Emmylou Harris Flexes Songwriting Muscles on The Traveling Kind

Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris‘ <I>The Traveling Kind</I> offers equal measures grace (the title track) and groove (“The Weight of the World”). The result is an endlessly elegant modern country masterwork. Harris recently spoke with CMT about the compelling new collection.

emmylouharris_rodneycrowell

“It came together pretty fast,” the legendary singer-songwriter says of the album released Tuesday (May 12). “We were in the middle of the tour (supporting their Grammy-winning 2013 collaboration <em>Big Yellow Moon</em>) when Rodney said, ‘Do you want to do another record?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We were having so much fun out there on the road.”

CMT: You’re usually an interpreter, but you wrote several songs on this album. Why?

Harris: One of the things Rodney felt was important for us to do is write some songs. We did some old songs of Rodney’s on <em>Big Yellow Moon</em> and we’re a real fan of other people’s writing, so we did these favorite songs that came into our view for that record. On this one, Rodney said, “OK, come on, Emmy.” (laughs) I’m a bit of a reluctant writer, but he brought me into the writing room.

Explain how the co-writing started.

First, we went to see (“My Heart Will Go On” songwriter) Will Jennings, who we’ve both worked with. Then we worked with a young fellow here in town called Cory Chisel and we wrote some things together. We filled it out with other songs that we like. We’ve both worked with (producer) Joe Henry, and we felt that it’d be good to get a different point of view, so we got him involved. We basically cut the record in a week.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

Rodney had gone to Cory and said, “Do you have any melody ideas?” So, I came out to Rodney’s house, and they already had this idea. I came in after they got it started, and we just wrote until it was done.

Did you and Rodney both bring song ideas to the table?

I have to say, I did not bring a single idea. (laughs) He had “Higher Mountain” for a long, long time. He had trouble finishing that, and I know how that is. Rodney started that song 20 years ago after his father died and his mother was left a widow. I was experiencing the same thing because my father died about 20 years ago and my mother was living with me, so we had the same kind of perspective about being left in the world when your soul partner is gone.

Describe Rodney’s greatest strength as a songwriter.

Lyrics and melody. (laughs) I mean, there are no gaps in Rodney’s songwriting. We enjoy collaborating, and he was really generous to bring me into the room and get me to flex my songwriting muscles. I do need to do that occasionally.

Do you find having the idea or seeing a song through to the end more challenging?

It’s all challenging to me. I’ve always been more of an interpreter of other people’s songs, and my typical challenge is to make them my own. I just find songwriting a challenge. Usually, if I have an idea on my own, I can finish it on my own, but Rodney and I had actually collaborated over the years on a few things that were my ideas like “Tulsa Queen.”

Explain how ‘The Weight of the World’ came together.

Rodney came to my house, and he had that great groove and that first verse. Rodney’s a really great guitar player. We just sat and started talking about all our grievances watching the news, all the things that are bothering us about what’s going on, the problems that need to be solved. It just seems like we’re not thinking about the future as a species.

Describe what drew you to Lucinda Williams‘ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.”

Actually, Rodney brought that to the first album. We were very excited about that song, but who knows why we never got around to recording it. It wasn’t because it wasn’t a great song. All of a sudden, we had an album. When we got serious about making another record, it was obvious that we wanted to have a crack at that one.

Have to say: Two collaborations now and no Townes Van Zandt songs.

Well, I think everybody knows how important Townes is to us, and we do “If I Needed You” in our show. It wasn’t a conscious decision. You just do one song and another song, and all of a sudden, you have a record. You’re not thinking, “Oh, we have to include a Townes song or a Guy Clark song.” The record sometimes takes over and you follow it.