All the good music’s made in humble studios.
You used what’s called your ‘Glory Band,’ including Steuart Smith and Bill Payne from Little Feat.
True. Emmy and I have known Bill since the seventies and we’ve worked together before and Billy played on Old Yellow Moon, as did Stuart, but they both came in to overdub. Emmy and I said, “Come on, let’s get Billy and Stuart in on the ground floor this time rather than adding them on later,” with great results. That kind of bluesy, jazzy thing that we do: ‘The Weight of the World,’ that’s Billy Payne. That was the first take, one and only take of that song. Billy and Jedd Hughes, your lad Jedd from Quorn – he plays the guitar and that’s the first time he’d ever heard the song and he played that. On that particular rundown I was teaching the song to them and that’s the recording.
It sounds like a fantastically smooth and enjoyable process for you.
Yeah it works. It was good fun.
What about the songwriting process? You’ve written six new songs with Emmylou and others, including Mary Karr and young Cory Chisel. Was that an easy thing for you as well?
It was just damn good fun. Once I got Emmy focused, yes. It took a minute to get Emmy focused on it but once she was focused she was locked on for dear life. She’s a really great writer, Emmy is.
It took her a long time to start writing songs, didn’t it?
Yeah, well she still doesn’t give herself full credit, but I can tell you, man, when she’s involved in it she’s right there.
As I said, Cory Chisel’s involved. Can you talk about his involvement? Interesting choice of songwriters there apart from yourselves.
Cory’s a friend of mine and I introduced him to Emmy and I said, ‘Hey Emmy, let’s invite Cory in; I think you’re going to enjoy this.’ I just called Cory and I said, ‘Hey, Emmy and I are making a record. You got any melodies?’ He had the melodies started for ‘Traveling Kind’ and also ‘You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try.’ He gave me ‘Traveling Kind’, he sent it to me on an iPhone and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ I said, ‘We can work with this!’ Then he came over and I said, ‘What else you got?’ He started that melody ‘da da da daa’ and we were off and running. Cory’s a sweetheart of a guy, really talented and charismatic. For my money just an out and out rock and roll star like Jedd Hughes.
Hey there’s a great line in The Traveling Kind: “We don’t all die young to save our spark.”
” … from the ravages of time.” Yeah, that was my line. That was the first line I got to go with that melody. From there I said, ‘I think we can do something with this.’
Was there something that particularly inspired that line?
Yes, a friend of mine had died young. It was not long after a friend of mine had died from pancreatic cancer. I was thinking about him and I came up with that line because I’m going to live longer than he did – already have. A songwriter named Ben Bullington.
After I had that line that lead our conversation to Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons and people that we’ve known that died young. ‘Traveling Kind’, the song itself is a gift. The beauty of the artistic process where these lives we live are transient and really in the large scheme of things don’t last that long but if we’re lucky enough to create a song like ‘Night Life’ like Willie wrote or something … Harlan Howard or ‘Pancho and Lefty’, then you’ve achieved timelessness.
I guess you’ll be performing Pancho and Lefty in your set in Australia but I don’t want to ask you about that. I want to ask you about the song ‘Bring It On Home to Memphis.’ I could ask you about lots of the songs but that’s particularly one of the highlights to me; can you talk a little bit about that?
You know who Larry Klein is?
He’s a bass player and a producer, he was married to Joni Mitchell for years. He produced some of the tracks on a record I made called Life Is Messy. We wrote that song way back then in the early Nineties and I always had it around but I had a different form. I was trying to make the song work in a different way and I just couldn’t make it happen. So Joe, in the studio, just said, ‘Just play it with your mates in the band. You guys get out there and play it a different way, just play it.’ We went out in the studio and started playing and that’s not anything like what Larry and I wrote, other than the words and the melody. That’s how that happened.
Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris tour Australia this month.