A Conversation with Emmylou Harris
Mike Ragogna: Emmylou, The Traveling Kind is your second collaboration with Rodney Crowell following Old Yellow Moon. What was it that brought you back together to do this second album?
Emmylou Harris: Oh, we just had so much fun together. Being out on the road with Rodney is just about the best thing. He's one of my oldest and dearest friends. Even though we would go for some time without seeing each other, our lives paralleled and we would work on each other's records and we've shared so many of the same friends. We talked about the record from the first time we met and sang; it was obvious that would we one day do it. The first record was a joy and the tour was fantastic, so why not? We still have a lot of songs in us that we love to sing and in this case Rodney said, "We need to write for this record and make it a little bit different." In his generous spirit, he really wanted to have me flex my writing skills. But he really was responsible for the writing part of the record.
MR: What do you enjoy most about singing and recording with him?
EH: Well first of all, we sound great together. From the very first time we met it was very natural. We had a very natural blend, we loved the same kinds of songs, It was almost like we were joined at the hip. That's never really changed. Rodney has a very great deal of joy for life, and yet a very, very deep side, too. We have something to say as friends and as artists that comes out on the records. And we love playing music live, both of us. "Put us in, coach! What position do you want me to play?" It's a very natural thing, it's a great gift to have this collaboration, especially now. Sometimes the inspiration for making music--not that I've ever stopped loving it, but as you get older sometimes you need a little bit of a push. Rodney is the best push that I could have.
MR: Do you still learn things from each other when you collaborate?
EH: It's song by song. We have great bands, we play with great musicians so that the songs are fresh for me every night. I never get tired of singing with Rodney. I never get tired of hearing him either. He's one of my favorite singers. Always has been.
MR: You've both moved around genres pretty frequently and easily. Actually, in a 2011 interview, you said, "I smoked country music but I didn't inhale." That's one of my favorite lines.
EH: I know, it was an odd thing when Wrecking Ball came out and they didn't know where to rack me. "Is she country?" It was just a very schizophrenic time in people's consciousness, but now of course they've given us a name. A lot of us were Americana before Americana had a name. We were out there in left field just kind of doing what felt natural and right to us and nobody knew how to categorize us. For some reason people need categories and Americana is kind of a category-less category, if that makes sense.
MR: Yeah, and you recorded a couple of songs on this album by people like that. Lucinda Williams is in that category, too, it seems like.
EH: She surely is. She's got a category all by herself.
MR: She really does! What brought you to these covers, in addition to your own material?
EH: They're just great songs. "Her Hair Was Red" is a song that I'd had for a while and it was a song that Elvis Costello sent to me because he just loved the song and he could hear me singing it. This, to me, illustrates the generosity of the music community. I've done the same thing; I've heard a song that somebody has written and I think, "Oh god, so-and-so would sound so good singing this." You have nothing invested in it other than the generosity of wanting to turn somebody on to something that might appeal to them. So Elvis sent me that and I loved the song from the first time I heard it. It's a brilliantly beautiful, touching song about memory and loss and family and just the connection that we have with those that pass through our lives. It's so simple and elegant. I actually had brought it to the first record but we already had "Back When We Were Beautiful" and we felt they touched on the same territory. I was very anxious when I knew we were going to do the second record, that was kind of a done deal because Rodney loves it too.
MR: "Traveling" is a metaphor for so many different things, how does it hit you as the album's title and theme?
EH: We're all travelers through this life, even if we never go anywhere. We pass through our time on this world. I think that's one aspect of it, but more specifically for Rodney and I, we have spent our time in this world doing a lot of physical traveling, but the reason we do it is to bring the songs and music out into the world. That's an important part of being an artist, you can write songs or love songs or learn songs but they need to be brought in front of an audience to become part of this greater picture. That's what we will leave behind if we leave anything behind in our work. The song itself, I think, encompasses all those that have come before us that have touched Rodney and I, people that we didn't know but also friends that we've lost, some of them died young and some of them we've lost recently and were our own age. Rodney and I are at the time in our lives where it's a natural part of living that we lose our friends. And most of the friends that we know are the traveling kind; that's the circle that we travel in.
MR: Beautifully said. You lost Gram Parsons really early on.
EH: We allude to that. He almost epitomizes the opening line, "We don't all die young to save our spark." That's always a tragedy, I think.
MR: I've always thought of you as one of great harmonists. Is that something that came to you naturally?
