Above and Beyond
From Houston’s Chinaberry sidewalks to Nashville, L.A., and the top of the country music charts, Rodney Crowell has lived long and prospered by the art of the song. But he’s still hell-bent on chasing his own elusive carrot as far as he can run.
By Richard Skanse
It’s Tuesday, March 11, the night before the starting gun for the official opening of the 2014 South By Southwest Music Festival and Conference, and Rodney Crowell is already off and running on his 11-shows-in-four-days promotional blitz. “I’ve got a record coming out, so I’m going beggin’,” he says at the outset of one of his first of interviews of the week. “Rattling the ‘love-me’ cup across the prison bars of life.”
The quip gets a simpatico chuckle from fellow songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, who has lured Crowell an hour south of the SXSW hubbub in Austin to talk and play on Roots and Branches, Hubbard’s weekly KNBT-FM radio program taped live in front of a small audience at Tavern on the Gruene in New Braunfels. “The last time I saw you it was in Augusta, Ga. — it was an ice storm, and there was also an earthquake,” Hubbard says by way of intro. “We’re a hard-hat area when we get together,” nods Crowell.
Mother Nature sits this one out, though Crowell isn’t Hubbard’s only guest: he’s slotted between an up-and-coming Civil Wars-type Americana duo from Nashville called the Carolina Story and regional favorites Midnight River Choir. But Crowell’s the only cat in the room with a pair of Grammy Awards to his name — the latest, for his Best Americana Album-winning duo record with Emmylou Harris, Old Yellow Moon, not even two months old yet. When Roots and Branches producer/KNBT program director Mattson Rainer congratulates him on the record (which also won Album of the Year at the 2013 Americana Music Honors & Awards), Crowell feigns hubris (“We just took all the awards that we could haul home!”) and recounts an anecdote about asking a bewildered NARAS rep if they could please mail his Grammy check directly to his home address, because, he told them, “this is really important to me, and I want to show it to my wife.’”
“They gave me a look like, ‘Is he serious?’” Crowell says with a mischievous laugh. “‘Well, Mr. Crowell … you know, there’s actually no … it’s voted on by your peers …’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m joshing you!’ They thought they had a rube right out of East Houston …”
Crowell later plays one song from Old Yellow Moon, the reflective “Open Season on My Heart,” and closes with the exquisite title track from 1995’s Jewel of the South — one of the handful of good but largely forgotten albums he recorded in the decade between his 1988 country smash, Diamonds & Dirt, and his critically acclaimed, 2001 Americana “comeback” statement, The Houston Kid. But the fact that he first plays three songs in a row from his aforementioned new record, Tarpaper Sky — and not one pick from the fistfuls of time- and chart-proven classics he’s penned over the last 40 years — comes across not so much as “love-me” begging as it does the conscious act of an artist who’s really not big on victory laps. Crowell says as much when Rainer, playing the straight man to the freewheelin’ Hubbard by trying to cover some missed bases in the interview, dutifully brings up Crowell’s best-selling record.
“You’ve had No. 1 songs, and top 10 songs, and you had five No. 1 songs from one album, Diamonds & Dirt,” Rainer marvels, earning a cheerful whoop from the audience at the mention of the album. “You and Michael Jackson … I don’t know how many albums produce five No. 1 songs …”
“Well, what about it, Mattson?” Crowell asks wryly. “What are you driving at?”
“I just thought it should be mentioned before you get out of here, some of the successes that you’ve had,” Rainer presses. “What would you say would be your career-defining song … the song that got people to return your phone calls?”
Crowell mulls it over for a moment before conceding that his ’70s composition “Till I Gain Control Again,” memorably covered by both Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, was the most probable “door opener.” This wins more cheers of recognition from the audience, but the way he sort of squirms around the question belies a clear discomfort with the notion of defining his career by any fixed moment in time.
“Not to avoid your question, but it’s kind of hard to talk about success, because the carrot needs to stay out there, you know?” Crowell explains. “I don’t want to own the carrot too close.
“Success is a funny thing,” he continues, “in that, by the time you get to success, it’s gone.”
He says this with the conviction of a man who knows from truth, as learned from decades of first-hand experience. But the funny thing about Rodney Crowell is how many times he’s also proved it wrong.
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Counting the duo record with Emmylou Harris, one-off side-projects like 1997’s The Cicadas and 2004’s The Notorious Cherry Bombs, and 2011’s somewhat hard-to-categorize KIN: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky is Crowell’s 18th album in a recording career now spanning nearly four decades. Factoring in records (outside of his own) that he’s helmed as producer doubles that catalog, while a full round-up of albums featuring Crowell’s name in the credits as a songwriter, guitarist and/or singer increases the tally exponentially. Not a bad run for a guy who titled his 1978 debut Ain’t Living Long Like This.
But as should be the case with any artist worth the title, it’s not the quantity of Crowell’s work that matters most so much as the quality. And the longevity of his career wouldn’t account for much either if not for the fact that he’s not only maintained his standard of quality, but consistently strived to push it higher — ideally just out of even his own reach. Mailbox money and touring on nostalgia alone may pay the bills and even keep a fortunate few flush for life, but Crowell hasn’t gone the distance as a performer and songwriter by coasting on the fumes of past glories. Songs like “Till I Gain Control Again,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” and “After All This Time” (one of those five chart toppers from Diamonds & Dirt and his first Grammy winner) still hold up decades on, but there would be no Houston Kid or Tarpaper Sky if Crowell wasn’t still writing songs fit to stand beside if not even above them -— as attested by such highlights from his latest as “Famous Last Words of a Fool in Love,” “The Flyboy & the Kid,” and especially “Oh What a Beautiful World.”
Whether or not the songs he writes today or will write tomorrow ever register as “hits” or garner more Grammys doesn’t really matter, either; that’s not the carrot Crowell’s chasing. But that’s not to say he hasn’t caught up close enough to that kind success for it to bump him on the head more than a few times over the years. There may be a handful of bigger household names in Americana and Texas (and certainly country) music today than Crowell, but few of his peers have had careers marked by as many spikes in good fortune — both commercial and artistic — as he has.
