I love a good country or folk duet, so when several came up yesterday on my Pandora station, I just assumed that it was a Saturday Soundtrack sign from God…and I decided to listen to her.
Living in Tennessee in the 1960s and 70s, it was easy to hear some of the classic country duet acts on the radio and see them on Nashville’s numerous country music television shows. George and Tammy singing Golden Ring was perfect, because it was a song that matched their tumultuous relationship. Dolly and Porter were big during those years, before Dolly left the partnership some forty-six years ago to become a force of nature all on her own. And of course, at the top of the heap was that duet of country royalty, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
So let’s dive in, beginning with the Johnny Cash tune I Still Miss Someone which I’ve always enjoyed. It is a classic “I’m lonely and miss you” song that Emmylou Harris has recorded in both solo and duet versions. Emmylou can sing a duet with anyone and make them sound great, but when she has a terrific musician such as Elvis Costello as a partner, you get this wonderful live version.
Another exquisite duet singer is the inimitable Nanci Griffith. Her song Gulf Coast Highway, co-written with James Hooker, is a beautiful country duet, which they perform live in this version. Nanci also recorded John Prine’s Speed of the Sound of Loneliness for her Other Voices, Other Rooms album, and performed more than one live version with Prine.
Lyle Lovett is one of those singers who has a style that can’t be matched. He sings a funky version of the Willie Nelson tune, Funny How Time Slips Away with the Rev. Al Green and the inimitable Billy Preston on the Hammond B3 organ. I also recommend his duet with Marty Stuart on the Townes Van Zandt tune Pancho and Lefty. (I would also suggest you hunt down the Emmylou and Willie version, which I love.) Emmylou’s version of the Townes tune If I Needed You with Don Williams was one of the duets that originally sent me on this search.
Dolly Parton has always been the gold standard when it comes to country duets. She has had so many wonderful musical partners through the years, that I could make up an entire (and very long) Soundtrack of Dolly Duets. This haunting one on The Grass is Blue with Norah Jones hints at the broad range of her collaborators.
While we’re on Norah Jones, check out her version of (one of) the Tennessee state songs, Tennessee Waltz, with the one-and-only Bonnie Raitt. And before we leave Bonnie, I just love her take on John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery with Ruthie Foster.
Country duets have gone off in all directions. Chris Stapleton is one of the new crop of country singers I enjoy, and at the 2015 CMA awards, he teamed up with Memphis native Justin Timberlake to bring down the house on a couple of drinking songs.
For folk music, you can’t find a more authentic songwriter than Woody Guthrie. Nanci Griffith, also from the Other Voices, Other Rooms album, sings Guthrie’s Do Re Mi with another songwriter of power, Guy Clark. And while we’re in the folk mode, the duo Mandolin Orange, made up of singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz, is an under-the-radar group for many people. Their version of Golden Embers shows why they deserve to be better known.
Clearly, I can go down this rabbit hole all day and all night. So I’m going to end with one of my favorite duets, with two of the most unique and idiosyncratic singers of all time: Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, singing Dylan’s Girl from the North Country. This song was pivotal in one of my favorite movies of recent years, Silver Linings Playbook, so click on that link if you’d like to hear it while watching a trailer from the movie.
If you have a favorite duet you’d like to recommend, please add it to the comments.
More to come…