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Record reviews: Emmy, Rodney & Townes

Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and
Rodney Crowell
Nonesuch Records

I have loved and followed these two exceptionally talented artists for nearly 40 years; virtually the entire length of their careers, from the first recorded note. Emmylou Harris, of course, is a singular interpreter of popular song. From her earliest days as a pioneer in the merging of country, rock 'n' roll and folk music, to her later sonic excursions with Daniel Lanois and others, she has constantly raised the bar not just for women in music, but for musicians in music.

Rodney Crowell is, in my opinion, one of America's greatest living songwriters. I respect him so much for turning away from an incredibly successful run as a maker of straight-ahead country hits, because he found fame and fortune to be soul-sucking, and going back to writing concise, quirky, brilliantly-worded (but decidedly non-commercial) music.

Although Crowell was a key member of Harris' 1970s Hot Band, and they've appeared on each other's records often over the years, Old Yellow Moon is their first total collaboration. The album was produced by Brian Ahern, Harris' ex-husband and the man who, with Pieces of the Sky, Luxury Liner, Blue Kentucky Girl and a half-dozen more, helped Emmy forge a sound that changed forever the way people hear country music.

Ahern also produced Ain't Living Long Like This, Crowell's 1978 solo debut and one of the cornerstone records in my collection at home.

I'm disappointed in this album. Not because it isn't great to hear Emmy and Rodney singing harmony together, not because Crowell's original songs (and the carefully-chosen covers) aren't up to snuff (although I find it odd that Roger Miller's swinging "Invitation to the Blues" is the only song that I keep coming back to).

Ahern's production is note-perfect; the record sounds clean, sleek and utterly faultless. But that's the problem, I think: He's relied too heavily on his classic production style, which was innovative and thrilling in the '70s, but gives Old Yellow Moon a stale and dated feel. Many of the songs deal with aging and the inevitable passage of time, but the sound of the record tries very hard to ape the good ole days. It's jarring and uncomfortable.

I'm looking forward to seeing Emmy and Rodney at their April 3 Savannah Music Festival show — they've got a million-song-deep well from which to draw — but I find Old Yellow Moon to be, well, rather dull. That's something I never thought I'd say about music from these two longtime favorites of mine.

Sunshine Boy
Townes Van Zandt
Omnivore Recordings

For most people, the legend of Townes Van Zandt began with his death, at age 52, on New Year's Day 1997. In the intervening years, the Texas singer/songwriter has become a godlike figure to a new generation of guitar-playing poets who relate not only to the dark, complex simplicity of his lyrics, but to the hardscrabble lifestyle that dogged him and ultimately brought him down.

While he was around, though, Townes never had any commercial success — expect for other artists' interpretations of songs like "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You" — and his fan club was limited to a cultlike circle who could see beyond his badly-made recordings and appreciate him for what he was, a brilliant if troubled artist.

Townes, God rest his soul, wasn't much of a singer. He was never going to get a hit. And the older he got, the more mired in drugs and alcohol he became, and that sort of thing takes its toll.

Sunshine Boy is a remarkable set of never-before released outtakes from Van Zandt's early 1970s album sessions; here they are without the cheesy overdubs and wrenchingly ham-handed production that doomed him to the cutout bins.

The real gem here is the second disc, consisting of 12 demos — mostly just Townes and his guitar, in the studio. If only these versions of such breathtaking, heartbreaking songs as "To Live is to Fly," "Greensboro Woman," "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold" and "You Are Not Needed Now" had been available to us when Townes was young and (relatively) healthy. Here, he is a soulful troubadour, whose lonesome honk of a voice gives unadorned weight to these indelibly-crafted words.

I spent several hours at Townes' Nashville home one summer morning in 1996, just a few months before he died. I was writing a book about Texas folksingers with our mutual friend Susanna Clark; she brought me to Townes and introduced us.

What I remember about the encounter — we talked on tape, for the book project — was a slight, graying man with a lined face, and deep brown eyes that seemed to bore through you. He was gracious and funny and appreciated that my surname was Dutch in origin, like his. He said we were both "Black Dutch."

Around 10 a.m., Townes started drinking vodka from a one-gallon plastic jug. He began to weep as he read us some new lyrics he was working on. By 10:30 he was inconsolable, and unable to talk, and we quietly took our leave. I had never seen alcoholism so strongly manifested before my eyes.

A few months later, he was dead. We never finished the book. It was right around that time I discovered his aching, gut-wrenchingly beautiful song "Tecumseh Valley," and I thought back: Had I been in the presence of greatness that day?