Emmylou Harris And Rodney Crowell: Harmonizing To That 'Old Yellow Moon'
This interview was originally broadcast on March 28, 2013.
Emmylou Harris' first solo album, "Pieces of the Sky," was released in 1975 after the death of her singing partner, Gram Parsons. The opening track on the album is a song called "Bluebird Wine," by a then-unknown songwriter named Rodney Crowell. She recorded two more of his songs on her next album, got him to join her band in the mid-'70s and now, after an almost 40-year friendship, the two musicians have finally recorded an album together called Old Yellow Moon. The two talk with Terry Gross about their long, enduring careers, their friendship, their influences and singing harmony.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Fourth of July, we're going to hear the interview with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell that I recorded earlier this year. They're such good solo singers, it's wonderful to hear them together dueting on their album "Old Yellow Moon," which came out in February.
"Old Yellow Moon" is their first duo album, although they've known each other for nearly 40 years. In 1975, when Emmylou Harris released album, "Pieces of the Sky," after the death or her singing partner Gram Parsons, she chose a song by a virtually unknown songwriter to open the album.
That songwriter was Rodney Crowell, who Harris also recruited to be a guitarist and harmony singer in her backup group The Hot Band. Although they've remained good friends, they've gone their own ways professionally with great success. They've each won Grammys and had records that reached the top of the country chart. Let's start with a song from their new album. This is "Here We Are," written by Rodney Crowell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE WE ARE")
RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) Did you say that you've been searching for a place you'd never been? Well, here it is. Here it is.
EMMYLOU HARRIS AND RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) And you've down there on the bottom and looking out for friends. Here I am, here I am. We've both grown tired of running after rainbows. Here we are, darlin', here we are.
GROSS: Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back, Rodney.
CROWELL: Yeah, thank you, it's good to be back.
EMMYLOU HARRIS: It's a great new record. Congratulations on it.
GROSS: So why did you decide to record together after so many years? I mean you recorded together in the '70s.
HARRIS: Well, yeah, I think we decided almost as soon as we started our friendship in 1974 that we were going to do a record, by golly. But, you know, it just - that time passes, and you're busy doing your own careers, and it, you know, just all of a sudden it seemed - it occurred to me that if we were going to do this record, which I knew we both wanted to do, that we were going to have to just get our schedules, you know, concurrent and do it.
And that's really all it took, but I think Rodney and I agree that we feel that we're really glad that we waited. I think this particular collaboration of a long friendship, the longer the friendship, kind of the more there was to bring to the record.
CROWELL: True, and it's a culmination of a conversation that started a long time ago.
GROSS: The song we just heard is a song that you wrote, Rodney Crowell, that you never recorded before. Why did it take you this long to record it?
CROWELL: Well, when I first wrote the song many years ago, Emmy heard it, and she said oh, I'm going to do this thing with George Jones, and I want to do that song, you know. So I danced around the living room. Emmy had recorded my songs, and no offense to Emmy, but I was going George Jones is singing one of my songs.
CROWELL: I called everybody I knew, you know. So, you know, that lasted about 35 years, you know, before it wore off. And actually it is Emmy who prodded me toward agreeing to record the song. I wasn't sure that I wanted to take a swing at something that George Jones had already put his stamp on.
But Emmy, you know, when Emmy explained to me that was then, this is now, and it's a different conversation.
HARRIS: Yeah, and it's - it was so right for this project, I mean almost too right. You know, here we are, we could almost call the album "Here We Are," which would have been a little too obvious. But, you know, I love Rodney's voice, and it never occurred to me that it was any kind of competition going on between - in Rodney's mind of, oh well, you know, George did the male part of this song because I just love how, you know, Rodney and I sound together.
And in the context of what this project was, of two friends singing together, the fact that it was Rodney's song was important to me, but what the song said, you know, about the two of us and our journey, you know, through this world, all the separate paths we've taken and the times our friendship has - you know, has always been there.
CROWELL: Well, you know, I should go on record now and say I now prefer our version to yours and George's.
