For Rodney Crowell, A Godfather Of Americana, The Work Is Never Finished
Ask Rodney Crowell to point out musical mementos in his home 40 minutes south of Nashville, and he'll hurry you past the plaques commemorating his professional success. "I didn't put these up," he calls over his shoulder, striding down the hallway. "My wife did."
He heads straight for a dark-hued, dream-like painting hanging on the living room wall. "This is a piece of art that I like a lot," he says, explaining that it's the work of painter Ray Martin, who named it after Crowell's breezily philosophical song "Earthbound," one of the more recent selections that he's re-recorded for Acoustic Classics, a new album revising, and even refining, music from every era of his career. (Another of Martin's pieces, drawing on another of Crowell's songs, hangs in the studio on the other side of the house.)
There's more to see in the backyard. Looming over the vegetable garden is a metal sculpture that looks to be made of repurposed industrial scraps, wielding a pitchfork.
A fan of Crowell's had promised him a scarecrow. "I was thinking, like, classic, stuffed, from the Wizard of Oz, you know," he offers. But he was delighted to receive a more abstract interpretation of a bird-deterring silhouette instead — a real work of folk art. Anyone who's spent time listening to Crowell's work could reasonably assume that the more poetic approach would be his style.
As we turn to head back inside the house, I point out that his music seems to inspire a lot of creativity among artists working in other mediums. "I guess that was the theme of this little junket we just went on," he concedes lightly. "That wasn't a conscious move on my part."
Growing up outside of Houston, Crowell was introduced to music-making as something that spurred drinking and dancing and blowing off steam, not paintings or folk sculpture. He watched a Hank Williams show from his father's shoulders at age two. Though his father, J.W. Crowell, made his living as a construction superintendent, he had a burning desire to entertain hard-working folks just like Hank Williams, playing rough-and-rowdy beer joints whenever he could, enlisting 11-year-old Rodney as his drummer. "I wasn't any good at it," the younger Crowell clarifies. From his dad's perspective, it was worth putting up with his son's lurching inexperience behind the drum kit if it meant one less musician to pay at the end of the night.
Rodney's fascination with the expressive potential of language was already present by the time he started his own band in high school — equally influenced by Buck Owens and The Beatles — and worked a construction job on the shipping channel.
"I knew the honky-tonk clientele through and through," he says. "I knew the construction workers through and through, the east Houston truck drivers, construction workers and electricians and carpenters and cement finishers, that culture. I also knew the southeast Texas rodeo culture, because as a teenager, I competed. ... I had an ear for the way the language was tossed about, the colloquial aspect of the language at the rodeo and among construction workers."
After a brief spell in college, Crowell moved to Nashville at 22. There, he encountered a circle of fellow Texas expats that included folk-country songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and Guy and Susanna Clark, who all put their elevated notions of artistry on casual display during the salon-like guitar pulls immortalized in the documentary Heartworn Highways. (In one scene, Crowell treats those gathered around table to an eager rendition of his song "Bluebird Wine," with a baby-faced Steve Earle strumming along next to him.)
Guy Clark convinced Crowell of the virtues of dissecting Dylan Thomas recitations and test-driving song lyrics as poetry. Crowell recalls of Clark, "He'd say, 'OK you've got a new song? Don't play it. Just say it to me and look me in the eye.' You'd be surprised how quickly you learn whether your language is really solid, because if you've got a really weak line in the narrative, you're gonna wanna avert your gaze when you're staring at a pair of eyes like that."
By the mid-1970s, Crowell had found another important audience for his songs: a young singer named Emmylou Harris, who was striking out on a solo career after the death of her former musical partner Gram Parsons. At the time her producer, Brian Ahern, had assembled a pile of songs for Harris to consider recording for what would become her album Pieces of the Sky. "I didn't like anything he played me," Harris recalls. "So he said, 'OK well, I've got this one last thing.' And it was a cassette in brown paper. He unwrapped it and stuck it in, and I heard Rodney singing 'Bluebird Wine.' ... I just said, 'OK, now we're talking.' "
Harris and Crowell bonded over a shared impulse to bring youthful verve and bohemianism to hallowed country forms. She convinced him to move to L.A., where he joined her Hot Band and shared with her the songs he was writing. "Of course, I wanted them," she says. "I always wanted everything that he wrote, and I was lucky enough to kind of have him all to myself for a while, before other people discovered what a great writer he was."