EH: I'm not a schooled musician, so when people would say, "You take the third," I don't know what that means. Especially if you're singing a duet, then you've got every other note available to you other than the melody. So really for me when I was singing with Gram a harmony was really just an alternate melody. I don't think about what works, I would just jump in. My ignorance served me well, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
MR: You also contributed hugely to Bob Dylan's Desire album. When you're recording on these projects that become acclaimed as "classics," are you just doing your thing, or is there a moment where you feel like you're participating in something special?
EH: It's a very subjective thing when you're making a record. You're just singing a song by yourself or with someone. You're just going for that magic, for lack of a better word, where you know you're making something shimmer. I don't always feel like I'm in control of that. To me it's still a mysterious process, after all these years. I will say that when we first started recording Wrecking Ball and I heard the first couple of things we did I knew there was something very, very special going on because it was very different. The sound that Dan was coming up with in the studio was very different from anything I'd heard, but I could tell it was right. The combination of my voice with the sound he was bringing from the instruments was a different landscape for me.
MR: What about recording this album, working with Joe Henry? What did he especially bring out in this collaboration and this group of songs?
EH: Joe has a great sensibility, he was our guide through it. I think Rodney and I had already kind of worked up the songs we had written, we kind of sketched them out and Rodney had said that on this record the idea was to go in with a group, which was our group that had been out on the road, bringing in a few ringers like Steuart Smith and Billy Payne. But basically we knew these guys and what they were going to lend to the songs. Joe was our quarterback. He didn't let us lead ourselves astray; he knew we had something good and we kept up with that.
MR: My personal favorite is "The Weight Of The World." There's a lot being said on this one. How did that come about?
EH: Rodney came over to the house with that great groove. Rodney is a blues man disguised as a country singer. He's great at that kind of groove. I've always loved Rodney's rhythm guitar playing; he's like a one-man band. He came over with that groove and he had that verse in particular, it was like this was where we started getting into trouble as a species. We just followed it up to the present day. Over the years I got involved with NRDC's campaign to stop mountain top removal which is a devastating thing that nobody's stopping even though it's illegal. That was obviously fodder for a verse, and we were both aware, too, of the plastic bottle epidemic out in the middle of the ocean. It's so obvious, these things that are going on. We're littering. We're actually killing the planet by just littering. There have been countless 60 Minutes stories about it but we just don't do anything. I think that's the frustrating thing, it's not like this is something that we've just discovered. Same thing with the mountain top removal. I saw a wonderful bumper sticker years ago that has stuck with me: It says, "We all live downstream." I think that's basically the theme of a lot of that song.
MR: It's a strange phenomenon that we're going through right now where people we know who are better educated than this are being paid to deny climate change and such things.
EH: It is very frustrating. I want to believe in the resiliency and the common sense of people. We've come this far, but thank goodness we do have people like John Stewart and John Oliver who bring up these issues in ways that make people listen. I want to believe that ultimately we're going to be leaning toward a better world. I am hopelessly optimistic and I hope that I can stay that way because the cynicism does start creeping in as you get older.
MR: It's the energy thing, too. "How much more do you have to put in?" How much more marching and protesting and voicing of our opinions does a person have to do in their life before we find a solution?
EH: I think it's going to probably come from capitalism. The more that things like alternative energy become economic opportunities the more accepted they'll be. And I think that can happen. Two years ago people thought you were crazy to worry about a plastic bottle, but now there are whole businesses centered around recycling. I believe in the ingenuity of people and I hope that we will not destroy the planet through just our ignorance and our lack of attention to whatever is going on.
MR: I ask every artist this and I'd love to hear your answer, Emmylou. What advice do you have for new artists?
EH: Oh God. [laughs] Boy, the world is so different right now, there aren't really record companies, you have to sell billions of records... I always just say this: Be true to yourself. On the other hand if certain things hadn't happened for me in such a serendipitous way nobody would be interested in talking to me and I would probably be in a completely different line of work. But I loved music and I was lucky enough to get that big break. But once I got it, I believe I never sold out. I was able to get just enough of a leg up to where I could do what I believed in and that has served me well. I'm still not at the top of the charts, I never will be and probably don't want to be. I don't think I really belong there, I think I belong out in left field. That's not a bad place to be.
MR: With the years and years of people's critical acclaim for you, what is your impression?
EH: I'm grateful for it, it must mean that I'm doing something right, but more importantly I'm glad that people are still coming to see me play and let me zig and zag. It's not like I have to play a hit that I had thirty years ago and that's the only reason people come to see me. They're interested in what I'm doing now. That's great fodder for an artist.
MR: And what about the future? What about another Rodney Crowell collection?