HARRIS: Me, too. No offense, George. We love George.
GROSS: So tell us the story of how you first met in the '70s and Rodney how you joined Emmy's band.
HARRIS: OK, well, I guess that's me.
CROWELL: You go first.
HARRIS: I go first. OK, well, I had been signed to Warner/Reprise. They brought a great team together of a very, very successful producer, Brian Ahern, who had all those great Anne Murray records. And I was, you know, a fledgling artist. Basically I was signed because I had gotten a bit of notoriety singing on two Gram Parsons records, Gram who had died in 1973, and I was signed in '74.
And so, you know, everyone's concerned, you know, we've got to get the material, got to get it right. So I went up to Toronto where Brian lived and to listen to material and pick material. And I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I found out right away that I knew what I didn't like.
And Brian played me a whole day's worth. We went a whole day through a pile of cassettes, few people remember cassettes, of material that just did not do anything for me. And he kind of smiled, and he said, well, he said, I've got one more thing, and I haven't listened to this yet. It's been sent to me, a writer that I've signed who I've not heard but on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect.
So for the first time Brian Ahern and I listened to the voice and the songs of Rodney Crowell. And the first song that was on the tape was "Bluebird Wine." And I just knew that we had struck gold, that there was just something in his voice, in the music and the energy that was there.
GROSS: So Rodney Crowell, who were you at that moment?
CROWELL: Well, I had moved to Austin, Texas. And I had been in Nashville for a couple of years and been schooled on the discipline and the craft of songwriting. And I said, well, I'm going to go live in Austin for the rest of my days. And Emmy had recorded her record. I knew "Bluebird Wine" was on there.
And so she was playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin and came through with her band and knew I was there so invited me down, come sit in, you know, sing. So we sang, and I played a couple songs with her and her band, and then after the show - and Emmy didn't remember this until I reminded her.
HARRIS: I don't.
CROWELL: She said: Hey, I'm going to L.A. tomorrow, and I got an extra ticket. You want to go? And, you know, this is in the days when you could travel on somebody else's ticket, you know. And I said I'm in, I'm going to go. Just let me figure out what - how to take care of my dog, and I'll be ready to go tomorrow.
So I got somebody to - you know, we worked out how to get my dog sent out to Los Angeles. And I went out and stayed seven years.
GROSS: So, you know, Rodney Crowell, when you and Emmylou Harris joined together in her band, was the music you wanted to play and the music she wanted to play similar, or did you have to kind of find a way to get on the same page?
CROWELL: No, it was an instinctive thing with Emmylou and I, and it still is today, which really requires very little intellectual analysis of what we're doing. It's very much - it very much comes from the very center of us. I, coming from a family, a background, of sharecrop farm - my mother and father were sharecrop farm kids, and in the part of East Houston where I grew up, the culture just thrived on the country music that came, you know, with Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. It was the soundtrack of that culture.
So when I met up with Emmy, and we started working together, and she had had her conversion to country music, I was just there, and the conversation just picked up right there. And it's where I came from. And it was a perfect meeting at the perfect time. And we never had to really discuss how to approach it. It was just like, what song do you want to do? It was that simple.
HARRIS: Yeah, we would - while we were waiting for who were to become the full members of the Hot Band, you know, the James Burtons and Glen D. Hardins...
GROSS: This was your band in the '70s.
HARRIS: This was the Hot Band that Rodney and I, you know, went out and toured for a couple years, '75, '76 and '77. You know, we spent the time sitting, I think I had a notebook with, you know, it was my teaching, homeschooling myself with all these lyrics to things like Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," et cetera.
And we'd have two acoustic guitars, and we would just sort of sit on the floor, and one of us would start singing, and the other one would jump in, and we would just - OK, and what are we going to do next - just because we enjoyed the singing.
But, you know, every generation has to reinvent itself poetically in some way. You have to bring something new, but it has to be something very real. And I think collaboration is a way a lot of times that that happens.