Crowell speaks, self-deprecatingly, of being the weak link in a Hot Band lineup that included seasoned musicians like James Burton and Glen Hardin, both of whom had backed Elvis during his early-'70s comeback. "My musicianship was honestly not at a level that gave me any right to claim a position in that band with Emmylou," says Crowell. "But my sense of songs, and the songs that I helped Emmy discover, was the way I was able to stay in that scenario — and the fact that I could sing harmony." It was in that setting that he learned the art of shaping arrangements that could bring the bare bones of a song to life.
Within a few years, Crowell's songs had also been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and he was making albums of his own. But having a record label behind him didn't assuage Crowell's self-consciousness over the unevenness of his skill set. He explains, "I always felt like, 'Yes, I am truly a songwriter, and I'm a good one, as long as I continue to work at it, to keep the work ethic in the proper place, in terms of ego.' The thing that developed more slowly for me was performing, and specifically singing. When I think about seasons in my career, there were some down years when I was making records. ... I was so frustrated with my inability to get across vocally what I wanted to get across." (Harris doesn't share his opinion: "I loved his singing ... I don't think there's anybody that even comes close to that particular original thing that he has in his voice.")
After returning to Nashville, Crowell and his then-wife Rosanne Cash were among a crop of artists updating the sounds and attitudes of country music with hip self-presentation and displays of self-awareness. Cash's early albums, for which Crowell served as producer and co-writer, had real impact — but he was five albums deep in his own recording career by the time his artistic and popular aspirations aligned, on Diamonds & Dirt in 1988. He made the album with the honky-tonk kick of Buck Owens and melodic appeal of The Beatles on his mind (much like that old high school band), along with a more left-field influence: Tom Waits. "Of course, it's not like I was gonna do anything that would even come close to what Tom Waits could do with his voice," Crowell notes.
This being the late '80s, he was also measuring himself against the stylish swagger that his buddy Steve Earle and the white-hot hillbilly rocker Dwight Yoakam had achieved on both Guitar Town and Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., both released in 1986, and Hillbilly Deluxe, released the following year.
"Dwight had on those pants," Crowell chuckles, referring to Yoakam's skin-tight, boot cut jeans. "I mean, let's face it: Dwight Yoakam was the alt-country sex symbol of the time. He knew how to deliver on it. The best I could muster up was some toe tips on my [boots] and a bolo tie and mullet hair. I certainly couldn't get into that place, that snaky, silky place that Dwight was so good at. But I was trying to define myself in some way, the way I saw Steve and Dwight defining themselves."
Crowell goes on, "I think at that particular moment, I happened to have the right songs, and Tony Brown [his producer and former band mate], to help me record it. I had really great relationships with the musicians who I was working with, and it just worked out good."
Diamonds & Dirt was the first country album to generate five consecutive No. 1 singles on the country singles chart. Ask Crowell to cue up any of those tunes now, and he has to go digging around on the desktop computer in his studio.
"Surely you're in your own iTunes library," I nudge.
"Yeah, oh yeah," he responds absentmindedly, scrolling down the alphabetical list of artist names until he arrives at his own. "Now let me see if I can find Diamonds & Dirt. ... Ah, there we are."
"I Couldn't Leave You if I Tried," a hopped-up and spryly swinging shuffle, pipes through the speakers. Three minutes and 19 seconds later, I ask him what he hears in that vintage track. He admits that years back, he would've told me he wanted to re-sing it. "But now I just [think], 'Ah, well. I'm a little flat early on and a little sharp as it goes," he says, with a small grin. "But you know what? I was giving it a go, and that's all you can ask."
Crowell sounds almost surprised by the pleasure he's taken in listening to the track. "That's a really good record," he concludes. "I'm proud of that."
He chose three of those Diamond & Dirt chart-toppers to re-record for Acoustic Classics. "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried" kicks off with the same twin fiddle licks as the original, but the instrumentation is otherwise minimalist, his once-blithe vocal attack a shade more melancholy. "I'm the same guy, but I'm a different man," he offers. "What I bring now is, dare I say, a little more gravitas to what I do — earned."
