Interview: Rodney Crowell

Houston-born singer-songwriter and longtime Nashville resident Rodney Crowell continues to lift his game as a songwriter, and his latest album ‘Close Ties’ (New West) qualifies as the most honest set of work he has ever done. Crowell has seen his songs recorded by countless people, ranging from his old boss, Emmylou Harris to Johnny Cash by way of blues legend Etta James, Bob Seger, George Strait, Steve Young, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw, and of course a man he co-wrote a few jewels with, Guy Clark. With Clark’s death in 2016 still very much in the mind of the singer-songwriter community, Crowell was keen to share his admiration with Maurice Hope.

On your new album Close Ties you have manage to get a few things off your chest?
I guess.

‘East Houston Blues’ has a familiar feel to it. It is one of those songs I would immediately recognise as yours, and not only because of your recollections but the general feel generated. It’s like an old friend?
I like it a lot. Tommy Emmanuel and I collaborated on it when we were recording, and I liked that it a lot. I like the song too.

How did you hook up with Tommy?
We did a show, a tribute to John D. Loudermilk before he died last year and we got talking together. We are fans of each other and I said I am working on an album why don’t you come over and record with me, and he said I am in. I then went and recorded a song for his album. Tommy is a good man all the way through.

Guitarist Stuart Smith and another Australian, Jedd Hughes plays on Close Ties?
I also have Jim Oblon on guitar. Four crack guitarists, I couldn’t go wrong with that. I have a history of working with really good guitar players. It goes back to first playing in Emmylou’s Hot Band and having James Burton and then Albert Lee as her guitarists.

It’s a good sign of their respect for you as a musician and singer-songwriter for them to want to be on a Rodney Crowell album?
I think you are right. I think they like my songs, I believe my songs give them something to play.

Could you tell me a little about Jim, I am unfamiliar with his work?
Jim is a drummer. For the past few years he has been Paul Simon’s drummer, but he is equally as good a guitar player and he comes from Connecticut. An interesting part of the country for a guitar player to be in ‘round Nashville. He is a really bright guy, a really soulful musician.

You do a song “I’m Tied To Ya’ with Sheryl Crow who has done a few country styled songs recently?
I guess so. I don’t see her being on the edge of country music. A lot of the musicians here in Nashville are into rock’n’roll and heavy metal. There are a lot of different kinds of musicians in Nashville. It is a lifestyle choice to live here. I can’t remember the producer’s name that has a studio here, but he has a lot of heavy metal bands come here to make records. So there is a real cross-section of musicians in Nashville, it’s not just country anymore.

You also have a few R&B people?
Yeah, historically WLAC was the radio station that broke all those people. James Brown one of them. People don’t realise that they broke out of WLAC here in Nashville. It was the Jubilee Singers, The Fisk Jubilee Singers that gave Nashville the name Music City. It wasn’t really country music.

I had been aware of the likes of the Fairfield Four?
I think it was the 30s and 40s the Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled all over the country, singing really intense gospel music and that’s where Music City came from.

Interesting. For me the biggest song on your new album is “It Isn’t Over Yet”. It has you get back in the studio with Rosanne and the man of the moment John Paul White?
Yeah, I wrote that song on the edge of Guy Clark passing. In fact he was on the edge of dying and I would go visit him. The song became a three-way conversation. I wrote the song about Guy and Guy’s wife who passed on before, Susanna and me. That’s when I wrote the bridge part and I heard Rosanne’s voice and thought it would fit in nicely. So I recorded it on my phone and sent it to her, and she said I’m in, and then John Paul showed up.

There are so many different parts to the song. It’s massive. John Paul White does things in a classy understated manner?
Effortless.

He has been involved in a lot of the good things recently and toured with the TransAtlantic Sessions and that was a nice setting for him. You too were part of the show a couple of years ago?
Yeah, I was. The TransAtlantic is over here now! John Paul and I both did things this spring with them. All the lads have come to America! [laughs]

Being part of such a project will no doubt have prompted you to look at some of the songs and tunes in a different manner, and think again where some of these tunes actually came from?
Well, they came from over there to over here and back over to the British Isles and back again. Some of them have been recycled a couple of times.

On listening to “Life Without Susanna” the first time or two I found it a little difficult to listen to and embrace as I since have. You give yourself quite a beating up in the song and tend to blame yourself as the two of you became more distant – are you blaming yourself for things out of your control, the frustration and feeling of helplessness comes through on the song?
I couldn’t. Believe me, I tried but there was nothing I could do.

