Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell: power of the song

“It’s great to be back at the world’s greatest and longest-running music show,” enthused Emmylou Harris tonight during her latest ACL taping. To say that she and Rodney Crowell aren’t strangers to our stage seems inadequate. Both Texas native Crowell and his current partner and former employer Harris have been on seven times apiece. The pair even shared an episode in 1983, though they didn’t share the stage. Tonight, however, these two old friends celebrated their shared history, their new collaborative album Old Yellow Moon and the continuing power of the song.

The pair opened with “Return of the Grievous Angel,” from Emmylou’s time with her mentor Gram Parsons. The GP connection continued with “Wheels,” a Flying Burrito Brothers-era Parsons tune Emmylou recorded on Elite Hotel, her first major label album and the beginning of her reign over the country music charts. That began the roll of hits, as the pair essayed “Pancho & Lefty,” ‘Til I Gain Control Again,” “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” (dedicated to its author, the late Susannah Clark) and “Luxury Liner,” another GP tune set aflame by lead guitarist Jedd Hughes’ turbo-powered chicken-pickin’. The duo fast-forwarded to a more recent era for “Red Dirt Girl” (from Harris’ LP of the same name) and “Rock of My Soul” (from Crowell’s career revitalization The Houston Kid), their voices wrapped the songs in the kind of harmonies only two old friends can generate.

An Old Yellow Moon rose for the next segment of the show, as the pair drew heavily from that LP. The pleasure these two old pals obviously took from singing some of their favorite songs – from Roger Miller’s honky-tonkin’ “Invitation to the Blues” and Matraca Berg’s melancholy “Back When We Were Beautiful” to Allen Reynolds’ elegant “Dreaming My Dreams” and Kris Kristofferson’s cautionary but rocking “Chase the Feeling” – was palpable. Then it was back to the hits, as the pair broke out Emmylou’s lovely take on Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” blazed through Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” (recorded by both of them at different points) and ended with the peaceful waltz of “Old Yellow Moon.”

Of course, the show wasn’t over. The duo and band returned, Harris and special guest Shawn Colvin dancing their way through Crowell’s “Stars On the Water.” The musicians rocked a blazing “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” a song not on the original setlist but an addition that drove the crowd wild. After a visit from Harris’ rescue dogs (brought onstage in tribute to Austin’s status as a no-kill city), the pair ended with “Tulsa Queen,” a co-write from Harris’ classic LP Luxury Liner that was a most appropriate way to end this tandem performance.

It was a magnificent show that reminded us that veterans get to that point for good reason. We’re eager for everybody to see it when it broadcasts on PBS in the fall – stay tuned.