Crowell was well into middle age when, while working on 2001's The Houston Kid, he made peace with his voice. Other singers have had their confidence boosted mightily by the use of vocal effects that sweeten their tone and soften imperfections. Paradoxically, it was when British producer and engineer Peter Coleman steered Crowell away from reverb that he finally achieved satisfaction. "I heard my voice for the first time in my career," he marvels. "I heard it, and I liked it. ...Since then, I've enjoyed the sound of my voice, and I've actually given some performances that I think are really good."
At the time, Crowell was also coming to terms with the fact that the hit-making era of his career was likely over, and recognized the need for an artistic reinvention. He was through with what he calls "broad-stroke" writing, the sort of approach that can yield a song equally suited to any number of artists, and ready to explore the potential of speaking from an autobiographical vantage point and incorporating prose-level meticulousness and narrative detail. From that point on, he quips, his songs had "a lot more verbiage."
It was a well-timed shift. At the start of the millennium, Americana music was emerging as an industry separate from, though still tangentially connected to, the folk and country worlds. The form had its own infrastructure and trade organization, and Crowell's serious-mindedness about concept, craft and accentuating his connection to a revered roots music lineage fell right in line with the aesthetic values claimed by Americana. A speech he gave at the Americana Music Conference made clear that he identified with the scene. "I had no design about it extending my career," he observes, "but it certainly has."
The literary heft that Crowell has strived for on virtually every album since The Houston Kid is present in Chinaberry Sidewalks, an arresting 2011 memoir that captured the earthiness and volatility of his working-class upbringing. Early on in the writing process, he got the attention of the renowned memoirist and fellow Texas native Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club, by name-checking her in the lyrics of a song. They struck up a friendship. He sent her the first 130 pages of his memoir. She convinced him of the need to condense his writing to its punchiest, most potent form. "The difference between Rodney and other musicians and artists and actors who have written memoirs you never wanna see again is that Rodney, I think, really put 10 years into it," says Karr. "I mean, it got a great review from The New York Times. Who gets that? Nobody."
Over the course of their correspondence, Crowell also convinced Karr to venture into co-writing songs with him. Their collaboration generated an album on which an array of roots music luminaries played the parts of their salty protagonists. She insists that he supplied subtle rhymes she'd never have thought of on her own. "He is that kind of language-drunk kind of poet," says Karr. "He's somebody who just has such an amazing ear and a sense of music and sound and everything, which is a lot of what I learned from him as a writer."
In the past half-decade, Crowell has also circled back to Emmylou Harris, his longtime singing partner, both of them now undisputed godparents of the Americana scene. When they re-recorded "Bluebird Wine" for the first of their two albums as a duo, he insisted on tweaking the lyrics he'd written so long ago. "Rodney is a perfectionist, and all of his works are works in progress," Harris observes. "I suppose the only reason he needs a producer is to say, 'Rodney, it's done. Turn it in.' "
For Acoustic Classics, Crowell selected a couple of the songs that entered Harris's repertoire in the '70s — "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" and "Ain't Living Long Like This" — and left them intact, but he couldn't resist revising another of his early compositions, "Shame On the Moon," which had been a big hit for Bob Seger.
"That's probably the most successful song that I've ever written, in terms of earning money," Crowell wagers. "But I felt like I failed miserably in writing the last verse of that song. Over the years, I kept tinkering with rewriting, trying to come up with a last verse that I liked. I even talked to Bob about it, and he said, 'Man, you're wrong. You got it right.' I begged to differ."
So, Crowell salvaged his two favorite lines and completely reimagined the rest. This time it came out as a reflective recitation, more Leonard Cohen than Hank the Drifter. The lyrics contain a wry acknowledgement of Crowell's youthful ambition: "I was late in my 20s and hungry for praise when I wrote down that phrase."
Crowell has long since earned accolades of every kind — Grammys, an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame — but he wears his accomplishments lightly enough that that he sees the worth in polishing the old even as he pursues the new.
"I liked making a comment about myself, about that particular time I really was hungry for praise," he says of the revision. "And I really was, in my mid- to late-20s, trying to establish myself as some kind of meaningful presence in the world of art. That's a lot of pressure to put on myself at that particular time. It's either gonna happen or it's not gonna happen."
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