He took his hardest knock/reality check on the chin immediately upon landing in Nashville in August of 1972. Crowell, who had just turned 22, high-tailed it to Music City from Houston with pal Donivan Cowart, flush with high hopes stoked by a album they’d made together in Louisiana for a hustler who’d told them he’d landed them a 10-record deal with Columbia Records. But once they got to town, they found out they’d been had: there was no record deal (let alone the accompanying tour they’d been promised as a support act for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition), and both the tapes and publishing rights to their Rodney & Donivan album had been sold off for a whopping hundred bucks to the Wilburn Brothers’ Sure-Fire Music company. Crowell and Cowart never saw a penny of it, as their dubious champion had already skipped town. The album never saw the light of day, though, as Crowell’s kept it under lock and key ever since he and Cowart charmed their way past a receptionist and pinched the masters from the Sure-Fire offices. (“Good for you,” Doyle Wilburn told Crowell with a laugh years later, after Crowell confessed/bragged about the heist.)
After that inauspicious start, though, Crowell’s all but run the tables throughout his entire career. He might rightfully argue that notion, and it’d be wrong to chalk any or all of it solely up to luck, but suffice it to say that a fast-forward survey of his last 40 years really backs up the line in his 2003 song “Earthbound” about him making out “like a bandit.” Not long after snatching his first record back from the Wilburns, Crowell fell in with the misfit crowd of Music City mavericks (many of them fellow Texas ex-pats) orbiting around Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and finding the stones to share songs with that circle raised his writing chops and confidence in double time. Both served him well when a right-place/right-time circumstance landed him a publishing deal under guitarist/songwriter Jerry Reed (of “Amos Moses” fame), and soon afterwards a demo tape of his songs found its way into the hands of producer Brian Ahern, who was helping a young grievous angel named Emmylou Harris shape her Reprise Records debut in the wake of Gram Parson’s death. Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” ended up being the opening track on that album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky, and “Till I Gain Control Again” took flight on Harris’ second album later that same year, Elite Hotel. By the time Harris was making 1976’s Luxury Liner, Crowell wasn’t just contributing songs: he was living in Los Angeles and recording and touring as a member of her Hot Band alongside such seasoned vets as James Burton, Emory Gordy, and Glen D. Hardin. Harris and a handful of Hot Band members in turn sang and played on Crowell’s Warner Bros. debut two years later (along with Ry Cooder, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, and Mickey Raphael.)
Ain’t Living Long Like This still holds up as one of the best records Crowell has ever made, though it didn’t make Crowell a star in his own right. But his songs on the record weren’t long for obscurity. Harris recorded both the title track and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” on her 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and the Oakridge Boys later polished “Leaving Louisiana” (co-written by Crowell and his old partner in crime Cowart) into a No. 1 smash. Waylon Jennings also rumbled his way through “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” taking it to No. 1 in 1979 and securing its place in the Outlaw country hall of fame.
Johnny Cash’s cover of the album’s “Song For the Life” (on his own 1978 record, Gone Girl) was not a hit, but Crowell did hit it off with the Man in Black’s daughter Rosanne round about the same time. They married in ’79, raising Crowell’s daughter Hannah from a previous, short-lived marriage in the mid-70s and producing another three daughters of their own (Caitlin, Chelsea, and Carrie.) Crowell also produced Rosanne’s first six albums, culminating in 1987’s King’s Record Shop. His burgeoning production skills were put to additional use on a pair of early ’80s Guy Clark albums and even a 1982 live album called The Survivors by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis — 23 years after a 9-year-old Crowell was taken by his father, an aspiring country singer himself, to see the same three legends perform at Houston’s Magnolia Gardens on the banks of the San Jacinto.
Crowell’s first three albums of the ’80s — 1980’s But What Will the Neighbors Think, ’81’s Rodney Crowell, and ’86’s Street Language — didn’t fare near as well as the records he produced for his wife, but he caught up with a vengeance with 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt. In contrast to the slick but spiky L.A. songwriter vibe of the three albums that preceded it and even his progressive-country leaning debut, Diamonds was unabashedly country, with every song seemingly fine-tuned for maximum radio impact. Goosed with rockabilly rave-ups and Bakersfield-style hot licks and buoyed by Everly Brothers-worthy classic pop hooks and harmonies, it’d probably be deemed too edgy and Americana by current Clear Channel standards; but released at the tail-end of what Steve Earle later called country music’s “great credibility scare” — a 15-minute window of golden opportunity for Crowell and fellow iconoclasts like Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Lyle Lovett — Diamonds hit the mainstream at exactly the right time.
Although Crowell’s next record, 1989’s Keys to the Highway, kicked another two singles into the Top 5, the big hits dried up quickly soon after. The ensuing decade also took a heavy emotional toll, bookended by the deaths of his father and mother and also marked by the end of his marriage to Cash. Still, Crowell’s ’90s were far from the classic Behind the Music third-act crash. His “selfishly amicable and thoroughly modern divorce” from Rosanne (as Crowell would describe their 1992 split years later in his memoir) didn’t offer much in the way of exciting tabloid fodder, and there were no addiction-addled midlife-crisis meltdowns or riches-to-rags stories for the gossips, either. He took care of his daughters (sharing custody with Rosanne), met and fell in love with the woman who became his third wife (country singer and actress Claudia Church, who he’s still happily married to today), and kept on working and writing. And though the four albums he recorded between 1992 and 1997 didn’t sell a lot of copies, they were all released on major labels, and no matter what he tries to tell you to the contrary, they’re all pretty damn good (especially 1992’s Life Is Messy).
