WISDOM & POETRY

The mastery of Rodney Crowell

  • Rodney Crowell has stopped the interview. Midsentence. The normally thoughtful Texan has been discussing Close Ties, his 18th album, and when he emphatically picks up, it’s a pivot. “What I’m proud of is the work that I’ve been doing for a while. I am proud of my first album, and of Diamonds & Dirt, but since The Houston Kid, I stand behind a lot of the work — and I don’t cringe. That is a very big deal.”
         Considering Crowell is considered the next generation Kris Kristofferson, a progressive traditionalist who brings emotional vulnerability and near poetry to country, roots, and Americana music, it’s a striking revelation. Perhaps because Close Ties finds the 67-year-old icon regarding his career in toto, as well as the creative forces around him throughout his journey, this musical macro-focus — and reckoning — might make sense. But with the exception of a couple of flaccid albums for MCA in the ’90s, where he futilely tried to recapture the landmark Diamonds & Dirt’s record-setting five No. 1s from a single album, it’s almost as if the Grammy-winning songwriter has lost perspective.
         Or like his dear friend and sometime mentor Guy Clark, who died last year, Crowell’s standards have risen over the years to something mere mortals should not aspire to. When Rodney Crowell landed on most people’s radar, he was playing Emmylou to Emmylou Harris’ Gram Parsons: a rhythm guitar player/harmony singer who understood country music as only a child of the rock & roll era could.
         Since the ’70s, he’s written seminal hits for Waylon Jennings (“Ain’t Living Long Like This”), Crystal Gayle (“Til I Gain Control Again”), The Oak Ridge Boys (“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”), Bob Seger (“Shame On The Moon”), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Voila! An American Dream,” later their first No. 1 “Long Hard Road”), as well as providing a fistful of Harris’ best-known and -loved songs (“I Don’t Have To Crawl,” “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”). He produced several of Rosanne Cash’s early albums, including her debut Right or Wrong, the progressive country breakthrough Seven Year Ache, and Kings Record Shop, as well as cowriting the Grammy-winning “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.”
         As Emmylou’s Sancho Panza and Cash’s husband, as an extension of the Texas triangle of songwriters/artists/bohemians Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark, their friendships and collaborations became a Bermuda triangle of restoring integrity to country’s roots by embracing the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, while making way for Tom Petty, John Hiatt, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen to coexist. Socially, they were the cool kids in a post-new wave boom; but even more than finding synthesizers and guitar tones to go with mandolins and steel guitars, they fixated on the poetry that came from country.
         If Crowell’s first three albums for Warner Bros. didn’t crystallize him as a star, they made him a hipster’s secret handshake. Anyone who had a clue knew: Rodney Crowell was the shit.
         By the time Diamonds & Dirt appeared on March 30, 1988, he’d had a failed new wave/rock & roll attempt. Street Language, released by Columbia, featured a throttling “Let Freedom Ring,” a churlish “Ballad of Fast Eddie,” and “Oh King Richard,” an homage to NASCAR’s Richard Petty, but rocker Crowell — even in spite of touring with the BoDeans — failed to ignite.

