Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, <em>Old Yellow Moon</em>

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Old Yellow Moon


The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?

Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.

In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.

Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.

Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid

cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.

The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”

“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.

The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.

Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”

“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.

“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.

But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.


  1. Great review, Kevin! I love this album, but I agree that there are ways it could have been even better. “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of my favorite tracks, but it definitely would have packed an even bigger punch if Emmylou sang it in first person.

    That aside, a collaboration between two legendary talents such as Harris and Crowell is certainly something to celebrate, and Old Yellow Moon does not disappoint.

  2. Great, insightful review. It’s a good thing that you were the one to write the review rather than me, because I don’t think it’s possible for me to be objective about it. With each listen, I’ve loved the album more and more, to the point that I’m hard pressed to recognize any flaws…but I know that’s impossible.:)

  3. Ha. Most of them are covers of respected songs, so the fact that the melodies might be familiar isn’t much of a surprise.

    On kind of a different note, one of my favorites on the album seems to be the reworking of “Bluebird Wine.” I think it’s a cool arrangement.

  4. EmmyLou Harris, well not the only artist, is probably the first artist that turned the switch on in me. A switch that has me wanting to do more than just “enjoy” or “like” a song. She’s the first artist that has allowed me to dig deeper and find a greater experience inside of a well written, well produced and well sung piece of material. Sure, five or six years ago I could have told you “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was better work than let’s say “Watermelon Crawl”. However, thanks to delving into Harris’ catalog over the past few years, I’ve been able to beyond basic distinctions between good songs and great, enjoyable and emotive. This album continues that trend.

    This isn’t by any means my favorite album of hers or Rodney Crowell’s for that matter. It doesn’t have a top ten song for me nor anything that is stunningly memorable. It is however a beautiful piece of work full of great material that itself is collaborated with not one but two fantastic artists. “Spanish Dancer” is likely my favorite piece on the album with “Hanging Up My Heart” coming in second. All of the songs here provide the usual, treasured experience when listing to a Harris record, this time, pleasurably, with Rodney Crowell accompanying. It’s also got time on its side in that I won’t want to put it away after a few listens. I can always appreciate that in any record.

  5. To sing “Back When We Were Beautiful” in the first person, Emmylou Harris would have had to alter Matraca Berg’s lyrics. I’m unsure it’s fair to criticize a vocalist for choosing to respect the integrity of a composer’s original artistic vision, and in any case, in this instance, it wouldn’t be an easy “fix.”

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