And then he wrote his masterpiece. Or at the very least, the record that launched the most acclaimed and creatively bountiful stage of his career, 13 years after his apparent commercial peak: 2001’s The Houston Kid. The cathartic (though not always comforting) process of writing and recording the songs on that album — almost all of them rooted in autobiography or drawn from composite memories of his parents and dirt-poor Houston childhood — rebooted Crowell’s muse and spun it 360. First he looked all the way back to his parents’ courtship to shape the framework for his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks (published by Knopf in 2011). Then he turned inward, back around to the present, and finally straight ahead and up for the songs that would form his next several albums: 2003’s soul-searching (and stirring) Fate’s Right Hand; 2005’s seething and beautifully despairing The Outsider; and 2008’s brutally honest and moodily ruminative Sex & Gasoline. The sum total of that stunning four-album run (plus the book) is a vivid self-portrait of a man in full at the top of his artistic game. That he also still works and plays well with others is affirmed by not only his recent Grammy-winning duo album with Harris, but his 2004 reunion album with his old road band, the Notorious Cherry Bombs, and 2011’s KIN, the collection of songs he co-wrote with his favorite fellow Houston-reared memoirist, Mary Karr, and then recruited a host of his most distinguished Americana peers to color in with their own voices.
Tarpaper Sky (released in April on New West Records, marking Crowell’s debut on the label) is Crowell’s first album issued solely under his own name in six years. Blame the gap on irresistible women: He actually started the album back in 2010, but pushed it aside when the Karr and Harris projects came up.
“The songs that Mary and I did just sort of caught fire, and the next thing you know, we had a record,” he says. “And then right about when that was getting done, Emmy called me and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ so then that naturally jumped ahead, too.”
Crowell recalls a recent conversation in which he was asked, “What are you up to?” and was surprised by his own reply. “I told them, ‘I have a solo record coming,’” he says, then laughs. “A solo record! It just sounded odd to me, like I was taking time off from being in a band or something. There was that four-year period in there I guess where I was collaborating with women, but it still sounded weird: ‘I have a solo record coming out!’”
It’s now Friday of SXSW week, and Crowell has talked to so many people about his new “solo” record over the last few days that he’s probably experiencing serious deja-vu. To wit: just a few minutes ago, he wrapped his second appearance on a Ray Wylie Hubbard-hosted radio show of the week, this time for a SXSW special on Sirius/XM Radio’s “Outlaw Country” channel. The taping was done in a woodshed in the East Austin backyard of Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan, and it’s Monahan who secures us a quiet place to talk on the back porch of his across-the-street neighbor. Crowell is gracious and forthcoming, but most of our interview will end up being continued via phone a week later when he’s back at his home in Nashville, as he’s in clear need of a few hours of crash time before being due onstage at tonight’s official Americana Music Association showcase downtown. Like all SXSW sets, it’s only a teaser and all-too-short; tomorrow night’s crowd at McGonnigal’s Mucky Duck in Houston will no doubt be treated to a considerably more generous survey of his 40-year catalog. But tonight, 40 minutes and a fistful of songs new and old are all Crowell and his tightly wound band — anchored by the extraordinary guitarist Steuart Smith, a longtime Crowell collaborator and sometime Eagle — need to seal their week in Austin with a bang … and leave even the mighty Lucinda Williams with a very tough act to follow.
* * *
You’re at the tail end of what’s been a busy week for you here. How’s your SXSW been? Tonight’s your last show, right?
Yeah. Day one and two were a lot of fun, just seeing how many gigs we could get in. We got in four, but I thought we could have fit in seven. [Laughs] I’m kidding. We could have done five, though. And then yesterday we got the hook at my own record label’s party … but that was kind of fun, too.
That’s a fine way to start a relationship.
I thought, “This is really auspicious, man! They gave me the hook!” And it pissed me off, you know? Then I thought, you know, it should be that way. Anyway, they said we did 30 minutes, but I’m sure we only did 26. We could have got one more song in. I should have been a man and done another song.
They say when you go to prison, the first thing you’re supposed to do is find the biggest guy in the yard and punch him in the face. To assert yourself.
Yeah. You know, I wimped out. I’m pissed off at myself for wimping out.
At the taping you did the other day for Ray Wylie’s show in New Braunfels, you were asked about success, and I loved what you said about always wanting to keep the carrot in front of you. Would you be going stir crazy right now if you didn’t have a new project ready to work on right after winning your Grammy?
I don’t know. Good question. When I wrote Chinaberry Sidewalks, during the last three years of writing that, I worked every day. Every day. You know, I’d take a Sunday off every now and again, maybe two in a month. But man, I just like to work. And as long as I’m working like that, I don’t really goof off anymore. I don’t really take vacations. So I get these songs, and they start to move the energy, so I’ve got to record them. I’ve got enough songs in the can for another record already, and I’ve got some more new songs coming, and Emmy and I are writing some songs and thinking about making another record, too. So it’ll be interesting to see what it feels like someday to not have anything to show. I’m not saying that I want to do that, but I haven’t ever really considered it — if I’d be restless or not. If things keep going, if I don’t fall over dead, I’ll probably work like this until I do. I mean, I’ve raised four girls and they all have their lives now, and Claudia and I just have a dog to take care of, so I can pretty much just do what I want to do. And outside of working, I might take a walk around the neighborhood, but that’s about it. Other than that, I just want to get better at playing the guitar and trying to figure out how to play the blues.
I want to come back to that in a bit. But let’s start with Tarpaper Sky. What was the original catalyst for this album when you started it back in 2010?
I really wanted to experiment with Steuart Smith, who, you know … we had worked on The Houston Kid intentionally together, and we had worked on Diamonds & Dirt intentionally together, but then the Eagles got him. And we had worked sporadically on the records that I made between Houston Kid and now. But we had some time where he was off from the Eagles, and I said, “Let’s go into the studio, let’s get some of those guys from the Diamonds & Dirt sessions, and let’s see what we can cook up.” And so Steuart and I just started conversations where he asked, “What do you want to do?” And I went, “Well, I want to do some landscape painting.” So we sort of started working from there, and the conversation went, “What would that be like?”
What exactly did you mean by “landscape painting”? Can you elaborate?