You can tell in your voice. I was like you are judge and jury and found Rodney Crowell guilty?
I found her guilty too.

You go deep down on the song?
I would say (pause) it is a love song. The most honest love song I have ever written. At the same time on “Forgive Me Annabelle” it digs deep too.

Could you tell me a little about it?
I judge myself pretty harshly on it too. Mind you I am a narrator. It does not mean I am consistently hard that way in my everyday life. The job of a writer is to uncover emotion and truth. Truth about that particular relationship.  It was very painful and it actually weighed more heavily on the narrator; he’s asking for redemption. He is asking for forgiveness. You can’t ask forgiveness half the way. If you really mean it you have to go all the way. That is why I said it on that song. Actually, in its own way I did.

You are brave revealing these feelings. There is no holding back when you do these songs?
You know, it is a select audience of people who like these songs. If you look at me for light entertainment I guess you are going to be disappointed. If you want to go in there, and look at the human emotion like I want to do you are in the right place. Like in our peculiarities and failures.

If you look at me for light entertainment I guess you are going to be disappointed.

Ultimately there are no failures because it is all a learning process curve. At that particular season of writing songs that became Close Ties I was really in the mood to dig deep. In some ways it is some of my finest work and I’m happy about that.

You hit the nail on the head when you say it is a learning curve. It is something we can all reflect on from time to time in both the good and bad times. If you think of it that way it gives you hope?
If you are realistic and honest with yourself that is what it is.

Life itself from your first to last day is one big learning curve?
On “I Don’t Care Anymore” I was having fun, taking the piss out of myself on that one. I poke fun at myself and speak of my vulnerability. Some one asked me the other day do you think your last creation as middle of the road and I said of course not. I am describing a character, and for the narrative to be true from the perspective of “I Don’t Care Anymore” he would have to come to terms that his stardom was only an illusion. There is a reality, but at the same time it is not who you really are. Not if you are going to get up the next day and write more songs. You can’t believe in the dream that you are a star if you want to continue to do good work. That guy in that song is coming to the realization that oh, man my silver-tipped boots and cool haircut and stuff is not what makes it happen. It’s the songs!

It is getting that extra line down on a night when you think you have nothing left. It is the one that can kick start you the night day?
Yes, exactly!

‘Forty Miles From Nowhere” – could you tell me something about the song?
I think of it as kind of a landscape painting. It describes where I live. I live on top of a hill and there is a cedar grove, and I have a little lap dog and animals. I wrote the song from the perspective of what if I was widowed. What if I had lost my partner and she was gone. I just put myself into that place and landscape where I live and created a narrative out of it. In a way it is fiction. It is a real description of the landscape, from the beehives and the surroundings. All of it! It isn’t something that has really happened. But it could very well happen.

“Storm Warning” lives up to its title – there’s such a dramatic feel to it?
There is a faction here who deny global climate change is a reality. But I can tell you for a fact not too many years ago we weren’t chased down into our storm cellars by tornadoes three or four times a year. But we are now, and they are deadly and dangerous and happen a lot. Not only in the springtime anymore, but in the dead of winter. Mother nature is very ill.

There is a faction here who deny global climate change is a reality. But I can tell you for a fact not too many years ago we weren’t chased down into our storm cellars by tornadoes three or four times a year.

I assume the whole planet, no I know the barrier reef is dying and these greedy politicians still deny anything is wrong. Go on making money till the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground and the barrier reef is dead, and tornadoes have levelled us all. Yes, that song it is dramatic and that is where it is coming from. It’s me paying attention to the weather.

We have problems with pollution, and concerns about how people readily deposit their rubbish where it suits them?
Bob Dylan says it that song ‘money doesn’t talk it swears’ (“It’s Alright, Ma”), it is all about money. In the song I am telling people to wake up. “Storm Warning” goes way beyond the problems caused by tornadoes. I’m writing about but wake up people, this is trouble. I am afraid America is failing in its duties and the rest of the world needs to hold us accountable.

When you first came to Nashville, was it to become a songwriter?
I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I just came. I was dreaming of coming up to Nashville to make music, be a star or something. It was ill defined. I was real lucky. When I got here I fell into a community of songwriters. Guy Clark being the king pin, the lynch pin. There were a lot of satellite songwriters around him. Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Bob McDill and a lot of the songwriters I mentioned, Tom T. Hall, Harlan Howard etc plus Buck White. He might not have been a songwriter but he was a great musician.

