In praise of the duet.

I love duets. What’s better than one person singing a great melody? Two people singing it in 2-part harmony!

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, a duet is two people singing the verses of a song in harmony (most often in the classic tonic/3rd style). Lots of songs have the chorus sung in harmony, with the verses sung solo. That is of course not a duet. Most Rock ’n’ Roll and Pop is performed with a single voice on the verses, or without harmony even in the chorus(es). Of course almost all Blues and Jazz is vocal harmony-free, but harmony singing lives on in Country and Americana music.

Early Rock ’n’ Roll rarely included harmony singing (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, etc.), one notable exception being The Everly Brothers. That’s because the brothers came out of Hillbilly/Country music, unlike the other Rockers who were more Blues based. I heard and loved The Everly Brothers long before The Beatles---who largely modeled their harmony singing on that of the EV Bros, though the latter were imo far better singers than Paul and (especially) John---had even started recording. I will give The Beatles credit for creating some truly fantastic 3-part harmonies, commencing with the Rubber Soul album and continuing on Revolver. The Byrds albums were also full of incredible 3-part harmonies (David Crosby is a fantastic harmony singer). 2-part harmonies are not too hard to do, but 3-part are a different story, especially live. While The Beach Boys could pull it off (I saw & heard them do it twice, in ’64 and in ’72), Crosby, Stills, & Nash couldn’t (they had to redo their Woodstock performance harmonies in the studio).

I mention all this because there are currently a number of great partners making superior music that contains not only excellent harmony singing, but wonderful duets as well. Here are a few of my favorites:

- Buddy & Julie Miller. Buddy is the lead guitarist/band leader/harmony singer for Emmylou Harris, but also makes solo albums as well as albums with his songwriter/singer wife Julie. Their singing together is not done with the "tight" phrasing you usually want in harmonies, but performed in a looser, more improvised style. It works!

- Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams. Larry served as Dylan’s lead guitarist (doubling on fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar, and banjo) and bandleader for seven years, then lead the band at Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles for about the same length of time. He and his wife Teresa Williams---a fantastic singer!---have made two albums together, both excellent.

Both Larry and Teresa sing with a healthy amount of vibrato, yet manage to align their pitch fluctuations perfectly during their duets and harmony singing, a very difficult thing to do. On their s/t album, Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter) joins them to create a 3-part harmony on "Attics Of My Life", a song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. I presume The Dead recorded the song, and I also presume poor Jerry and Bob Weir were unable to sing the song with good intonation (hey, don’t blame the messenger ;-). Also joining Larry and Teresa on the album is Little Feat pianist Bill Payne. Larry filled in for an ailing Paul Barrere on Little Feat’s 50th Anniversary tour.

- Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson. Kasey has a lot of solo albums to her credit, as does Shane. Both are Australians, and their Rattlin’ Bones album is absolutely wonderful! I have loved Kasey since her debut album, but was unaware of Shane until this album. Guess I need to check out his solo work.

There are of course many other singing partnerships I could mention, George Jones & Tammy Wynette---two of my favorite singers---being a particular favorite. Emmylou Harris greatly improved the two albums of Gram Parsons, who though a good songwriter was not that good a singer (he’s slightly flat throughout most of the first, less so on the second). Their duet on "Love Hurts" is so good many people think of the song as "theirs". Nope, The Everly Brothers did it a decade before Gram & Emmylou, and imo far better. After Gram’s death Emmylou embarked on her solo career, and the first leader of her Hot Band was none other than Rodney Crowell, one of my favorite current artists. He sang a lot of 2-part harmonies with Emmylou.

So, who else is currently making music that features duets, or even "just" real good harmony singing?


Another trio suggestion - Canadian female trio, The Good Lovelies. I've sung my whole life in quartets, solos and choirs - I'm in awe of their musicality. Check them out.

Some really great duets are to be found on albums by "The Civil Wars" (in particular the song "20 Years"), or The Milk Carton Kids. Both are acoustic folk duos. Sadly The Civil Wars are no longer together.

Robert Plant and the recent version of Band of Joy with Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott was good..

The OST for the movie One From The Heart has music written by Tom Waits and performed by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle.

Thanks fellas, some interesting titles of which I was unaware, particularly that of Nils Lofgren. @bgross: Richard & Linda Thompson are longtime favorites of mine. I have used their Shoot Out The Lights album as loudspeaker demo material since it was released.

@thebingster: The Milf Carton Kids were for me the biggest surprise of the New Basement Tapes album (and related film). Very Simon & Garfunkel-ish.

The original pressing (both UK and USA) of the lone Rockpile album (imo THE supergroup, it’s members being Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner---later a semi-member of The Pretenders, and Terry Williams---later drumming in Dire Straits) included a bonus 7" EP of Dave and Nick performing Everly Brothers material. Good, but not anywhere near as good as The Brothers. Did anyone else see Rockpile live? Astoundingly great!