Yeah. “Long Journey Home,” “Fever on the Bayou,” “Frankie Please” … although they’re not like pastoral, wistful visions of what it looks like out there, the narrative in those songs is not so singular as, you know, Fate’s Right Hand and The Houston Kid and Sex & Gasoline.
Or The Outsider.
Well, I tend to think of The Outsider as less singular and more just pissed off about invading Iraq — but everybody was pissed off about invading Iraq. But Tarpaper Sky was really less a singular narrative from my perspective and more … it’s not really broad-stroke love songs, like commercial broad strokes, but it does pull the camera back a little bit to look at the subject matter.
Anyway, once we had that idea in mind, the first thing we did was try to find out how to record differently, so we unplugged the headphones in the studio and got everybody to play just to the natural sound of the room, so that it would all be live. Instead of a production, the record is a performance. The last three years, that’s what I’ve been most interested in. I kind of wore myself out on production, so I think I’ll be committed a lot more to performance from now on — which means playing and singing it live, and that’s your record. And that’s what Tarpaper Sky is: Landscapes and live performance.
You mentioned working with Steuart Smith a number of times since you made Diamonds & Dirt together. But what was it about some of the other players from that record that made you want to work with them again? Who else did you bring back from those sessions?
Well, Barry Beckett (piano/organ) passed away, and he was a big part of that record back then. Barry was the ballast, you know, this great musician from Muscle Shoals who we were all wanting to impress. So Barry’s gone, but Eddie Bayers (drums) and Michael Rhodes (bass) have played on practically every hit record to come out of Nashville. And because they’re working musicians, they get called to play on a lot of records that they’re not necessarily proud of; you know, honestly, they’d tell you that. But they’re really good musicians, so I was like, “C’mon man, come on over here and let’s do this.” They’re fun to work with and really spontaneous. One of the reasons for unplugging the headphones was so that they would not be in the same mindset that they are in when they make the pop country records.
Did any of the songwriting come out that spontaneous, live-in-the-studio set up?
Well, you know, I’d had “Fever of the Bayou” for 25 years but it had no last verse. Will Jennings and I started the first two verses way back there, and we said, “This is kind of cliché Cajun stuff here, what do we do? We’ve gone as cliché with these first two verses as we could possibly go.” So by the last verse we were just at a loss. But when if finally dawned on me that I could write a bunch of clichéd, Cajun English-French patois and get ourselves out of the jam, new life came into that song.
And “God I’m Missing You” actually came from KIN. Lucinda sang it on that record, because we let everybody that we invited choose the songs they wanted to do. I actually had my fingers crossed that I’d get to sing that one myself, but Lucinda jumped on it, and you know, “Yes baby, that’s yours!” And she killed it. But I still had my own version in mind, and figured, “This is OK to do this again, this is a long way from what she did with it.”
“Jesus Talk to Mama” was a thing that I wrote just thinking about my mother. She was a Pentecostal gal, you know, and she always wanted me to write gospel music. She thought that’s what I should do. Anyway, I wrote that one when I was in Australia. And “Grandma Loved that Old Man” had been around since The Houston Kid — I wrote it right after that record, but it just didn’t really fit the next couple of things I did. “The Long Journey Home” was probably five or six years old before I got around to it, and “The Flyboy & the Kid” had been around for a while, too — I wrote that 10 years ago with Guy in mind.
So you know, I would say the thing about Tarpaper Sky is, there’s 25-year-old songs, 10-year-old songs, 9-year-old songs on there. The newest songs are “Famous Last Words,” “What a Beautiful World,” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You.” I actually didn’t realize Billy Joe Shaver had a song of his own called “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You,” which is funny because you’d think I would know everything of Billy’s. So I called him and was like, “Billy, I’ve written this song here, and I didn’t know your song …” But he just said, “Hey man, you can’t copyright a title!”
Knowing that you wrote “The Flyboy and the Kid” with Guy Clark in mind, right or wrong, I immediately peg you as “the Kid.” Have you always been “the Kid” in one way or another? I mean, you were “the kid” when you played drums in your dad’s honky-tonk band growing up, and there’s no telling how many times you’ve been referred to as “the Houston Kid” in print since that album came out.
Well, with “The Flyboy & the Kid,” it just rhymed, that’s all. And the “Houston Kid” thing wasn’t anything I was really thinking about at the time when we made that record, but it just kept showing up in those songs, and so that’s how that became that. But Steuart Smith and I did used to joke about this thing where, anytime we were in a car together when it was snowing and there was ice on the ground, if I was the one driving I would speed up, hit the brakes and see if I could make it slide. And Steuart would always say, “That’s the Kid coming out!”
Like all the other songs from KIN, you co-wrote “God I’m Missing You” with Mary Karr. I know you’ve long been a fan of her prose and books, but she had never written songs before you talked her into it. Did she bring anything new to the process that you can put your finger on that’s stuck with you?
Oh sure, that’s easy. That’s real easy. Mary’s a poet of the page, you know? I don’t know if you’ve read any of her poetry, but she’s got five or six books of poetry. So when I kind of cajoled her into doing it, I said, “Come on, you should really trust me with this …” And I wanted to find every way we could to let the poet’s voice speak. And here’s the simplest example of that: “Anything But Tame,” which is one of my favorite things that we wrote together, the opening line for the melody that I had was, “When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint.” I liked “nails” because you can really sing that “a” vowel. But Mary was shaking her head, and she said, “No … our feet weren’t tough as nails. When you’re running around barefoot, your feet were tough as horn. Like hooves.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right, but it doesn’t sing, like ‘nails’ does.” But I started singing it with “horn,” and now, I wouldn’t sing it with “nails” in a million years, because “horn” is so much better. And that was the poet’s voice, not the songwriter’s, because if the song had been all mine, I probably would have shot it out there as nails. Now, there were still a few times where there were words that Mary had where I said, “Mary, I can’t sing these, nobody can sing these words — I know it’s what you would put on the page, but it just can’t be sung. Too many vowels.” And in those cases, it would be the songwriting technique that would overrule the poet choice. But every chance we got, we followed the poet instinct. And now I do it a lot, a lot more consciously than I used to.
