Texas songsmith Rodney Crowell is almost always in the mood for a good story, whether he's on stage with an acoustic guitar, in the studio with friends or on the phone with music writers.
If you go
What: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
When: Friday, doors open at 7 p.m. with the show starting at 8 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive
For more info: www.NorthCharlestonColiseumPAC.com
The veteran country-Americana artist and Grammy Award-winner has a way with words that reflects his love for family, dry wit and Lone Star sense of humor.
"I never agonize over writing songs and making music," Crowell says. "Writing songs just can't be agonizing, even when it's hard. Heck, I've fed my family and housed us without having a real job, other than writing songs. Man, what a blessing that is. It's a good thing."
With a twangy singing style and earnest storyteller lyrics, he gained widespread recognition as a leader of the "new traditionalist" movement of the 1980s. His honors include a Grammy, an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers lifetime achievement award, and membership in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Currently based in Nashville, Tenn., Crowell was born near Houston in 1950. He's released 21 albums over four decades, with five consecutive No. 1 hits.
His latest release, "Old Yellow Moon," is a collaboration with longtime friend and bandmate Emmylou Harris, the 12-time Grammy Award winning country-folk singer. The new album of melodic duets and folk tunes is the first studio collaboration from Harris and Crowell since Crowell joined Harris' acclaimed Hot Band as rhythm guitarist in 1975, shortly after the sudden passing of Harris' previous singing partner, Gram Parsons.
" 'Old Yellow Moon's' overall tone calls to mind that Southern California blend of country music and rock and roll pioneered by Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and, of course, Emmylou and the Hot Band," Crowell says.
The good news for local Americana fans and country music purists is that Crowell and Harris are coming to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center to perform their new songs, plus a few classics, on Friday.
Working with words
Released last year on Nonesuch Records, the 12-song "Old Yellow Moon" features four songs penned by Crowell as well as renditions of some of their favorite songs, including Hank DeVito's "Hanging Up My Heart," Roger Miller's "Invitation to the Blues" and Allen Reynolds' "Dreaming My Dreams," among others.
The collaboration, which won them a Grammy for best Americana album on Sunday night, is a gentle musical homecoming for both vocalists.
The joyful melodies and easy-going rhythms of the new album resemble some of the amusing stories and anecdotes of Crowell's recent memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks," but not all of them.
Crowell shares some of the pain and joy he experienced while growing up as a poor kid in rural Texas. He enjoyed a wealth of country, rockabilly, blues and early-era rock 'n' roll in his formative years. He also had a love-hate relationship with his parents and relatives, suffering verbal and physical abuse along the way.
The only child of a boozing father and a Bible-thumping mother, Crowell was no stranger to commotion and confrontation from an early age. Through his gentle use of humor, his childhood tales find the comedy and sweetness within the absurdity, whether recalling knock-down, drag-outs at dive bars or fire and brimstone sermons at tent revivals.
"Every family is happy in some way and screwed up in some way," Crowell says. "I was pleased and proud of myself for having the stamina to do 'Chinaberry Sidewalks.' I had no knowledge of how to do that when I started. Writing a book like this can be emotionally challenging for any artist. There were a couple of times during the writing of 'Chinaberry Sidewalks' where I kind of boiled over, and my editors kindly ignored it."
Much of "Chinaberry Sidewalks" is colorful, dramatic, heartbreaking and hilarious; there's an underlying tone of forgiveness throughout. He references more than a few family brawls and neighborhood fistfights, and he lists his first-ever concert experiences as Hank Williams Sr., Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran and Johnny Cash, all of whom continue to inspire his music.
Crowell wrote three albums while working on his book. He started tinkering with the memoir around the time he recorded 2001's "The Houston Kid" and continued to write and edit his chapters through 2003's "Fate's Right Hand" and 2008's "Sex and Gasoline."
"I noticed the verbiage became more dense in the songs, I think because I was using a lot more words during that period because I was in this world of words at the time," he says. "Like a workshop of words. After I finished the book, I found myself trying to get more done in songs with fewer words."
Crowell's latest studio album, "Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell," took shape in an unusual way. Shortly after releasing "Chinaberry Sidewalks," he hooked up with New York-based poet and essayist Karr, a fellow Texas native, and convinced her to work with him on song ideas. Karr's best-selling 1996 memoir "The Liar's Club" delved into themes of family strife, struggles with spirituality, challenged relationships, and loss, many of which overlapped Crowell's own life experiences.
Produced by Harris's ex-husband and country studio wiz Brian Ahern (Johnny Cash, George Jones, Roy Orbison), "Old Yellow Moon" follows her latest solo album, "Hard Bargain," which was released by the Nonesuch label in 2011.
"Hard Bargain" features 11 original songs, three of which were co-written with award-winning composer Will Jennings. Most of the tunes are somewhat autobiographical and reminiscent. Harris sang about Gram Parsons and the late singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle and touched on bittersweet family memories, as well.
If "Hard Bargain" was heavy on heartbreak, "Old Yellow Moon" aims for something more playful and comforting.
"Old Yellow Moon" nicely complements Harris' 40-year career as the "songbird of country," as many friends and fans call her. Musically, it's situated in the heart of what she's always done best: singing beautiful, quirky songs in the folky corner of the country genre.
Lyrically, there's a healthy dose of melancholy that balances the sweet sentiments in some songs - and even a few thinly veiled jabs that come off more as inside jokes than anything mean - but overall, it's quite a cheerful bunch of tunes.
"I first heard Rodney on a demo tape in 1974 and knew immediately from his voice and lyrics he had the right stuff," Harris states in a recent Nonesuch press release. "We met soon after, becoming bandmates in the Hot Band and starting a friendship that has continued and grown over the years. I always hoped we would someday do this record, and now I can finally cross it off my bucket list."
Back on the road
Between various other recording and performance projects over the last year, Harris and Crowell have made time to tour the country behind "Old Yellow Moon." They embarked on a series of dates last spring and fall, and they headed back out for a string of fall and winter shows across the U.S. and Canada.
The duo's recent performance on "Austin City Limits," recorded at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin, Texas, made its debut on PBS on Nov. 2. They also appeared on an "Austin City Limits" special Nov. 23 featuring the best music performances from the year's Americana Music Association Honors and Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where they earned awards for duo of the year and album of the year.
"We might very well not be here, as a genre and as an association, were it not for Emmy and Rodney," Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, stated shortly after the special aired. "That we are celebrating them tonight not for the work they did 35 years ago, but for the work they did this year ... speaks volumes about where we're headed. What an amazing night."
The chance to catch Harris and Crowell together on stage, reinterpreting vintage classics and presenting their finest new compositions and harmonies is a golden opportunity for local country, folk and Americana fans. The two veteran singing partners seemed destined to reunite and perform like this again.
"Rodney and I had been talking about doing this kind of record ... probably as soon as we met," Harris says. "It's all about, 'What's the best way to use our voices and tell a story?' This way, we get to be equal partners. It was inevitable that we would do it.
"I can't wait to sing these songs for people and get back on the road like Rodney and I were together back in 1975," she adds. "I know we're going to have some fun. I love these songs, plus we have a history of other songs in own careers, songs that we've done together and recorded on our own. The only problem is that they'll cut us off onstage at one point."