GROSS: So you mentioned Don Gibson's song "Sweet Dreams," and you actually have a live recording, Emmylou Harris, with Rodney Crowell backing you up on it. So why don't we hear that live recording?
HARRIS: And also that's actually the original Hot Band. That's James Burton on guitar and Emory Gordy and Glen D. Hardin, Hank DeVito and Bill Payne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS")
HARRIS: (Singing) Sweet dreams of you every night I go through. Why can't I forget you and start my life anew instead of having sweet dreams about you. You don't love me, it's plain. I should have known you'd never wear my ring. I know I should hate you the whole night through instead of having sweet dreams about you.
GROSS: That's Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris recorded in 1975. They have a new album called "Old Yellow Moon." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and they have a new album together called "Old Yellow Moon." When you first were in a band together, and this was in the mid-'70s, was the band, like, living in the same house, as many bands did then?
HARRIS: Oh no.
GROSS: No? OK.
HARRIS: Well, Rodney and I - Rodney, you were staying at the...
CROWELL: We were living in the same house.
HARRIS: Yeah, we were. Brian, our producer, had rented this crazy sort of 1950s Esther Williams swimming pool house up off of Coldwater Canyon. It was rented so that he could park his mobile recording truck, called the Enactron Truck. So...
CROWELL: I slept on the floor.
HARRIS: And actually at that point I was in a relationship with Brian, who I eventually married, and we had a daughter together. Now we're grandparents.
GROSS: I should mention he produced the new album.
HARRIS: Yes, and he produced the new album. So we survived divorce. Life's too long to hold a grudge. And we actually - you know, some marriages just come to an end.
GROSS: So when the three of you were living together for a while, and Rodney, you were sleeping on the floor...
CROWELL: Poor me.
HARRIS: We had some other Canadians. Let's see, we had some Canadian engineers, and he brought his wife and two young babies down. And yeah, I guess we were like a strange hippie commune except...
CROWELL: Interesting that we sort of had this hippie commune in the Bel Air Hills.
CROWELL: And we started touring, going on tour with, you know, Elvis Presley's band. When Elvis wasn't working, James Burton and Glen Hardin and Emory Gordy would come and work with us. So we were, you know, these hippie kids working with these really high-price musicians, you know, because Warner Brothers Records had...
HARRIS: They had decided to bankroll it. They decided to take a chance on that first record. And it was a great investment. I don't know whether record companies do that anymore, but, you know, it was - I mean, I paid them back with record royalties, but they could have lost a lot of money.
GROSS: Now I know we've been talking about duets and country music. I feel like I can't wait any longer to play another track from "Old Yellow Moon," and this is a song that maybe doesn't quite fit what we were talking about, but it's so beautiful. It's called "Spanish Dancer," and it's a song by Patti Scialfa, who's from the E Street Band and is married to Bruce Springsteen.
And the way you sing it, Emmy, is so - I just get chills when you sing it. It's so emotional. Just like the song is about a young woman under the spell of love who gives herself to a man who knows he may not feel as deeply toward her as she does toward him. And there's a sense of vulnerability and potential ruin in the song. And can you tell us why you chose it?
HARRIS: You know, I became a fan of Patti Scialfa's album that this song is from, it's called "Rumble Doll," and I believe it might be as old as 20 years. The album just absolutely floored me. Patti's voice, not all harmony, great harmony singers, which she is, are good solo singers, but she definitely is.
She is an exquisite writer. She writes about the female heart, the poetry of being female, in a way that it just - every singer-songwriter female artist that I know loves this record. It never got the attention it should have. I suppose she will always be overshadowed because she's, you know, Bruce Springsteen's wife. But it doesn't take away from the art, you know, her artistry.
I love every song on the record. This particular song has been on my wish list to record ever since I first heard it. And I don't know, I just put it off and put it off. It didn't seem right for the project. And after a while, I admit I thought, well, how can I at the age of, you know, 65 sing oh mama, you know, talking to my mother, which actually is a reality in my case because my mother is still very much alive.