EH: Of course! As long as Rodney wants to make a record with me I'll be there.
MR: When you look back to the early days and compare them to now, what do you think happened in the bigger sense?
EH: Well, I survived, but more than survived I had an incredibly blessed life and career. I've never taken it for granted. You have to keep earning your right to make music.
MR: Those early collaborations with Gram stuck, too. There was some magic that happened there, of course. What do you think that was?
EH: I have no idea. I was learning to sing, but that kind of happened on the road with Gram. He really found whatever it is that's unique in my voice. Singing with Gram was the real beginning for me.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Rodney Crowell
Mike Ragogna: Rodney, The Traveling Kind is your second collaboration with Emmylou. What made you decide to do another project together? How did you approach this differently?
Rodney Crowell: We were just having so much fun, truthfully. We made a record, thought it was a good idea and had a really good time doing that. We were just having fun, so we said, "Let's do it again." For what we did differently: on the first record we were collaborating with Brian Ahern and we weren't writing anything, we were just collecting songs and recording songs from our pasts, and we took a good bit of time recording it. Didn't spend any time writing it, but we spent quite a good time recording it. On this one we spent a whole lot of time writing it together and then recorded it very quickly. We had our road band in the studio with a couple of pals on hand and it just went quickly that way.
MR: What was the writing process like for you guys? Did you find yourself motivating Emmylou?
RC: I just had to get Emmy in the room. Then once I get her in the room I got her right where I want her. She doesn't go gentle into that room, but once she's in there and gets a head of steam going she's unstoppable. She will outlast everybody. So the real job was just getting her in the room. Emmy and I trade this little funny thing, that she's the singer and I'm the writer. In truth she's a singer and a writer and I'm a singer and a writer. Actually in some ways Traveling Kind is our truest collaboration yet.
MR: "Traveling" is a pretty popular metaphor. How did you approach its concept on The Traveling Kind?
RC: The metaphor is that life is transitional, we're here for whatever time that we are allotted. We're drawn to the poets, it's the poets I go back to. I aspire to be a poet. Emmy is a poet; Gram Parsons is a poet; Ben Bullington's a poet. The Traveling Kind is really framing the poets. From there the narrative becomes Emmy's sensibility combined with mine. For instance, you know "Bring It On Home To Memphis" is typical of our conversations. Emmy and I are old friends, we don't see the upside of glittering ourselves up and going out there and trying to pass ourselves off as young lovers. The conversation is more mature than that. "No Memories Hanging Around" is an old tune of mine but it allows us a conversation of two mature adults saying, "You know, we're too screwed up to really make something out of this, we'd make something better out of just being friends." We felt that it was a truer statement than that typical duet thing where you try to pass yourselves off as star-crossed lovers. Emmy and I are just great friends.
MR: Speaking of great poets, you covered Mary Karr's "Just Pleasing You."
RC: Lucinda hijacked it and did a fabulous job on it, but I really wanted to do that song. Now on "Just Pleasing You," Vince hijacked it! I said, "I've got a version."
MR: A good song is a good song. And speaking of Lucinda Williams, you guys covered "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad."
RC: Yeah we did. That was a song that came very close to being on Old Yellow Moon.
MR: You have produced a lot of great tracks as Rodney Crowell, producer. What's it like for you to go into the studio with another producer on your own albums?
RC: Being there with another producer allows me to be the strictly tly subjective listener. I produce a lot of my own records, and a producer has to bring objectivity to the process. I find that in the performer's seat subjectivity is your number one ally. So with Brian Ahern or Joe Henry it's like they can wear the objective hat and I can be there entirely subjectively and doing my darndest to just perform the song to the best of my ability without listening to what the bass player's doing.
MR: When you and Emmylou get together, do you learn things from each other?
RC: Are you kidding? Absolutely! Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. I'm learning that I'm a source of stable energy for Emmy. And I'm learning that she is a source of stable energy for me. Man were we lucky that back when we were kids that we didn't try to become lovers and screw it up that way so that we couldn't work together now. Somebody who has a broader view of it, a greater intelligence than our own was looking out for us. And a lot of that goes to Emmy, because when we were young and I was being a boy I was like, "Well the first thing I want to do is try and get romantic with Emmy," and she just kind of patted me on the head and said, "Aw come on, let's be friends." Wow, what a great idea! Wish I thought of it. Then flash forward to forty years since and you have somebody that you trust completely without having to give it any thought, that's how you become sources of stable energy for you.
MR: Is this overview coming from maturity at this point in your life?