    After nearly a decade, Crowell leaned into his strengths: mining the gut bucket sense of country, honed playing drums in Houston beer joints behind his dad, bringing the post-hippie ethos Harris embodied, a hint of the new wave Cash flirted with. Nobody expected Diamonds & Dirt to become the first country album to have five No. 1s, nor to turn the top shelf songwriter/ producer into a bona fide sensation.
         Suddenly, Crowell was a supernova. Performing on the Grammys, most-nominated on the country award shows, a bona fide sex symbol in a wife-beater and a bolo tie, all those things meant big money. For him, but also for the handlers, and so began — and what nobody realized at the time — perhaps the greatest conflict of his life.
         Rodney Crowell, white trash kid who shot a .22 into the floor of the front room of their three-room shotgun shack on Houston’s Telephone Road, had a poet’s soul and a poor boy’s heart. You wanna get out, but what happens when you do? When you take that money, what comes with it?
         In 1989, Crowell called home after losing every award — Album, Song, Single, Male, Video — at the Academy of Country Music Awards, returned to the table dejected. “Rosanne said I looked miserable,” he noted, putting his napkin back in his lap. The talk at the table returned to music and people we loved; he did look a little sad.
         No matter the work done in the brink, even the trilogy of The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand, and Sex & Gasoline, there is often a gap for artists between what works and what matters. For Rodney Crowell, the gulf is closing.
         After years of Guy Clark chiding him, “Are you a poet or a pop star?” he’s found his true center. Close Ties is a reflection of the journey and shedding to be the man sitting at this table, eyes afire and arms flung sideways. He laughs after he makes this declaration — recognizing it could be pompous, but knowing passion is its own reward.
         “I Don’t Care Any More” is a slinky creeper that whirls into a full-on indictment of the man he used to be, or rather the motivations that drove a phase of his life. As the lyrics tumble from his lips, it’s the biting confession of a grifter and lady killer staring down the barrel of his cons and seeing how little it really meant.
         “One would hope one outgrows such things,” Crowell marvels. “Dwight Yoakam and I were out there in our bolos and wife-beaters under denim jackets, and that’s a certain amount of vanity. You know, ‘There’s a guy who knows how to put it together.’ But looking at that guy walking down the street with his silver tips on his boots? Ooooh, I was packing a lot of insecurity, the insecurity of not appealing — and now that’s just not attractive to me.
         “You get to where you burn off the downside of vanity. When you’re in your 60s, if you’re worried about that, you’ve got your head up the wrong ass.”
         He pauses for a moment. Crowell is still a good-looking man, no doubt. But this is something else, something deeper. Continuing, he says, “When I was writing ‘I Don’t Care Any More,’ I was sorting through those things that drive us when we’re young, sorting all of that, and shedding it.”
         Not that Crowell has gone to seed. He thoughtfully rebuts, “I’m probably more focused on my image than I was in 1987. Touring with Emmylou [for a pair of duet albums Old Yellow Moon and The Traveling Kind] reminds me: She takes that stage as the woman who plays those songs — honoring all that means. For her that can mean two hours of makeup, getting the clothes just right; but that’s what the songs deserve.”

    Maybe it was the slow wasting away of Susanna Clark, last year’s death of her husband, Guy, as well as the deaths of Crowell’s longtime publisher, his business manager, Merle Haggard, friend/Willie Nelson bass player Bee Spears, among many, that made him ruminative. Perhaps the lessons learned working on Chinaberry Sidewalks, his The New York Times best-selling memoir about growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Houston edited by the legendary Contemporary Classics founder Gary Fisketjon, or collaborating on Kin, the all-star song cycle about coming of age as part of a white trash family cowritten with acclaimed memoirist Mary Karr (The Liars Club, Cherry) that turpentined whatever lacquer there was.
         Whatever it was, Crowell came into Closer Ties, porous and open. Working closely with New West Records A&R head Kim Buie, Crowell was back-and-forth about what he wanted. Buie combed through songs, asking questions and seeing what held together. Though initial talks were about a Texas boogie/blues project, something Crowell’s roadhouse upbringing would support, a deeply personal song cycle seemed to rise.
         “In going through the material, I gravitated to the weightier, grittier, and more emotionally bare stories, and began connecting some of the narrative threads,” Buie recalls. “Something in there began to resonate; it led Rodney and I to imagine if this record was a soundtrack to a film what kind of story it would tell. What would that story sound like? Gravity was a key word from the start.”
         “Kim brought an objectivity that let me be completely subjective,” Crowell explains. “She was drawn to the very personal songs, as I noticed in her responses. The more personal, the more she’d respond; I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s what we should be doing.’ It was a real anointment.
         “Objectivity has no place in creating a work that speaks to the layers … and having been a producer for myself a few too many times, where my objectivity got in the way, something got lost because you can’t be listening to the bass part and release all the emotion inside a song.”
         Emotion was a big piece. In part, because of all the loss Crowell had been facing (“When your lifelong friends start dying, your own mortality comes into focus … you realize mortality is something you face on your own.”), but also through an extended trek he’d made through the blues. Between dates with Harris, serving as the music coach for Tim Huddelston’s Hank Williams in I Saw The Light, and living, he did a deep dive into the blues — and it struck him.
         “As Muddy Waters said, ‘I’m a man, I ain’t no boy,’ ” Crowell intones with a touch of awe. “That idea: more than anything I’m satisfied. I feel satisified. When you listen to Howling Wolf, Charlie Patton, Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bill Broonzy, Mance Lipscomb, there’s an immediacy and intensity. … And it was never with ‘I’m going to make a blues album’ in mind, but my intention was it would inform my writing.
         “There was no expectation that I’d write ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ but I can say ‘I Don’t Care Any More,’ ‘East Houston Blues’ came from that, as did ‘Nashville 1972.’ It’s what you evoke sometimes.”