What about writing your memoir — did that experience inform the way you write songs now? What did you take away from that?
Revision. Revision, revision, revision … revision! More revision. What’s that quote by Truman Capote? “Great books aren’t written; they’re re-written.” So I spend a lot of time revising now. I still get those good couplets, you know, but if I get maybe half of a song or verse that just falls out of the air, you can bet that the second half of it is going to involve a process of revision, trying to cobble together the rest of the song with verses that sound just as fresh and just as good. I used to let second halves of songs stand on the merit of the first half of the song. But I don’t do that so much anymore.
Does all that painstaking revision ever get in the way of pure inspiration, though? Do you ever lose the plot?
I do go too far sometimes. But I don’t throw anything away; I just keep looking, keep digging, keep listening. And sometimes I go back and go, “Oh, I had this right two weeks ago.”
Speaking of revision, on Old Yellow Moon, you finally got around to singing and recording your song “Bluebird Wine” — 38 years after Emmylou sang it on Pieces of the Sky. But you changed some of the words in it.
Right. That was Emmy saying, “This is us coming full circle, you’ve never recorded this, let’s do this.” I said “OK, but I gotta revise this … Those first two verses, I don’t like those soft rhymes.” There was something about the not-quite-saying-what-I-meant aspect of a 21-year-old’s version of a song that just didn’t sit with me. Back in 1974, when I first heard her version before the record came out, I thought it was like, perfect, because I was seduced by the beauty of that arrangement and the recording and her voice and just the idea of my song going out there. But you get a little distance from it and you go, “Hmm, those first couple of verses are weak.” I took a swing at it for my very first record that I made, and we just didn’t get it. Maybe because subconsciously — I don’t think I knew this consciously at the time — I couldn’t stand behind it.
That song first got to Emmylou via a publishing demo of yours, right? Were you still living in Nashville at the time?
No, I had moved to Austin by then. But before that, this bass player that had worked with Anne Murray came through Nashville, I met him through a guitar player, and he said, “You got any songs?” I said, “Here, take this tape.” And he took it up to Canada, and it just so happened he took it to the guy who ended up producing Emmy. Well in the interim, I bailed on Nashville and I moved down here, over on Endfield Road, in late ’74. But Emmy recorded that record, did “Bluebird Wine” and “Till I Gain Control Again” (the later on her Elite Hotel album, also from 1975) and then came through here, played the Armadillo, and called me and said “Come sit in with me.” That was January of ’75. And the next day, she said, “I’m going to L.A. tomorrow, and I’ve got an extra ticket — you want to go?” That was back when you could travel on somebody else’s ticket and you didn’t have to deal with security. So the next day I went to L.A. with her and stayed for seven years. I joined the Hot Band and gave up my place here (in Austin). Before that I had actually planned to live here.
She had already recorded your songs, but had you actually met Emmylou before she came through Austin and invited you to sit in at the Armadillo?
Yeah, I had met her in D.C. a little before that — I went and taught her “Till I Gain Control Again.” And we hit it off, ended up staying up all night playing, singing country songs.
What was your first impression of Emmylou when you met her?
My first impression? [Laughs]
Well, I can only imagine Emmylou Harris in 1974 … did she spin your head around?
Hah! My first impression was, I walked into the Child Herald in D.C., there’s this willowy girl onstage singing, and of course it was love at first sight. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. So first things first, I was like, “I’ve got to make a play for this girl!” And she very kindly dodged my advances. And so we got into a discussion about music and we started playing and singing, and thankfully didn’t mess up a good friendship because of my boneheaded …
Yeah. So, actually, it became really productive as opposed to what might have been really destructive. As Emmy says, we still get on and play together because we never got married. And there’s something about that, you know? That we can be collaborating like we do now, whereas had we blown it way back when …
So you go out to L.A. and end up playing in Emmylou’s Hot Band. You’ve talked a lot in the past about what an impact Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt had on you when you first got to Nashville — how being around them could be really intimidating for a young writer, but also a great learning experience. But what was more intimating: figuring out how to write songs around those guys, or going to L.A. to join a band where you had to play guitar next to …
James Burton? [Laughs] Same thing! Same thing. My education in Nashville in the early ’70s with those guys you just mentioned was all about learning how to write songs and figuring out how to know about the craft of the language. I had a sense of melody, but to be around those guys, I was watching guys who really knew language: Guy and Townes and Mickey Newbury; I was around Mickey less than Guy and Townes, but they were all producing language, like, serious language. And so, I got it, I got that that’s what it was. I was young and impressionable, but it was the perfect thing for me to stumble into to really be a dedicated songwriter. And really, my dedication to “the carrot” that we were talking about, it goes back to there. Because I was watching those guys going, “Fuck!” I remember Townes playing “Pancho & Lefty” not long after he wrote it, and it was like, “Fuck me!”
And then I go to L.A., and I fall into a band with Glen Hardin and James Burton … and you know, Emory Gordy. So that became a lesson in arranging, in how these great musicians played together. They don’t really think a lot about the language of songs, but man, they were really inside arranging a band of six musicians, how to arrange everything. They would talk about how to make a guitar part and a piano part and a fiddle part and all of this stuff work to make music, which was another aspect my education. And that information is what I used later on when I was producing records, like some of those Rosanne Cash records … it was from what I learned being around those guys. I mean, the first day I got to L.A., I walk in and John Hartford and Richard Greene are sitting at the kitchen table there on Lania Lane, talking about arranging songs.
Unless I’m mistaken, Emmylou’s cover of “Pancho & Lefty” on 1977’s Luxury Liner was Townes’ first big cut as a songwriter. But by that point, she had already recorded a handful of your songs. Were you ever aware of any degree of jealousy from Townes or any of those other guys who you really looked up to and studied under, but who hadn’t yet “broken through” quite like you did so quickly?
