Saturday, March 9, 2013

Together Again: Country Duets Make A Comeback

If you’re like me, an aging baby boomer who hasn’t been impressed with a new country record in at least a half-dozen years, the month of February was one to celebrate. Two extraordinary albums of country duets — one by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, the other by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell — hit the record stores last month, two weeks apart.

Willis and Robison are sort of the first couple of what’s left of the country music scene in Austin, Texas, and their album, “Cheater’s Game,” sounds like Texas. Willis grew up in the D.C., area listening to rockabilly music. MCA Records signed her at the age of 20, but she never quite fit the cookie-cutter mold of Nashville. She escaped that suffocating climate 20 years ago and settled in Austin, where musicians may be badly underpaid, but are allowed to create freely without interference from suits and ties who never so much as tuned a guitar. Her Nashville records were surprisingly good, considering the context. Her records since arriving in Austin have been universally great, and you can argue forcefully that she currently is country music’s best female singer.

Robison grew up in Bandera, Texas, in a musical family. His brother and sister — Charlie Robison and Robyn Ludwick — are both accomplished musicians with strong bodies of recorded work. Bruce Robison has recorded seven solo albums and is an effective vocalist. He made his mark as a front-rank songwriter, however, with chart-topping hits for George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw to his credit.

Robison’s songwriting allowed him and Willis to take a two-year hiatus from recording while their children reached school age. “Cheater’s Game” marks the return to recording for both of them, and is their first album together (aside from an obscure and delightful Christmas CD). It was worth the wait. The material on “Cheater’s Game” is a mix of Robison originals and contemporary covers by the likes of Dave Alvin, Don Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Razzy Bailey, Hayes Carll and Lawrence Shoberg. It oozes with subtle Texas flavor. Their cover of Keen’s offbeat “No Kinda Dancer” is an incongruent show-stopper.

Critics have been kind to “Cheater’s Game.” Willis and Robison made a well-publicized broadcast appearances on Minus In The Morning, and also appeared on Great American Country’s “On The Streets” program, and on Sirius Satellite Radio with Kris Kristofferson. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both gave favorable write-ups, and of course, the reception in Texas was overwhelmingly positive. The Austin Statesman American published a lengthy feature and review, and The Austin Chronicle and Texas Music magazine both devoted cover stories to “Cheater’s Game.”

If Willis and Robison evoke Texas on “Cheater’s Game,” Harris and Crowell bring a much wider focus to “Old Yellow Moon,” which is understandable considering the length and breadth of their stellar careers. There was a period of about two decades when Harris set the standard for female country singers, and she set it high. She combined unflinching musical integrity with impeccable taste, and demanded the same from all who worked with her. From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, she churned out a succession of brilliant, traditional-sounding contemporary country albums unlike anything else coming out of Nashville at the time (or, alas, since).

One of the first musicians to join Harris onstage as part of her Hot Band was Crowell, then a budding singer and songwriter from Houston, Texas. Crowell’s list of songwriting credits is staggering and includes “Til I Gain Control Again,” “Bluebird Wine,” “Amarillo,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” all covered at one time by Emmylou.

Crowell left Harris in 1977 to embark on a solo career that was a critical success but largely a commercial failure. He married Rosanne Cash in 1979, produced several of her early albums, and continued to write great songs and record great albums that no one bought. The exception was 1988’s “Diamonds & Dirt,” which yielded five No. 1 country hits. From there, Crowell’s career went straight back to the obscurity it never deserved.

Harris and Crowell re-assembled much of the original Hot Band for “Old Yellow Moon,” including James Burton on guitar, Emory Gordy on bass and Glen D. Hardin on piano. They filled in around them with an “A” list of session players — Vince Gill, Bill Payne, John Jorgenson, Steuart Smith, Stuart Duncan, John Ware. They even brought in Emmylou’s former husband and original Hot Band producer, Brian Ahern, to tie the whole package together.

The songs on "Old Yellow Moon" include a remake of “Bluebird Wine,” which kicked off Harris’s first solo album in 1975, plus three other Crowell originals. It’s the cover songs, though, that make “Old Yellow Moon” such a compelling album. Hank DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” kicks of the album is fine style, and Roger Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues,” Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling,” and DeVito and Donivan Cowart’s bluesy and wickedly humorous “Black Caffiene” all stand out and keep things moving along.

Then there’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” an achingly beautiful ballad written by the great Matraca Berg that brings everything to a sudden stop. Where to start with this one. No aging boomer can hear this and not have wistful thoughts about all that lies in life’s rear-view mirror and how little remains to be seen out the front windshield. It’s just a stunning song, and Harris and Crowell’s devastatingly poignant and emotional performance makes it the album’s focal point, an unmistakably classic track.

Country music has a rather difficult relationship with its traditions, including duets. If you can listen to an hour of modern country radio without throwing up in your mouth, you may come away thinking that Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles were more influential figures in the development of country than, say, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. And you’re more likely to be struck by lightning during that torturous hour than hear a duet.

And so it goes without saying that the only way you’ll hear “Cheater’s Game” or “Old Yellow Moon” on the radio is via satellite, a great and growing but still limited medium that most of us don’t have. And it’s equally likely that the last record store in your hometown went out of business before any of us ever heard of satellite radio. No matter what hoops you have to jump through to get these two albums, however, go for it. It’s been years since either Nashville (or even Austin) produced anything this good. Don’t wait for it to happen again. You might not live that long.

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