RC: Yeah, it comes from me saying, "Wow, lucky for me that Emmy rang me up and said, 'Let's make a record together.'" We had talked about doing it twenty five years ago, even forty years ago. There again there's something really sweet about how the natural course of events waited until now. We had so much fun on that first go around that Emmy said, "Let's do it again!" I said, "Okay, but let's write it."
MR: I think if you guys had teamed years ago, the comparison might have been to her projects with Gram Parsons.
RC: It could've. That would've been very fair. To be honest--trust me, I'm not putting on humility to manipulate emotions, but I wouldn't have been up to the task then. I was certainly up to the task as a writer and a harmony singer, but I needed years to develop and to really find my singing voice. I tell you, by the time Emmy and I got around to doing this I was strong enough to hold my own as a singer. Certainly as a writer I was there from day one. I developed a lot more quickly as a songwriter than I did as a performing vocalist.
MR: Maybe it was just a question of you finding your voice as your career grew. When you get to the Columbia years it seems like something kicked in.
RC: Yeah, something did kick in there, and then I think that when I got to Houston Kid something else kicked in. I really think that my singular sensibility kicked in around Houston Kid. The Columbia years were more broad stroke, more commercial, but my development as an artist has become more singular as the years have gone on, and as I commit myself moreso to a singular point of view I became a better singer. That's from my point of view. Emmy argues with me all the time about it. I'll say, "Oh, I'm a better singer now," and she says, "You were always a great singer," and I say, "Well you were always a great songwriter, but you downplay it." Let's look at it in a more simplistic way: For the last three years I've been performing with Emmylou, one of the great vocalists of our time. What a great opportunity for me to step up to the mic with her and show the folks out there that hey, "I'm this guy who's yoked up equally to this great singer, so I'm bringing it too."
MR: You and Emmy are both so hard to genre-fy. What brings the broad strokes in your music? How would you define how you approach music?
RC: I think in the seventies and eighties it was a natural expression of Hank Williams and Chuck Berry and Elvis, and then the Beatles came and The Rolling Stones and Dylan, so I think the eighties for me was a culmination of my Buck Owens, Beatles, Dylan, and Hank Williams all coming out in my particular broad stroke way that made Diamonds & Dirt. But as I've gone on I've found that as a fan of music and as a continually developing artist my exploration of music now tends to go more towards Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins and Blind Blake and the country blues guys. And as I get deeper and deeper into that, it comes to me in a natural way where I'm expressing myself in that more singular way because of educating myself in the last ten to twelve years.
MR: Emmylou calls you a blues guy.
RC: She knows how deep I am into the blues. I'm a white kid, you know, I can't sing like Lightnin' Hopkins or play like him, but somewhere inside of me there's a blues man, and I'm going to find him. I wrote a book a few years ago, that was painting on another canvas. We put up those blank canvases, we mine our inner selves to figure out what we're going to intuitively put on that canvas. Emmy's just complementing the fact that I'm constantly saying that she's a blues singer, too.
MR: One of the amazing collaborations you two came up with was "Weight Of The World." How did that come about?
RC: It's a protest song! We had to laugh as we were digging into it, going, "We're writing a protest song!" When we were coming up, the folk singers we admired were singing protest songs, so we wrote one. I went over to Emmy and I said, "I have this idea based on this simple blues progression," and then we started crafting that story. You just start looking for ways to sculpt the words and get them in there. Then, lo and behold, we get in the studio and I had rehearsed it with the bass player and the piano player and the other guys just played along. We got it in the one and only take.
MR: I talked with Emmylou about some social topics as well.
RC: Frakking and excavating the tops of mountains and consuming plastics? Yeah. [laughs]
MR: You guys wrote this song saying that climate change is happening, but it seems like you can't say that if you're a politician or a country singer.
RC: That's because country music has allowed itself to be entirely dictated by formulaic ideology. I always thank my lucky stars that when I was coming up Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Wayland Jennings and Emmylou and these really great iconic artists with a singular sensibility that formula was not even in the same universe as those guys. Johnny Cash became a man in black protesting the Vietnam war and was respected for it by dirt farmers. But country music has adopted this formulaic ideology now and that's what keeps it from being able to address it, and the reason it can't address it is because of money.
MR: So how do we get out of this mess?