    The man T Bone Burnett once chided, “You write for the A students, Rodney; if you wanna make some money, you better start writing for those D students,” evokes a day in Nashville long gone. Back when Bishop’s Pub was where the starving songwriters congregated to play their songs, Crowell lived in a fall-down house on Acklen with Skinny Dennis, Richard Dobson, and any number of folks — including Steve Earle, Johnny Rodriguez, David Olney — drifting through, and Guy and Susanna’s house was as much bohemian salon as marital domicile.
         As the songs were culled, there was a narrative — of a life lived in song, memories made as a genre of music, or three, were chiseled into being. All falling through space, centrifugal force holding him in place, Rodney Crowell witnessed the rise of hippie country, Nashville’s credibility scare, and the birth and maturation of Americana. It swirled around his friends, his wife, his life — and nobody gave it a second thought. That’s part of, most likely, what made it so special.
         No one conjured or conspired to “create” those guitar pulls at Guy and Susanna’s — captured on the lost, and recently found, documentary, Heartworn Highways. People came, brought their best songs, hoped to lay everybody else out on the floor with what they’d just written. They were young and creaseless; Steve Earle literally looks like a kid.
         That same glow informs “Nashville 1972,” a song as literate as it is fond. A patchwork of details and moments, the talent percolating is superseded only by Crowell’s self-effacement.
         Acoustic guitar warm and welcoming, the details about the dog — named Banjo — and the girl — named Muffin, mother of his oldest daughter, Hannah — set in motion a tilted world of creative combustion that was Nashville then. Name-checking Harlan Howard, Tom T. Hall, and Bob “MacDill” as the standard-setters, he catalogues the details of oddities and humanity before running up on Willie Nelson, “with some friends at a party/I was 22 years old, and he musta been pushing 40/ There was hippies and reefer and God knows what all, I was drinking pretty hard/ I played him this shitty song I wrote, then puked out in the yard.”
         “I played Kim ‘Nashville 1972,’ and her response was immediate,” Crowell recalls. “She was, ‘That has to be on the record. It tells the whole story.’ ”
         Bucolic in a post-Outlaw sense, “Nashville 1972” sets the stage for restless songwriters trying to craft poetry from life on the fringes. It bookends “Life Without Susanna,” the churlish recounting of the slow death of Susanna Clark, who went into decline following the death of Townes Van Zandt. Pulling zero punches, Crowell goads the listener into sharing his frustration at the situation.
         “When Susanna died, of course I was going to write a song about her,” Crowell acknowledges. “When she was getting a little closer to the edge, I knew I was going to write about the loss.”
         Here again, that blues immersion simmers. Beyond the unvarnished lyric, the pain of living informs the vocal’s moan. His performance finds the Grammy-winner at his most unselfconscious.

    Life without Susanna
    Started when Townes Van Zandt died
    From that day on, she hid out undercover
    Her Percocet and cigarettes along for the ride …
    I tried tough love tenderness and anger
    But nothing pierced the fortress inside her mind

    Life without Susanna
    Troubles me in ways hard to express
    As she withdrew, I grew distant and judgmental
    A self sure bastard and stubborn bitch locked
    engaged in a deadly game of chess


         “To me, it’s a love song,” Crowell says, turning the words over. “And I thought about it. Because I could write a Hallmark card, but that’s not the deal. My voice inside said, ‘Write the truth.’ Here’s how I feel … and here’s how this was.
          “As Willie Nelson wrote ‘Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,’ which I also believe was about Susanna, you want to write true.” For Crowell, Clark, Van Zandt, and so many others, Susanna Clark’s presence — as a painter, songwriter, and woman — was daunting.
         Crowell remembers setting his chair outside the door to her bedroom, an action that said he was not condoning what he viewed as a slow suicide. “There’s a lot of bitterness, heartache, and sorrow for one of my closest friends,” he concedes. “After Townes died, she literally went to bed. She was in control. She knew exactly what she was doing — a slow suicide fueled by pain pills and booze.
         “I don’t think there’s a truer song, certainly not emotionally truer. And I can say those things because I did love her. She was a stubborn bitch — and a muse, and a goddess, and a poet, and an inspiration.”
         Susanna’s voice is palpable. It echoes on “It Ain’t Over Yet,” a song Crowell intended to write with Guy. Embodying where the iconic Texan was during — ironically — life without Susanna, the bridge finds Crowell’s ex-wife inhabiting her worldview. In her auburn velvet, Cash croons:

    Silly boys, blind to get there first
    Think of second chances as some kind of curse
    I’ve known you forever, and ever it’s true
    If you came by it easy, you wouldn’t be you