But it's universal. You know, it's that vulnerability that you feel when you know that you could fall, and you know how vulnerable, to quote you, that you are. But it's something that you cannot resist, and she just puts it in a way that is so beautiful, and the melody, too. And I actually really love - I love Rodney's harmony on it.
GROSS: I do too, yeah. Let's hear it. So this is Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell on the new album that they have together, "Old Yellow Moon." And this is the Patti Scialfa written song "Spanish Dancer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH DANCER")
HARRIS: (Singing) Oh mama there's this Spanish dancer whose steps I follow when he comes near. The red dress of temptation over a long black slip of fear. Will I fall beneath the shadow of some broken cross, my arms emptied and all my treasures lost? Still like that Spanish dancer I throw my roses down for him across these beds of darkness. He opens his arms and gathers them in.
(Singing) Oh mama the bridges were burning over a river black and cold, but I walked when love commanded me up to the edges of his soul. But I'm still frightened of that dark divide. Will I gain entrance or be denied? Still like that Spanish dancer I throw my roses down for him across these beds of darkness. He opens his arms and gathers them in.
GROSS: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this 4th of July, we're listening to an interview I recorded earlier this year with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. They've been friends for nearly 40 years, going back to when he played and sang in her backup band in the mid-'70s. Since then, they've each won Grammys and had records that topped the country chart.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: I got to talk with Crowell about his life a couple of years ago on our show, so now we're going to spend a few minutes focusing on Emmylou Harris before we bring Crowell back into the conversation. When Emmylou Harris started performing in her teens in the '60s, she admired Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and wanted to be part of the folk music scene.
So I read that you wrote Pete Seeger a letter, and tell me if this is true, asking if you could legitimately be a folk singer because you didn't come from that kind of authentic, hardscrabble background. You know, you weren't, like, from Appalachia. What did you ask him in this letter?
HARRIS: Yes, I did write to him and it was very heartfelt, intense letter about how much I loved this music and I wanted to be legitimate, but I didn't feel I had any legitimacy, that I had never suffered. And sort of economically tell you what was written in this sort of six-page letter front and back I wrote him.
He wrote me back. I wish I still had that letter, but basically he said don't worry about suffering, you know, in his own very sweet way. Life will happen to you and in the meantime, you know, read the books of Woody Guthrie. I mean, that just meant to much to me.
GROSS: I can't believe he wrote you back.
HARRIS: Yeah, that's Pete.
GROSS: Did you get to meet him eventually?
HARRIS: Oh yes. In fact, I met him several times over the years and I was able to sing at his, was it his 90th? His 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Gardens with all us old folkies.
GROSS: You weren't economically deprived growing up, but there was some suffering in your family. Your father was a prisoner of war during the Korean War for over a year when you were about five. So that, I mean, that must have been pretty traumatic for the family.
HARRIS: It was very traumatic. I remember when we found out. I have a very clear memory of my mother getting the information and not understanding what missing in action meant. But somehow I knew that I might never see my father again. But we were just so fortunate that my father came back even though he was tortured. He was the most senior officer in the camp, just happened. That was the circumstance.
But he came back to us physically. I mean, he dropped down to about 120 pounds, but physically and emotionally he was completely whole and we had him until he passed away in 1993. So we were very lucky and I suppose what I mean by there weren't any hardships in the sense that my parents had one of these sort of unusual relationships where they never fought.
And so unlike Rodney's family, which I didn't realize until I read his book how colorful his childhood had been, and yet it's actually a beautiful love store about two people who survive each other and really truly, truly love each other. It's a different way of having a marriage and creating something quite sacred, where with my parents, their personals, their natures were to be very loving and giving and supportive of each other.
And that's the way I thought all relationships were.
GROSS: Ha. It was a bit...
HARRIS: Misleading but I wouldn't change it for anything.
GROSS: So Pete Seeger told you that you didn't have to come from, you know, poverty or you didn't have to worry about authenticity. You could sing folk music. You go to New York - you drop out of college and go to New York. What was, and I think you went to the Greenwich Village clubs there. What was the music scene like in the village when you got there and what year was that about?