RC: I think it has to start individually. Sadly, you'd have to turn your television off, and even more sadly the newspapers aren't delivering. How do you get to the truth? Television's formulaic. The news is not news, it's entertainment. If you're particularly inclined to identify yourself as "On the conservative side," then you're going to find a narrative that substantiates your ideology. And if you happen to be on the other side you can find a narrative that substantiates your ideology, too. What we need is The Ed Sullivan Show where mom and dad and kids all have to sit down in the same room together and watch the comics and the plate spinners to get to the Beatles. That way we have to learn to create within ourselves the room to hold everybody's point of view rather than just identifying with your own. How that's going to happen I don't know. But maybe you'll write a big article with all these smart things I'm saying and people will pick up on it, in which case I would go, "I don't know what I said!"
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RC: My advice would be to read the poets. The young people having popular culture to inspire them are great musicians and singers, they're just loaded with talent, maybe more talent than we had coming up, but there's not much of a regard for poetry. For me, with all of the talent and their abilities to hit the lyrics and sing like modern day Stevie Wonders and Aretha Franklins, to be able to deliver all that stuff you have to deliver to be on Who Wants To Be The Next Millionaire? If they could bring poetry to it it would change the world.
MR: Are you guys planning on doing another album together?
RC: I hope so! I think that would be lovely. I'll take it one day at a time, one step at a time. It's certainly not out of the question.
MR: She was pretty happy about that question, oh by the way.
RC: If Emmy wants to do it. I would follow Emmy into a skating rink, put on some skates, roll around and risk bodily harm. I would do it. So there.
MR: Awesome, that's the first roller derby response I've ever gotten. When are you having another solo project?
RC: I'm working on something right now. Emmy and I have a big tour to do, but I'll probably record it when we're off the road, which is really fine by me because I like recording when I'm doing a lot of performing, cause then I don't have to manipulate the old vocal chords to do what I want them to do, they seem to do it naturally when I've been singing a lot.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
THE CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO'S "ANTHEM U.S.A." EXCLUSIVE
According to the Charlie Hunter camp...
"Seven string guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter has led a truly uncompromising career as an artist. His skills on the guitar are second to none as he seemingly utilizes both sides of his brain when performing, simultaneously holding down bass, rhythm and lead guitar duties on his instrument. Aside from his unerring guitar prowess, Hunter's discography includes a number of classic records on labels like Blue Note and Ropeadope and with bands including Garage A Trois and TJ Kirk. For his latest album, Let The Bells Ring On, Hunter recruited old friends and stalwarts of the downtown NYC jazz scene, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer Bobby Previte. The first track on the recording, 'Anthem U.S.A.,'--premiered here exclusively--has an intense and hypnotic groove. Hunter had the following to say about the number: 'I hate to admit this but the tune is a theme for a public execution. It just kind of takes our current level of hysteria one step farther. The vamp is the long preamble and the anthem part is the big reveal. Maybe It'll get picked up by one of the cable news programs and we'll get royalties. That'd be awful actually. I just felt terrible thinking that thought.' Charlie Hunter's Let The Bells Ring On drops June 9 on LP, CD and digital formats."
SLV'S "DREAM" EXCLUSIVE
According to SLV...
"We wanted to film the song with the band playing it live and not lip-syncing to the album version because the song is so subtle and moody that we didn't want to fake the emotion of actually feeling it. The amps and microphones were on. We told the filmmakers not to worry about making it a traditional sync video and to run wild with layering the footage. They did a great job because you can't tell that we were all playing in the same corner of a loft together."
MIRK'S "OLD SCHOOL" EXCLUSIVE
According to the MIRK gang...
"MIRK is a band. The 6-piece outfit from Albany, NY takes its moniker from the nickname of lead vocalist and chief songwriter, Joshua MIRK Mirsky. Mirsky originally formed the band in 2009 when, sidelined by unemployment the then Westchester-based drummer, producer and hip hop vocalist made the decision to bring his family home to Albany, where his roots ran deep. The band's first album, Love, was composed while Mirsky built what is now Foster House Studios housed in the city's historic Washington Avenue Armory. MIRK - now a staple of the Albany music scene, is anchored by the long songwriting partnership of Mirsky and guitarist Mike Thornton who began playing in bands together while they were in high school. Both eventually went on to study music & studio production at SUNY Purchase. The song Old school is a perfect example of what happens when this collaborative writing is at it's pinnacle. Roles were reversed with Mirsky writing an infectious groove driven guitar riff anchored by Thornton's witty lyricism just too keep listeners on their toes. MIRK's Rhythm section features classically trained multi-instrumentalist Kate Sgroi on bass and the Steven Struss - who joined the band while still an undergrad at College of St. Rose - on drums. Always evolving, the lineup is rounded out by Chris Russell also a St. Rose graduate, on horns and former band intern and talented producer in his own right, James Rock - yes that's his real name - on keys."