Well, you know, Townes couldn’t be pissed off about that, because I got Emmy to record “Pancho & Lefty,” and he knew it. But my conversations with Emmy were never really about my songs. They’d be more like, “‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ is a great song … how would it sound if you sang it?” And Guy knew that conversation was going on, because I was having the same conversations with him and he was having them with other people. Guy was talking to Mickey Raphael and telling him, “You should get Willie to record ‘Till I Gain Control Again.’” So Mickey takes that song to Willie and he starts singing it, and that was the way that all worked. A lot of people were pushing each other’s songs. So I don’t think it was competitive. Although, I could claim a lot of naivety, because I was just in a scene having fun, and you know, you step in the water, get on the boat, and you’re already down the river. But still, the discussion about songs was never about mine; it was about the song.
I know you didn’t start to really hone your songwriting craft until you started hanging with Townes and Guy, but you already had some degree of music experience before you got to Nashville — having played in bands in college and high school and all the way back to when you were playing drums in your dad’s honky-tonk band as a kid. And you came to Nashville thinking you already had a record deal for the album you’d made with Donivan Cowart. Was it with Donivan that you first started writing songs of your own?
Yeah. He and I have been running together since about 1970. I met Donivan my first day of college at Stephen F. Austin, or at least on what seems like my first day there. Somebody knew I played the guitar, and they said, “Oh, I know this other guy that plays guitar, too,” and it was Donivan. So we started playing guitar and hanging around and trying to impress girls, and eventually we accrued a few dollars from playing together and got ourselves a house off campus for $50 a month, if you can believe that. But really my first introduction to songwriting was his brother, Walter Martin Cowart, who was 10 years older than us and would occasionally pass through town. He was a truck driver, but he’d been a history major in college and listened to Dylan, and he kept a notebook that he wrote poetry and songs in. And they were pretty good songs, too. So Donivan and I started emulating him and writing our own songs. But they were really shitty songs. I didn’t write any good songs until I got to Nashville, and that took a couple of years.
The record you and Donivan made together never came out, but did any of those early songs from it ever resurface anywhere, even in revised form?
No! They’re all on an 8-track tape at my house, but if they got out they wouldn’t stand. It would be an embarrassment to anybody involved.
But you still keep in touch with Donivan?
Oh yeah. He’s my front-of-house sound guy. He was our front-of-house sound guy with Emmylou for a whole year, and also a recording engineer on Old Yellow Moon. And he’s recorded a lot with me over the years. He’s a solid guy, and he was a really good songwriter, too. I think in the beginning he was a better songwriter than me. But he drifted away from it.
After the false start with that record you made you Donivan, you eventually got your first publishing deal through Jerry Reed. How did that come about?
Well the best part of that is, before that happened, I was ready to pack it in and move back to Texas. At the time I’d been playing this happy-hour gig at a place called the Jolly Ox, and my boss there had said, “If you ever play an original song, I’m going to fire you.” I needed that job badly, but I finally broke after about the fifth day. I was just pissed off, you know, because Townes had been screwing my girlfriend behind my back. Susanna Clark (Guy’s wife) clued me in on that. So I was like, “Fuck all this, I’m going back to Texas,” and at my gig that night I played this brand new song I’d written called “You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee.” And right down the aisle comes my boss saying, “I told you no originals! After your set, you’re fired!” And the guy right behind him says, “Oh, good, because we want to record that song tomorrow.” It was Jerry Reed’s manager. So the next day I went down to RCA Studio, where Chet Atkins was producing, and taught Jerry my song. After that I had a gig writing songs for $100 a week.
So I guess that kept you in Nashville for a little while longer. But you still ended up back in Texas.
Eventually I did, like at the end of ’74.
What led you to Austin?
Hippie girls! And there was KOKE radio, and just … Austin was paradise, you know? And I mean, I was actually happy in Nashville; this time I wasn’t running away like I almost had before, it was an actual choice. Emmylou had already recorded a couple of my songs for a record that hadn’t come out yet, and I knew that I had a job writing songs, and I thought, “I could do this from Texas, and it’ll be alright.”
Were you already married at the time? To your first wife and the mother of your oldest daughter?
No. I was living here with Hannah’s mother, but that was already over, really. Hannah wasn’t born yet. What happened was I left for L.A. with Emmy in early ’75 and we started the Hot Band a few months later and then went on the road for a while. And when we took a break, instead of going back to L.A. I stopped off in Austin and kind of rekindled things with Hannah’s mother. But we knew it wasn’t going to work out so I went back to L.A., and then a few months later she called me and said, “I’m pregnant and I’m going to have this baby.” And I said, “Well, come out here and I’ll be its father and help you through it.” So we got married, but it didn’t last too long, and in the end she went off and I got custody of Hannah and that was that. I was a single parent in L.A.
That must have been right around the time you started recording your first “solo” record, 1978’s Ain’t Living Long Like This. Do you have good memories of those sessions?
Oh, I’ve got great memories of making my first record. I have memories of me and Dr. John and Ry Cooder and Emmylou and Emory Gordy and Mickey Raphael and Jim Keltner doing a second take of “Elvira,” and the rough mix of that far-exceeded the final, carefully mixed version. There was some real, raw music there, and I was delighted with that experience. But I just didn’t know enough about recording yet at the time to understand what happened between the night we recorded that song and the final mix. Had I known then what I know about the process now …
I’ll take your word for it as far as all that goes, but I still think it’s a great album. It’s one of my favorite records of yours and from that whole progressive country era. But it sounds like you were already going in a completely different direction by the time your second record came out. When you were making But What Will the Neighbors Think, did you even think of yourself as a country artist?
No, I wasn’t. Not at all. I was just a songwriter trying to find a voice. You know, I think with What Will the Neighbors Think, I was certainly under this influence of … I had been to London and I had heard “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello at Dingwalls, just blasting, and Hank DeVito (songwriter and pedal-steel player) and I just looked at each other in stunned silence going, “What the fuck was that?” I mean, it was just an unbelievable sounding attack. So of course we wanted to figure out how to do that. And so that was my New Wave period. So I’d say … that’s a young man searching, you know.