HARRIS: Let's see. That was probably '67 I eventually took the leap to go up to New York thinking that, you know, I was going to run into Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and all that. Well, that scene had kind of dissipated and moved on. However, I will say there was some really interesting music going on. Jerry Jeff Walker was there; David Bromberg was playing guitar with him. They did it as kind of a duo.
So there was a music scene but it was difficult. I was basically maybe the third opening act or whatever. I had to go back to my other line of work, waitressing, to make a living because at that point I had married and had a child and the marriage broke up very quickly so I found myself a single mother with no real means of supporting myself.
So I did what any sensible person would do. I went home to Mother and Daddy.
GROSS: So by removing yourself from the music scene that you wanted to be part of, you actually had the music turning point of your life 'cause your parents lived near Washington, D.C. You were performing in a Washington D.C. club and that's where you met Chris Hillman, who'd been in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and he told Gram Parsons, who had also been in those bands, The Burritos and the Byrds, to hear you and that's how - right?
That's how you hooked up with Gram Parsons?
HARRIS: That's right. That's why I'm here today and people want to know what I have to say.
GROSS: Do you think that? Do you think had you not performed with Gram Parsons that you never would have made it?
HARRIS: Oh absolutely. I mean, I'm as sure of that as anything because I did not have the focus of the voice or the direction or the passion for it. I was just, you know, making music to make a living because that was the only thing I knew how to do well. And I don't think I was formed as a singer at that point. I really attribute working with Gram to everything coming together to becoming a whole, to having a focus, a point of direction, a point of departure.
And really assuming that Gram and I were just going to work together, you know, making records and touring together. And of course, you know, with his death, I was kind of left wondering okay here we are again. What am I supposed to do?
GROSS: So before we talk about Gram Parson's death and what you faced afterwards, let's first enjoy some of the music that you recorded together. And I want to play something that I think is very beautiful and shows off his solo singing, your solo singing and your harmony singing. And this is the song, "That's All it Took." Do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?
HARRIS: Oh that was one of those great shuffles that we did. As I recall, in those days, you know, you booked a three-hour session and at the end of the three hours the musicians, that was it. But I think there was something kind of magical going on and I can't remember which musician it was. We wanted to do, "That's All it Took," and we'd run out of time and it was one of the studio musicians that just said oh come on, you know, let's just give it shot.
And so we actually went over the three-hour session and pretty much it's a live vocal, Gram and I, singing on this.
GROSS: Well, that sounds great. So here's the late Gram Parsons with my guest, Emmylou Harris.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ALL IT TOOK")
GRAM PARSONS: (Singing) That's all it took, the mention of your name. And all my love for you burst into flame.
HARRIS: (Singing) I tried so hard to let you go but look how I still tremble at your name, that's all it took.
GRAM PARSONS AND EMMYLOU HARRIS: That's all it took to make me know that I still care. It's seems my heart just can't give up the dreams we used to share.
PARSONS: I tell my friends I'm happy.
HARRIS: But they read me like a book. And when today I heard them say your name, that's all it took.
GROSS: That's my guest, Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons, recorded in the 1970s. And Emmylou Harris has a new album with Rodney Crowell, who we'll bring back for more or the interview in a little while. So Emmylou Harris, you recorded a couple of sessions together and before they were even released, Gram Parsons died of an overdose.
Did you know that he was using drugs and drinking too much? Did you have any sense that this kind of thing could have happened?
HARRIS: I should have, you know. When I came onto the scene with Gram, he was trying to kick drugs and he was drinking a lot. And I was a bit naïve about all that stuff and a bit in a cloud, I guess, in a way. I look back on it and think, you know, how can I have been so naive? But as we - after we finished the first record and we took it out on the road, he seemed to get stronger and stronger and better and better like he was really on his way to some kind of recovery.
