First Impressions: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, “The Traveling Kind”

traveling kindOld Yellow Moon had the air of a homecoming, and not only for the reason everyone already knows. It was the first duets album between longtime pals Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, recorded four decades removed from their initial collaboration in Emmylou’s Hot Band, but it could also be argued that the record marked the first time either of them had lent their voices to traditional country and honky tonk in quite some time: Emmylou’s albums have fluctuated between different shades of artsiness and rootsiness ever since Wrecking Ball, and Rodney has made a number of superb records with highly autobiographical concepts (including a collaboration with memoirist Mary Karr), all of which are pretty far out of step from the rest of Nashville country, even the one that had a Johnny Cash duet on it. The follow-up album, The Traveling Kind, has the best kind of familiarity to it: Their chemistry is as easy and unforced as it was last time, suggesting they can make as many of these things as they want; they are at least as good together as they are apart. It is also even more deeply connected to tradition c&w, despite the fact that half of its songs are originals while the last album was a covers affair. The Traveling Kind was produced by Joe Henry, who helmed Crowell’s great album Sex & Gasoline, which was funky and prickly and not especially country-sounding. This one, though, was cut with Nashville studio cats, and it has a certain smoothness to it that Joe Henry joints don’t usually have—not the same thing as slickness, by the way. “No Memories Hanging Around” is pure honky tonk, the hardest country this pair has committed to tape: It’s got junk joint pedal steel and Baptist church piano, plus a title that sort of gives everything away. The rest of the songs are wistful, wise, nostalgic, tender, schmaltzy, restless, lovelorn, contended, and deeply spiritual—not always at once, though they are united in that they’re all songs of experience, awash with memory without being sentimental, rooted in tradition without being self-conscious about it. There’s an ease to it all that only comes from true pros who are comfortable with each other. Not much of the record kicks up dust, though there is some real grit to the shuffling “Bring it On Home to Memphis,” a grinding guitar solo to burn out the casually political “The Weight of the World,” and surging energy in a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Want to See You So Bad.” Meanwhile, “Higher Mountains” and “Her Hair was Red” are the kinds of big, weepy ballads that I assume are written expressly for Emmylou Harris to sing. You won’t mind them a bit: The pleasure of this record is in how it makes small comforts sound like minor epiphanies, the familiarity of friends lending warmth to the album’s assured craft.

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