As Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were in the midst of touring behind their first fully collaborative album after a decades-long personal and artistic friendship, the inevitable question surfaced.
Would Old Yellow Moon, their debut record as a duo and a 2013 Grammy winner for Best Americana Album, be a one-off adventure before the two resumed active solo careers or the catalyst for perhaps a second project together.
"I think it was Emmy's birthday," Crowell said by phone earlier this week. "We were having a band dinner in Charleston or Savannah — somewhere. We were celebrating and Emmy turns to me and says, 'This is so much fun. Let's make another record.'"
That set in motion a follow-up. But Crowell sought to rattle the game plan for the album that became 2015's The Traveling Kind.
Where Old Yellow Moon leaned more toward covers of country-inspired tunes both vintage (Roger Miller's Invitation to the Blues and Crowell's own Bluebird Wine, which also served as the first song on Harris' 1975 Warner Bros. debut album, Pieces of the Sky) and comparatively contemporary (Matraca Berg's Back When We Were Beautiful and Patti Scialfa's Spanish Dancer), the new record was to stress original songs — new original songs. Crowell anticipated some hesitation on Harris' part on that front and got it.
"The one thing I know about Emmy, and she'll be the first to say this, is I was the one who got her into the studio and into the writing for this record," Crowell said. "I knew all I had to do was get her in there. That took a little bit of, 'Okay, let's do this. We've got to write these songs.' But I knew what would happen. Once Emmy gets into the room and gets down into the work, the other responsibilities she has fall away. Then you can't get her out of there. Once that faucet's on, she is a source."
What resulted was a string of new tunes the two co-wrote that included the chiming Cajun charmer La Danse de la Joie, the bluesy environmental call-to-arms The Weight of the World and the delicate tale of spiritual wanderlust within The Traveling Kind's title song. Also new was the aid of a master pop stylist as producer who more than knew his way through a graceful, roots-friendly Americana session: Joe Henry. That ensured The Traveling Kind would be a true collaborative work and not just a cumulative array of songs largely fashioned by the artists on their own.
"That was very much the intent with Old Yellow Moon, too," Crowell said. "A lot of the time we spent getting that record to the place it got to involved Emmy and I making sure what we were doing was a conversation rather than so much of the 'me, me, me' and 'I, I, I' stuff. That's why we decided to do Dreaming My Dreams (an Allen Reynolds song of love outlasting loneliness previously covered by such stylistic disparate artists as Waylon Jennings and Cowboy Junkies). It's a conversation. It's not necessarily a conversation between two people trying to work out a romantic relationship, but two old friends trying to work out life's ups and downs.
"There is this tendency for men and women to come together and present this image of being lovers. Emmy and I never had to do that. First of all, it would have been a fake pose. What we were aiming for was using our sensibilities as one."
That sensibility underscores the longevity of their friendship, which extends back to 1974. Crowell would become a key member of Harris' initial Hot Band lineups before leaving in 1977 to pursue his own music. Through the years, though, Harris would record and popularize numerous Crowell's songs (Till I Gain Control, Ashes By Now and I Ain't Living Long Like This, all gems from her Warner records) and well as co-write with him (Wrecking Ball's Waltz Across Texas Tonight and Red Dirt Girl's Tragedy).
"On a personal level, what we're doing now is an expansion and a deepening of a love I already had for a really good friend of mine," Crowell said. "I love Emmylou. We sometime joke and say, 'We were smart enough not to try and get romantically involved.' As a result, we bring no baggage to this collaboration. And that's a shared experience.
"On an artistic level, to work night after night with one of the great vocalists of our time has helped me grow a great deal as a singer. There are things I can do now — reaching those notes and finding that feeling — without having to labor. Before, it just took a great deal of effort. The beauty of that for me is I'm now moving closer to the music I've always wanted to make."