The Traveling Kind by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

emmylou harris

by John Ellis

We humans aren’t as unique as many of us like to imagine. I mean, come on, everyone loves slip-n-slides and sno-cones during the summer[1], and warm apple pie is the universal language of love. Most of us like to believe that our family is crazier than everyone else’s, and we have the Facebook memes to prove it! And there are so many self-reported introverts, it’s a wonder that any parties ever make it out of the comfortable sullenness of the corner. Perhaps the most revealing evidence that most of us are reading from the same script is the common answer to the first date question, “What kind of music do you like?” One of the most frequent answers, of course, is, “I have eclectic music tastes; I like all genres. Well, except country. I do NOT like country music.”

I’m fairly confident that in the past I’ve given that canned answer as a response when queried about my music taste. The problem, besides it being a non-answer, is that it most likely betrays the speaker’s musical ignorance, which, on some level, may not be their fault. Whenever I would shuffle that non-answer out of my mouth, it was definitely proof of my musical ignorance; whether or not it was my fault is for my objective friends to decide. I am willing, however, to extend the benefit of the doubt to most others. When country music is mainly defined in popular culture by radio stations playing the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Eric Church[2], it’s hard to blame people when they say, “I do NOT like country music.” If what Clear Channel plays on their Country Stations is the definition of country music, I, John Ellis, do NOT like country music either.

In a much shared interview, Emmylou Harris artfully punted a question about what’s gone wrong with today’s country music by replying that she doesn’t have time to listen to country music. It isn’t necessary to read between the lines and see that her lack of time to listen to country music is contrasted by her abundance of time to listen to the likes of Shovels & Rope, Gillian Welch, and Patti Griffin. I would like to add to Emmylou Harris’ list of preferred musical luminaries and loudly claim for all to hear that The Traveling Kind by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is a must hear for all those who love country music, even if that genre is now better termed “Americana” or “alt-county.”

The well-deserved reputation and well-earned accolades of both Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are probably common knowledge among most music lovers, but for those who are finding their way out of the radio-play wasteland please allow me to provide an incredibly brief history lesson. In her nearly fifty year music career, Harris has earned the admiration and love of fellow musicians and fans by gifting all of us with some of the most beautiful and soul-stirring albums found in any genre. Having collaborated with the likes of Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, and The Band, Emmylou Harris is one of the musical standards of the last fifty years and her influence can be heard in the current crop of roots musicians like Brandi Carlisle and Gillian Welch. Essentially, at this point, her name is her resume, but if you call yourself a music lover and you don’t own at least one of her nearly forty studio albums, you should determine to remedy that. The Traveling Kind is a great start, but don’t ignore her seminal albums like Pieces of the Sky, Wrecking Ball, and Hard Bargain. You won’t need to listen for very long before you realize that her thirteen Grammys are not nearly enough.

Rodney Crowell may be less known, but his musical prowess is no less than that of his long-time friend and current collaborator. Johnny Cash’s one time son-in-law[3], Crowell played in Emmylou Harris’ backing band, The Hot Band, and has found individual success as a singer and as a songwriter. In the late 80s, Crowell scored five number one hits on Country Radio, all from his album Diamonds & Dirt. This latest collaboration with Harris while somewhat of a musical culmination of two friends who have gained much, lost much, and created even more, has Crowell’s songwriting palm-prints all over it, and those palm-prints clap together with a resounding resonance that makes all that experience and culminating echo inside a fresh take on a classic genre.

My inner circle, which consists roughly of four bribed friends and my long-suffering wife[4], have heard me repeat ad nausaem that what separates the albums I want to review from the albums that I don’t is often the songwriting. The Traveling Kind takes full advantage of Rodney Crowell’s prodigious songwriting talent and delivers some of this decade’s most succinct and soul-burrowing lyrics. And that speaks, in no small part, to how The Traveling Kind is an album that challenges the contemporary opinions of country music.

Country music is, or has been, in large part, the folk expression of Southerners, with a healthy bit of the traveling Southwestern cowboy-troubadour mixed in. This folk expression, while sown deeply into the experiences of Southern share-croppers, Appalachian folk, and the wandering cowboy, has resonated deeply with blue-collar men and women from all regions of the country, and even the world. The lyrics, while often filled with loss and heartache, are optimistically communal. All humans suffer, but no one needs to suffer alone and swapping light-hearted tales of woe through song on the back porch is often the best medicine for weary souls. The Traveling Kind opens with a masterful example of lightning bug lit back porch philosophy. The album’s title track, a wordsmith’s tightly woven tale of journey, is steeped in the communal experiences of two of country music’s elder statespersons. The melancholy, while providing a realistic floor, supports a poetic and musical house of joyful culmination that encourages the listener to take heart and enjoy her or his own journey as they too build an existential house of interesting experiences.

The sturdy yet sweet lyrics ruminating throughout The Traveling Kind are delivered with an extra poignancy that can only be provided by the stirring together of two beautifully complimenting vocalists. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell demonstrate that country music need not sacrifice musical acumen at the altar of folk expression. Harris’ high tremble contains an earthy nuance to go along with her sweetness. Combined with Crowell’s steady Southern good ‘ol boyness, the duo impart a winsome roadmap to navigate the cracks and crannies of well-lived lives to the listener, whether the listener is sitting on a back porch in Gadsden, Alabama or sipping a latte in a Brooklyn café.

The Traveling Kind is your granddaddy’s country music; but with a gravitas that comes with walking a life through the changes of the late twentieth century. That’s not to diminish the stumbles, knocks, and in many cases wisdom gleaned from those whose life experiences didn’t/don’t travail the specific turmoil of the latter half of the twentieth century. However, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, through The Traveling Kind, offer insight that was earned from a vantage point that is often not afforded a platform in contemporary popular culture. The fact that their wisdom and thoughts are packaged in some of the most beautiful country music of the last decade is more than a bonus; it’s integral to it. However, if you want to stubbornly continue claiming that you do NOT like country music, then, by all means, refer to The Traveling Kind as Americana or roots music, but do NOT miss out on one of this year’s best albums.

[1] I will stubbornly refuse to believe anyone who claims otherwise.

[2] Feel free to substitute whatever country stars you find most obnoxiously untalented.

[3] He was married to Rosanne Cash for nearly thirteen years – they have three children together.

[4] And, I guess, technically our two small children who smile and nod whenever I talk about music. I’m convinced that they’re feigning their interest, though. I guess I would too if I believed my allowance depended on it.


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