         “I didn’t have the best relationship with Susanna,” Cash replied by email. “She always scared the shit out of me. She could be incredibly imperious and opinionated. She didn’t like women very much — she preferred to be with men. … Her part on this song was very much HER. Rodney really captured that voice of authority and tolerance. He drew out her kindness.”
         “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which also features The Civil Wars’ John Paul White, is a bright slice of encouragement to a man not quite sure how he feels about the end stages of aging. Stoic, proud, aware of his diminished capacity, the sweeping acoustic track suggests that life can be sweet wherever you are and however you’re living it.
         “Rosanne knew what I was trying to do, and she got it,” Crowell acknowledges with a smile. “I actually took the song over to Guy. His health was failing, and I took it over, and we didn’t … ”
         They didn’t write the song together, but “It Ain’t Over Yet,” like “Many A Long & Lonesome Highway” from Diamonds & Dirt’s follow-up, The Keys To The Highway, twists the two men’s lives together into something wise. If the former is reckoning with aging, the latter looked at death and acceptance from a younger man’s place.
         “The second verse is me, and the first verse is Guy,” Crowell says. “It doesn’t follow the sequence of events; it’s not literal. But the song was informed by Guy’s dying — and we all knew it; he knew it, but he intended to keep living.”

    When down on my luck kept me up for days
    You were there with the right words to help me crawl out of the maze
    When I almost convinced myself I was hipper than thou
    You stepped up with a warning shot, fired sweet and low across the bow
    Now you don’t walk on water, and your sarcasm stings
    The way you move through this old world sure makes a case for angel wings
    I was halfway to the bottom when you threw me that line
    And I’ll quote you now verbatim: get your head out of your own behind


         Cash marvels at the song’s hope. “The song is the definition of poetic wisdom: looking back and not letting it pull you down the abyss, but using it to leverage yourself back into the present,” she says. “This song isn’t a page out of a diary. It’s a work of art, and no one under 50 could have written it. The regrets and longing pile up, the losses accrue, the urgency of how little time is really left — all that gathers weight, and Rodney wrote the essence of that with the most deft hand, clear eye, and open heart. “I think it’s one of his best songs.”
         Crowell now is the elder statesman. He doesn’t dwell on it, nor feel like he’s arrived. In spite of the awards, the hits, the latter day covers by George Strait (“Stars on the Water”), Tim McGraw (“Please Remember Me”), and Keith Urban (“Making Memories of Us”), the tours with Harris and the acclaim for Chinaberry Sidewalks, there is always creativity ahead.
         With Close Ties, Crowell examines his past, using it — as he always has — as fuel for better songs. Always drawn to women, Susanna is not the only muse. Several songs explore complicated sexual and personal dynamics. Unconventional, yet real, the songs benefit from artistic license.
         “Reckless” is an erotic dream of being seduced by two strange women, a dream he had lying in bed next to his wife, the actress/writer Claudia Church, whom he deems “the true love of my life” — a dream that compelled him to get up and write. “I’m Tied To You,” featuring Sheryl Crow, sees a lofty man indulged by an earthy woman who understands his folly. And there is “Forgive Me Annabelle,” a complicated reckoning with a woman hated and raged at.
          “Talk about harsh language,’ Crowell marvels about “Annabelle” as the discussion evolves. “ ‘Goddamn you, rot in hell’? That’s not about the person who walked out on me, it’s about who I was then and how I responded and felt back then.”
         It is all part of coming into one’s own, coming to terms with one’s life and legacy. For the first time in his career, Crowell — along with coproducers Buie and Jordan Lehning — wanted to share his work with his peers in advance of the album release. Reticent about whom, he finally admits copies were sent to Fisketjon, Joe Henry, Billy Gibbons, and Elvis Costello.
         “I was excited and proud enough of this record that I wanted to share it. I’ve never done that before,” Crowell says at our first meeting. “Billy Gibbons is someone I have conversations with, talk to, but I never sent him a record before.”
         Fisketjon, who once sliced through Crowell’s metaphors with a green pen, has already responded that he’s listening repeatedly. Elvis Costello sent a note that “the themes for farewell and resolution are never forced or trite. It’s easy in its beauty.”
         And Cash, who knows Crowell’s work as well as anyone, agrees. She says, “He was always a deep and soulful songwriter, but the depth he’s gained with aging and maturity has been inspiring to watch. It’s interesting to see the language, the very words, the characters and images he’s accessed in this deeper level, as well as perspective: looking back, but not with nostalgia. Wisdom and poetry. He hasn’t changed, he’s achieved mastery.”