Too many country albums by artists of a certain age become interchangeable simply because the backing music sounds so patently phoned in—a pedal steel lick here, an untuned piano line there, send it to get mastered, and call for some coffee. Sometimes this decision is deliberate: to remove any distractions and let the singer’s voice remain solidly up-front. Other times it’s just lazy. It’s always nice, then, to find an outlier, especially one as inviting and artfully arranged as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Old Yellow Moon. Four of the songs are Crowell’s; the others are covers that ring familiar, but not so familiar that they qualify as chestnuts. Harris’s voice can match whatever cranked-up fills the guitars throw at her, and the ballads hit awfully hard too.
Having collaborated on and off since Crowell joined Harris and the Hot Band in 1975, the two have a chemistry that asserts itself from the first track of the album, more straightforward than the twining vocals of Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, but with the same sense of shared purpose and a mutual lightness of touch. “Ain’t you handsome when you’re high,” they sing on Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase the Feeling,” and the line simply jumps. At a slower tempo, the duo offers up Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” a song about the nearness of death, which the two put over with a poise that renders it both winsome and sad as hell.
These days Harris projects cheeriness on stage that comes off as wisdom, and this same magnanimity helps animate the album. Her voice has little to blame the years for; at times, it offers certain richer delights than it did when Harris was a young singer who just happened to meet Gram Parsons in a D.C. bar in 1972. Crowell, meanwhile, can sound like a cross between Parsons (especially during the harmonies) and Bob Weir; the Old Yellow Moon idiom is consciously Parsonian, with ‘70s California country-rock bleeding through in the occasional poppy background harmonies and a general Laurel Canyon-cowboy feel throughout. “Hangin’ Up My Heart,” for example, is the Hank DeVito original via Heartbreakers-style, L.A. hook-rock.
Harris has said that her aim, in part, is to evoke that brief Flying Burrito Brothers era, and this fairly minor generic shift seems enlivening for the singer. Crowell, meanwhile, writes some of the more memorable tracks, including the lovely, piano-led “Open Season” and the rather grim “Bull Rider.” When the pair diverge from the Parsons playbook and the banjo kicks in, the country tunes ring out all the clearer for the album’s nostalgic exuberance, all the more striking because its referents seem so specific: The lyric “Chase that feeling ‘til you die” in an upbeat, honky-piano country-rock number makes it pretty hard not to think of Parsons. Old Yellow Moon, which walks a line between retro-country and retro-rock with a sure and satisfying sense of balance, is a touching paean to an age, an idiom, and a man.