Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — Old Yellow Moon

Stephen Deusner | February 25th, 2013

emmylourodneyOld Yellow Moon is the first official collaboration between country music stalwarts Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, but the pair have been making music together for forty years. Crowell joined Harris’ Hot Band in the mid 1970s and played on several of her albums before going solo in the 1980s. In addition to playing on his albums Diamonds & Dirt, Ain’t Living Long Like This, and last year’s Kin, Harris has covered his songs throughout her career, starting with “Bluebird Wine” off 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. In 2013, they’ve both aged out of the country mainstream, but have gracefully made the transition to the Americana market. 

The new album, despite its inevitability, doesn’t sound much like old times, though. Rather than one supporting the other, Harris and Crowell are equals on Old Yellow Moon, trading off leads and singing together with easy, elegant chemistry. Their performances are so lived in and laidback that every song sounds like a first take; in fact, the title track was recorded around producer Brian Ahern’s kitchen table. “Black Caffeine” is jittery and nervous—the most caffeinated and conspiratorial Harris has sounded in a while—and “Bluebird Wine” might be more intoxicating, with Crowell reclaiming the old Harris chestnut.

If there’s a downside to this camaraderie, it’s that their obvious joy in collaboration nearly undercuts the rustic melancholy of “Open Season on My Heart” and “Spanish Dancer.” Fortunately, Ahern’s production keeps things simple and direct, allowing for a lot of empty space in “Dreaming My Dreams” to accentuate the tender regrets over lost loves and missed opportunities. Accompanied by a solitary piano on “Back When We Were Beautiful,” they instill a dignified desperation to the shared reminiscences, worrying over all the years and wrinkles they’ve accrued since they first met nearly decades ago. “I hate it when they say, I’m aging gracefully,” they sing together. “I fight it every day.” Making beautiful music may be the best way to fend off the years.

3.5 Stars

Preview or purchase Old Yellow Moon

  1. Leeann
    February 25, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I hope I like this better than a 3.5, since it’s one of the albums that I’m looking forward to the most this year. Their recording of “Hanging up My Heart”, from the album, is great and has only gotten more excited for it. I’ve loved it whenever they’ve collaborated together, but have been calling for an album ever since their recording of “Shelter from the Storm”, which is nothing short of a masterpiece recording.

  2. Ben Foster
    February 25, 2013 at 9:20 am

    I haven’t heard this album yet, but I have high hopes for it. Particularly excited to hear their version of “Back When We Were Beautiful” – one of Matraca Berg’s best.

  3. Rick
    February 25, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I think these two really missed the mark on this album! It would have been so much better if they had covered songs from the catalog of Frank Zappa and titled the album “Old Yellow Snow”…(lol)

  4. Arlene
    February 26, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I’m curious about what others think of this album after they actually hear it. Now that I’ve listened to it several times, it’s very likely to be one of my favorites of the year.

  5. Leeann Ward
    February 26, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Stephen,
    We’ve got to stop disagreeing like this.:) Not to sound like a super fan, but I feel that you’ve significantly undersold this album. I’m with Arlene. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll like another album much more than this one this year. The reworking of “Bluebird Wine” is brilliant, “Dreaming My Dreams” is sublime, not to mention the solid excellence of “Bull Rider”, “Hanging Up My Heart,” etc., etc., etc..

  6. Matt
    February 27, 2013 at 8:25 am

    I think the 3.5 is very generous. Overall, the transition to “Americana” is my biggest problem. The album bored me; no bite or soul. Not for me today. Maybe I’ll feel different a few years down the road.

  7. Barry Mazor
    February 27, 2013 at 9:31 am

    There is most certainly not any one sonic or rhythmic or “soul quotient” effect that’s built into “a transition to Americana.” They’ve done arrangements they chose to have, but there’s nothing in them inherent to the varied format.

    ((Leaving aside the fact that these artists were among the artists involved in organizing the format, and have been considered Americana artists for at least 15 years.See “Down from the Mountain” film, 2000. So it’s not a new choice in that sense.It’s Americana–in a style they chose to make. The Aaabama Shakes are in the format too, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and their friend Guy Clark–all of whom make very different sounding records.)

    We’re talking about what 1975 versions of their music together sounded versus nearly 40 years later, when vocal ranges and timbers are different, experiences are different, sense of where dignity may lie in the face of those may be different, and in the case of two artists who’ve been out there making music all of the time since–and want to arrive at something slightly different from repeating themselves or “recapturing” something. Which rarely works anyway.

    None of that means anybody has to like it, or anything else, of course. Just commenting on the terms of what we’re hearing on the record.

  8. Leeann Ward
    February 27, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I think it’s my favorite album in years. I’ve already listened to it 6 times and like it even better each time I hear it.

  9. Leeann Ward
    February 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    And I don’t understand the biggest problem having to do with the transition to Americana, since this music doesn’t stray far from what each of them have been doing for years now. They just maximize it by working together here.

  10. Arlene
    February 27, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    I also don’t understand the problem with the “transition” to Americana. Moreover, if you listen to Emmylou Harris’s work in the late ’70s, most of her albums contained a mix of styles and songs– some traditional, some country and western, some rock, some folk, etc. A couple of years ago, when presenting Brian Ahern with the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Producer/Engineeer, Emmylou commented that he had been producing Americana albums for her years ago, before the term ever existed.

  11. Stephen Deusner
    February 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    My comment about Rodneylou having “gracefully made the transition to the Americana market” seems to have struck a nerve. I didn’t intend it as a criticism at all, more like a description of their career trajectory. Aging artists who might have been classified as “country” in the 1970s (which these two certainly were) have been pushed out of that category and into the catchall “Americana.” I don’t think it has anything to do with how they sound, but how the world has shifted around them. Does that help clarify?

  12. Leeann Ward
    February 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Stephen,
    I, myself, was more questioning Matt’s comment.

  13. Barry Mazor
    February 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    I was coming from the ame place as Leeann, Stephen–although I somewhat dispute the description of Americana as a catch-all. Not more than other genres that last, I’d say.

  14. Bruce
    February 28, 2013 at 9:12 am

    The Americana Association website states, “Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”

    Seems like a pretty good description of a catch-all to me.

  15. Luckyoldsun
    February 28, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Good point–But does the CMA offer a definition of country music–and is it any more precise?

  16. Barry Mazor
    February 28, 2013 at 11:42 am

    My point was–and is–simple: NO one line definition of any musical genre or format will tell you all that much about what you really want and need to know to make any judgment about your response to it. ..

    If you care enough to bother at all, what you do is go in and listen to a bunch of the performers the field is charting and otherwise featuring now–discussions, headlines–and you see if maybe it appeals to you–the sound and if you care, the sense of it. In the age of free short samples and YouTube, what could be easier and take LESS effort? If you’re intrigued, it’s easier to go further, to see what maybe people trusted in the field, or people who you trust who say they like the stuff, recommend. You listen some more. Maybe you even catch some live. It’s called “getting into the music.” That’s how you do it.

    And no one sentence answer to “But what do they MEAN by “Serbo-Mayan Hip Hop Hula?’ will tell you as much. Besides, nobody plays the really authentic Serbo-Mayan Hip Hop Hula any more, just the diluted commercial crap. As every Serbo-Mayan Hip Hop Hula hipster knows.

  17. Bruce
    February 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    You are correct. Listening to the music rather than reading about what it is.

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