Did you do a lot of touring behind that record and your other two from the first half of the ’80s, Rodney Crowell and Street Language? Was the label supportive?
Oh yeah. That was back in the days when Warner Bros would write a check for me to go out on the road with (fellow Hot Band alumni) Larry Londin and Emory Gordy and Richard Bennett and Hank DeVito and Tony Brown; they’d spend bookoos of money to put me out on the road, saying, “You’ve got a good record, let’s put you out there … We’re not worried about singles; let’s just go figure out who your audience is, and then maybe we’ll figure out which song we want on the radio.” They had a department at the record company back then called “artist development,” and man … anytime I’m meeting my colleagues coming up now who are trying to find their way, I just go, “Thank God for artist development when I came along.” Because I was an artist developing, and it got me out there and put me in place to learn some stuff.
Diamonds & Dirt would probably qualify as “Americana” if released today, but it’s still the most “country” album you’ve ever made. Did your label finally point you in that direction?
Well, not really. I’ll tell you, I remember clearly … Steve (Earle) had made his first album, Guitar Town, and that spoke to me; I was like, “Steve is being himself.” And also, there was one other thing that happened at that time, where the notion struck me that, “Ah, I’m going to do that stuff that I grew up on; that’s a part of myself that I’m going to get in touch with.” You know, Diamonds & Dirt is … I covered “Above and Beyond” on there, which was the first song I ever sang in public, back in my dad’s band; it was one of those things where the little 11-year-old gets out from behind the drums and sings a song, that kind of cute, cornball country stuff. But that was the first song I sang in public. So the core tone of that album was country music, which is really where I came from. And I didn’t see it as commercial. But after I finished it, the promotion guy from Columbia came over and we listened to the record together, just he and I, and seeing his (very positive) response to it, I said, “Shit …” Then I started thinking, “Hmm, maybe I have something here.” And that’s when I told Rosanne, “I’m going to step on the gas here and follow this. I’m going to be on the road and I’m not going to be around as much.” Because up until then I’d been a pretty responsible parent, you know? And Rosanne said, “Hmm. I don’t know what this is going to do to our marriage,” which was pretty prophetic, because I got out on the road and I ran after that thing for about three years.
But as it turns out, I didn’t like that country scene. At that particular time, I wasn’t ready for it. But I still found myself falling into that pose, where I had my silver-tipped boots and all that stuff. It’s like, you know when you walk into a room and people look at you and they project something on you, like “That’s that guy,” and then you start carrying yourself like that guy, rather than who you are. I call it the Elvis Syndrome. And some kind of intuitive knowledge or something made me realize, “If I continue to do this and I try to create from this place, I’m going to lose it. And what I’m going to be able to create years from now is going to be diminished because the choice I’m making here is personality and stardom over artistry.” That may not have been true, but that’s certainly how I felt about it at the time.
The other day on Ray Wylie’s show, you played the title track from 1995’s Jewel of the South, introducing it as a song you were really happy with, even though it was never a hit. I thought it was nice to hear a song from that period, because the five albums you released between Diamonds & Dirt and The Houston Kid tend to get brushed aside in overviews of your career. The narrative arc of your bio implies that you sort of lost your artistic compass during the ’90s.
Yeah. I did. But I also had some responsibilities that I eventually accepted. Tony Brown signed me to MCA and they gave me a lot of money up front, and the idea was that they were going to take it back to that Diamonds & Dirt thing. But my heart wasn’t in it, even though I certainly went for the money, and so for three or four years, that really was a low point in my career for me. And then I just shut it down and drove the kids to school, single parenting again. But then I met Claudia, and my mother moved to Tennessee and she and I got close, and once I got quiet and still, that’s when the songs that eventually became The Houston Kid started to come. And all that memory that was coming up was also what prompted me to start working on Chinaberry Sidewalks. And I remember a real conscious moment where I sort of realized that, “OK, this sort quiet period that I’ve been in has come full circle.”
Right before The Houston Kid, I went and made a different record, and for some reason I took it over to Richard Dodd, the producer and engineer, and played it for him. And he said, “You know, that’s really good, Rodney — now put it on the shelf and go and make something that’s really you.” And I’d spent a lot of money on making that record, so I was pissed off, like, “Who the fuck does he think he is?” But by the time I got home, I got it, and said, “From here on out, I’m only going to do work that, if my kids want to claim their father’s legacy as a recording artist, this is going to be it.” And that’s when I started making The Houston Kid, and from there I feel like I’ve been a lot more consistent than I was from ’78 to ’98.
Right. But just like “Jewel of the South,” a lot of the songs recorded on those ’90s albums still hold their own. Let the Picture Paint Itself, which isn’t even in print anymore, had “Stuff That Works,” a great song you co-wrote with Guy Clark. On The Outsider you revisited “Say You Love Me,” another Jewel of the South song, and “Still Learning How to Fly,” the opening track on Fate’s Right Hand, was actually first recorded on 1997’s The Cicadas, the side-project record you did with your road band at the time. So with hindsight, don’t you think maybe you’ve been a little rougher on those records than they deserve?
Well, I’ve been very open about my feelings about how I didn’t really discover my voice and figure out how to use it in a way that made me appreciate it until about when I was turning 50, with TheHouston Kid. So anytime people would maybe argue about how they really liked something I did before that, I’d always go, “No, it wasn’t my performance that you liked — it was the songs that I’d written.” And maybe I was able to deliver those songs the best that I could at the time, but I’d be like, “I knew Ray Charles, I know what he did, and I need to get as close to that in my own way as I can.” So my argument was always, “I may have been a fully formed songwriter a long time ago, but the fully formed recording artist didn’t get here for me until about the year 2000.”
Although you started them around the same time and they both explore memories from your childhood, you didn’t finish your book until 10 years after The Houston Kid. So it was interesting going back to the record while reading Chinaberry Sidewalks and hearing those songs as almost like a soundtrack. But unlike the memoir, The Houston Kid isn’t really completely autobiographical. Like up to a certain point, every line in “The Rock of My Soul” rings true to your own story and your memories of your father, but then you get to the part where you sing “I got out of prison ’bout a year ago,” and it veers away from you. Why that detour out of yourself? Was there a reticence to get too personal at the time, or was it just for the sake of the song?