Mickey Newbury was a deep man, most kind; his wife and him also fostered a number of children to go with their own?
Mickey was a most unique man in every way. He is pretty much from the same area of Houston I was from, and ten years older than me. What a lovely cat. He was an enigmatic person too, a very generous man. There was a lot of stage fright but man, what a performer!

Going back to Guy Clark and his passing, he has left a high standard for you all to aim at. In some ways you are building on his legacy through the songs you write?
Yes, Guy and I also wrote quite a few songs together over the forty odd years of our friendship. I have a few from the last couple of years I have not got to yet. Particularly one written together over the last six months of his life, so I will have that collaboration of songs to come to in the future.

Apart from him setting the bar what was it you learnt most from Guy as a songwriter?
Everything. He was… as songwriters go he was the best self-editor that I have ever been around. Lines that other songwriters would die to have in a song he would throw them out, because they weren’t a narrative. He had a very literal approach, self-editing. Do you know you who Maxwell Perkins was?

Sorry, I don’t know about him?
Well, he edited (Ernest) Hemmingway, and I think maybe Edward Fitzgerald [he did]. I call him the Maxwell Perkins of songwriters.

Do you feel you still have a lot of ideas there for songs?
Yes. Definitely yes, God I hope so. I hope I can find the time to get the work done because what with the release of this record, promoting it and performing and signing autographs and that sort of thing, I don’t want to hurry my way through this, but will really like it when I get back home and writing songs again. That is my favourite part, writing the songs.

On the album you have a few fine harmony vocalists, people like Cory Chisel who impressed me when I have seen him live?
Like he would. He is a most compelling character, very charismatic.

Guy wrote with a lot of different people over the years. Have you done any co-writing recently?
John Paul White and I are collaborating a bit, but otherwise not much. I co-wrote some with Guy, Will Jennings and Mary Karr but really I am not much of a co-writer. The truth is Guy wrote with quite a few different songwriters, but after they would leave he would then revise it. Shape it up. He would do 80% of the song and I used to give Guy grief about it, because he was giving up royalties of work that was really his. I was so adamant about it one day he came round my house, and said wanted me to help him write this song. It was “Dublin Blues”, and I said, no! You go home and write that song yourself. I am going to be a hypocrite if I do that. I have given you so much shit about co-writing these songs that you wrote, so he went home and wrote it. When I heard it I said, sh-t! I was standing on principle and passed on helping Guy write “Dublin Blues”. I might have messed it up and it may not have been as good. My point was I wasn’t going to be one of those people who write just 20% on the song.

With you it had to be pretty much 50-50?
I have got to say the songs that Guy and I wrote, we pretty much pulled it equally yoked.

It says a lot about Guy and how generous he could be. On the other hand I can understand you writing most of your songs yourself since songwriting is quite often a personal thing?
It is not that so much with me. You know some songwriters will ask me and I will say, OK. But let’s be prepared to spend six months or a year on this song if we have to. You will be surprised, how quickly someone will back off of that. I don’t write songs in a day. I have in my life but the good ones you work on over a period of time. “I’m Tied To Ya’ was 19 years in the making, and “Fever On The Bayou” that was on “Tarpaper Sky” was twenty plus years in the making. I am still open to it, but tell young songwriters be prepared for it to take a while.

How do you store the parts of songs you have written, on sheets of paper or in a book?
I know them, will get the lyrics down and know what isn’t working. I keep chipping away trying to uncover the real true nature of the song. Then something will happen and there it is. In the case of “Tied To Ya’ I had this song that I had been working on forever. I started writing with Michael McGlynn an Irish songwriter, composer from a group called Anuna way back in 1997, and we had a great melody for the female part but I never had the right words and then when I had Sheryl Crow lined up I thought I need something good for her to sing. Finally…(it came together) that was the pressure drop for that one. It usually just takes something to trigger it for things to drop into place even if it takes five years.

Have you anything more planned with Emmylou (Harris)?
We will have to rest for a while. We made two albums and toured pretty intensely. We worked really hard on that. By the end of it we were both like a prize – fighter out on our feet. Afterwards we said to one another I’d give you a call. [Laughs]

Rodney Crowell’s latest album Close Ties is out on New West now. 

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin’ Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

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