So I was really completely taken by surprise when I got the phone call because I knew that he was - he just seemed like he was definitely on such a positive path at that point. Unfortunately, I think what happened, I was not there, but I think someone showed up in Joshua Tree, where he liked to go, with some heroin and it was just like oh well I'll just do it one more time.
And of course it did end up being the last time.
GROSS: How did you get the news?
HARRIS: I just got a call from Eddie Tickner, who was Gram's manager and my manager, and he said, "I have some terrible news. You know, Gram died last night." And it was such a shock, you know. I think when you're young, in your 20s, you think you're going to live forever and you think everybody you know is going to live forever.
And so it was really difficult to absorb the news and figure out how to grieve, how to go about dealing with this loss of this person who was so important to, you know, as a friend and someone who I cared about very deeply. But also, so much of my life and music, which was so important to me at that point, he was like my teacher and the direction and everything.
So it was like all of a sudden the lights just were turned out, you know, and I had to figure out how to make my way in the dark.
GROSS: So you say he was your teacher. What are some of the things you learned from singing with Gram Parsons?
HARRIS: Well, you know, I say teacher. He never told me to do anything. There was a naturalness with singing with Gram and of course I have the same thing with Rodney. But because, at that point, I didn't really know anything about country music, he just let me jump in and just pick whatever note I wanted. In duet singing you don't have to, you know, you don't have to worry about that third part kind of so you can kind of just sing basically an alternate melody, you know, because I was unschooled.
And it just sounded right and so actually it was just singing all the time, not just on the records, but when we went out on the road and he turned me on to the Louvin Brothers and that fantastic harmony-singing, which even though they were from Alabama and I'm originally from Alabama, I didn't have a clue who they were.
And just by osmosis I had just developed this ability to hear the beauty and the poetry, the restraint that is in country music that gives it its power.
GROSS: What did you mean when you said earlier that you learned how to sing by singing harmony?
HARRIS: When you sing harmony, you're not thinking about yourself. You're just paying attention to the other voice and that other melody. And it also requires - I'm using this word restraint again - but I think that's a really important part of country music and I think, as a singer, you must ultimately respect the melody first and then you can go on from there.
But it just seemed like I concentrated on the words, the lyrics, the melody and you get outside of yourself somehow and you just enter a different place.
GROSS: Our guests are Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. We'll bring Crowell back into the conversation after a break.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM")
HARRIS: (Singing) And I stood on the mountain, in the night and I watched it burn, I watched it burn, I watched it burn.
(Singing) I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham. I would hold my life in his saving grace. I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham if I know that I could see, I could see your face.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emmylou Harris and also with us is Rodney Crowell who I want to bring back into the conversation now. They have a new album out together called, "Old Yellow Moon." So Rodney Crowell, this is kind of where you enter the story in terms of Emmylou Harris's life.
And Emmylou Harris, you said that you learned to sing through singing harmony and Rodney Crowell, you became the rhythm guitarist and vocal harmony singer in Emmylou Harris's band so you've both sung harmony, you've both sung solo. Although Emmy, you said you learned to just like harmonize without really knowing how to do it and so you just kind of made it up.
I know that there are harmony singers who you came to really love and who probably really influenced you. You mentioned the Louvin Brothers and I was wondering if you could maybe both talk a little about harmony and talk about some of the singers whose harmonies you've greatly admired and have influenced you and maybe sing just - I know you have no instruments with you, but just sing a couple of choruses of something in a style of harmony that you particularly like.
CROWELL: You have to go with sibling harmonies. You know, the Louvin Brothers begat the Everly Brothers.
CROWELL: Who really begat Paul Simon and Garfunkel.
GROSS: Can I just back up and say Louvin Brothers wrote a lot of like Christian songs and other songs and the Birds made a famous recording of a Louvin Brothers' song.
HARRIS: Right, "I Like the Christian Life," which is such a beautiful recording. And if I might say, if you listen, you know, Gram was in the Byrds, but he was still under contract to someone else and so even though he originally sang with Roger on that, they had to take his vocal off. But if you listen to the box set, there's a version where you can hear the ghost of Gram's because he phrased it different.