That was for the sake of the song. Because it went out of my first-person narrative really into the culture of where I grew up. A lot of guys from where I grew up went to Huntsville. So the narrator’s, you know … the lens pulled back, and that narration becomes the narration of East Houston, really. That was one of the songs that my mother actually heard before she died. I played it for her, and she said to me, “You know son, I don’t care about people knowing about me and your dad and what happened between us, but I don’t want people thinking that you went to prison!” And I said, “Well, Mom, if that’s where the song needs to go, that’s how … the stakes have to keep rising into something to get to the resolve.” And her eyes just kind of glazed over and she goes, “Well why don’t you just stop back there without that verse? You already told the story!” And I went, “Well, I can’t argue with that, Mom.”
Going back to Chinaberry Sidewalks, my favorite passage in the whole book is near the very end, where you’re in the hospital beside your dad on his deathbed, and you flash back on all these beautiful memories that weren’t mentioned at all before. It’s just one paragraph, almost like a coda, but for me it was like a light illuminating the whole rest of the book.
And you know, when I was sitting in the hospital with my dad during those last five days, that flashback really happened. A lot of that stuff was coming up, like how Jacinto City had a semi-pro football team for a couple of years — God knows where that came from — and Dad was 29 years old and played defensive back. He wasn’t in shape to play football, he was a construction worker, but he was out there and he was so proud of himself. And part of why I put that in there with all that other stuff came from me wanting to frame that question of how you could really idolize somebody like that and at the same time just be so mad at them.
As a reader, you do wonder that a lot of times, because the portrait you paint of your father isn’t always very flattering. And you only really get little glimpses of an answer until the very end.
Yeah. And I thought really hard about all of that less flattering stuff, because I knew the ending, and I said, “God, am I really going to go into this?” But I had already gone into it in the song “The Rock of My Soul,” so I said, “Yeah, I’m going to go into all these really despicable things my dad did, and my mother, too.” But I did it because I knew they both redeem themselves. Of course you have to get to the end of the book to get to what I was driving at. But I’m glad you mentioned that. You’re the only person who’s ever mentioned that passage with those warm memories of my dad. But I was proud of that.
You also write about how you later got to introduce your mom to Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry and how meaningful that was to you both, since she and your dad first met at an Acuff dance. I take it your dad got to witness some of your success, too, didn’t he? What did he make of it?
Oh, he enjoyed it. He didn’t get to meet Roy Acuff, but the doors were swinging open more and more and more. And I know he was really proud of me. But you know, he didn’t come from … with his upbringing, it wasn’t anything that you could say; it couldn’t be like “Son, I’m proud of you.” It’d be more like … well, he’d talk about songs.
Your daughter Chelsea has now taken after both you and her mother by pursuing her own career as a performing songwriter. She’s already put out a couple of really good Americana records of her own. Did you or Rosanne ever try to talk her out of getting involved with the music business?
Oh no, I’m very supportive. When Chelsea first started doing it and she brought me her first batch of songs, I made the mistake of trying to say, “OK, that’s a really good start. Now let me tell you what you ought to do to really make a record out of this …” And she kind of flatly said, “Stay out of my business!” So she went off on her own. But now that she’s found herself, now she’ll come to me and we’ve been collaborating together. I would say Chelsea reminds me of me a lot; she actually reminds me more of myself than she reminds me of her mother. She’s certainly as smart as her mother, but … Chelsea’s development is going to play out in its own time. And I feel good for her about that, because knowing how it was for me, I think her best work is really out in front of her.
You said at the start that you’ve got enough songs ready for another album, and that you’ll probably do another record with Emmylou soon, too. But you also said something about wanting to figure out how to really play the blues. Did you really mean that?
Oh yeah! That’s been my musical study over the last couple of years. I’m not much into what you’d call sports-bar blues, but I’m really drawn to the acoustic kind of country blues. I always loved Lightnin’ Hopkins, but also, you know, Son House, Blind Blake, Mance Lipscomb, R.L. Burnside’s acoustic stuff … and Howlin’ Wolf really comes down that way, too . I’ve really thrown myself into observing all those guys. But the thing is, I’ve been inspired by a lot of different artists over the years: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, the Beatles, certainly Elvis Costello in 1977. And whenever someone inspires like that, the job of that inspiration is not to try and do what they do, but try to find in yourself the thing that inspired you and create your own version of it. So I’ve been learning how to focus in on the blues as I understand them, coming from inside of me, and I’ve got to say, I’ve really been enjoying it. And my intention is, I’m going to try my best to create something that will stand as my version of what we might call country blues. You’ve always got to be careful about talking about what you’re going to do in the future, but I’m committed to this.
Did you ever get to see Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston, back in the day?
Oh yeah, yeah. I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins four or five times back in Houston. He came to Lee College one time when I was going there, he and Alan Lomax. Alan stood up and clapped his hands and sang old songs that he’d collected, and Lightnin’ would sit in a chair and play the blues. And I remember thinking, “I don’t know about that other guy, but I like the guy sitting in the chair playing that shit!”
Last thing here: Do you have another book in you?
Yeah. I started out thinking that I had to know the end, which is the luxury I had with Chinaberry — I knew the end, so I knew how to make the arc. But this time around, it sure seems like what I have in mind about writing, I don’t have the end to it yet. So I may learn something, or I will learn something, about how to create the arc of the narrative without knowing what that end is ahead of time.
Chinaberry Sidewalks was as much about your parents as it was about you, and really only covered your childhood years in detail. Would this one delve more into your life in music?
It would be from memory again, so it would be memoir. But although I’ve had all these years in the music business, I really don’t want to write about my career. What I can write about, though, are some really interesting people and my inter-relationship with them. I think I can make that the story, rather than, you know, “And then I wrote …” I’ll never do that.