He phrased it more like the Louvin Brothers. So anyway, that was just a little aside that I thought was interesting but probably isn't. So do you want us to...
CROWELL: Well, for your listening audience, you can sort of trace sibling harmony and see how it made it into the popular culture if you start with the Louvin Brothers who greatly influenced the Everly Brothers, who greatly influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I mean, you can hear it in the way those two sang together.
Matching my voice to Emmy's voice when we're performing a song at night, it puts you in a place where the song, the melody, is more important than the attention you're drawing to yourself as a solo artist. It's a great place to be on the stage.
HARRIS: On record too because I mean that's sort of the driving force behind this record that we've done, was we want to do this. We want to sit, make a record where we're singing together. And even if one of us is mainly doing lead and the other one is doing harmony, it's about the fact that these are songs that we want to make our own together.
GROSS: Can I ask you to sing an excerpt of a Louvin Brothers' song and do the kind of harmony that they did? And tell us why you like that style of harmony?
CROWELL: Well, this would be like being in an Irish pub. You know, they say, OK, so you're a singer, are you? Well, sing us something. (Laughter)
We don't have any instruments but, wait - sure, we're up for it.
HARRIS: We'll try this. We'll try this. Let's see.
CROWELL: (Singing) A house, not a home was the picture Satan painted for a sweet little sister and me. Our daddy would frown, our mother was praying. His heart was so hardened that he would not believe.
GROSS: Oh, that's so pretty. Could you say anything about what makes those harmonies so good that wouldn't be too technical?
HARRIS: I don't know if I can say anything technical about it.
CROWELL: Well, it's human experience, you know, is that Emmy was talking about church earlier. One person singing alone in the night, that's a good thing. You know, it has a certain sound. It calls out to you in the night. But then when there are voices raised together, there's some kind of joy that comes into it.
And this joy becomes sweet and to be shared. And you know, the culture we come from, when someone sings we just naturally go to the harmony part. I don't think I could sing in unison with somebody.
HARRIS: Yeah, no unison. Not a lot. Although interestingly enough, occasionally the Louvin Brothers, Ira and Charlie, on purpose would hit a unison note. But it was purely for the effect of jarring you and then all of a sudden it split off into the harmony again. But yeah, the Louvin Brothers. Of course there was something about their voices. You know, they had the same sort of blood and DNA running through their vocal chords, you know, even though their voices were totally different.
When you get that sibling harmony, that's great. But of course I love singing with somebody else who's totally unrelated to me because then you really are coming from different planets in a way. And so this third voice that you create is like nothing that has ever existed before.
GROSS: My guests are Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Their new album of duets is called "Old Yellow Moon." We'll continue the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're listening to an interview I recorded with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell earlier this year after the release of their album of duets "Old Yellow Moon." So I want to close with another song that, Rodney Crowell, you wrote. So I'd like you to tell us the story behind the song and then we'll hear it. And the song is "Open Season on my Heart."
CROWELL: You know, "Open Season on my Heart," when I think back on writing that song, it was somewhere in the mid to late 1990s and it's always interesting to me that there are times when I can write, really write the blues when I actually feel really good, when I'm happy. And I was living a pretty fulfilled life when I wrote "Open Season on my Heart."
I had met my wife Claudia. We were building a relationship. Everything was going really good. And, you know, one day I sit down and I pick up the guitar and I write a really sad song. (Laughter)
HARRIS: Yeah. People are usually disappointed when they hear the back-story of this song.
CROWELL: Well, you know, truthfully, you know, I've had my heart broken plenty of times, you know? And I've had my nose bloodied, you know. And once you've been there, you can always go back.
HARRIS: You don't forget.
CROWELL: You don't forget.
HARRIS: It's like riding a bicycle.
CROWELL: Yes, not hard to go back. (Laughter)
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much. I've really enjoyed it. I love the album. Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, thank you so much. And their new album is called "Old Yellow Moon."
CROWELL: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you, Terry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.