Rodney Crowell – A Perspective

I’m always looking for new artists to listen to. While I tend to stay close to my twin loves of R&B and Blues, in recent years I’ve been drawn more and more to Roots – or Americana as it’s referred to in some circles. It’s appealing to me because of the variety; it’s typically known to draw on a number of styles: Blues, Country, Folk, and R&B among them.

All of which brings me to Rodney Crowell, one of the cream of the crop of Roots musicians.

I was first introduced to Rodney Crowell by a friend of mine who passed me a cassette of his first release, 1977’s then new “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”.  I played it a lot for a while; then put it and Rodney aside.

Fast forward to 2013 and I was in 4th row centre seats at Massey Hall for an Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell concert. (They were touring in support of their first release “Old Yellow Moon”). They had me at the opening number when Rodney stepped up to the mic and sang “Won’t you scratch my itch sweet Annie Rich; and welcome me back to town…”. Nothing like starting off on a high point, (with “The Return Of The Grievous Angel,” one of Gram Parsons’ best songs). And things stayed at that level for the next 90 minutes. The show made quite an impression – I bought the CD and again listened intently to Rodney again for a spell.

Fast forward still to 2018. The last artist that I booked for Beaches Jazz, before walking away from the business, was Roots musician Shannon McNally. It happens that Crowell had produced Shannon’s latest release – the excellent “Black Irish”.

After her performance I got into a conversation with Shannon. In the course of that conversation, covering a number of musical topics, Shannon expressed her admiration for Crowell and said that she hoped to have him in the producer’s chair again on her next record. And she also mentioned, in passing, that she was on one of Crowell’s CD’s, “Tarpaper Sky”; and that I should check it out.

Well, on Shannon’s recommendation, I bought the CD and was completely taken with it. It checked all the boxes: great singing, musicianship, songwriting, and production. What struck me the most was the conversational tone of the entire CD. It was a highly personal style that, in again being drawn into his web, I’ve become accustomed to when listening to any of Crowell’s recorded work.

Rodney Crowell grew up in East Houston, and lived an early, hard scrabble life typical of others in the area. A constant cloud of violence invariably hovered over his home life as an only child raised by two alcoholic and, some may say, abusive parents. But Rodney loved his mother dearly and idolized his mean spirited father. And that dirt poor existence and subsequent emotional and physical survival helped shape his view on life. He developed a deep level of understanding and empathy in his learning that people, (such as his parents), are, at worst, flawed human beings. Further, wise beyond his years, Crowell understood that forgiveness is possible, and that even the most complicated relationships can be redeemed.

Rodney Crowell is deserving of his place in the upper echelon of songwriters. His life lessons served him well as his skills evolved from that of a lighthearted Country maverick to a more somber, emotionally intimate, often confessional player in life’s game. Guy Clark, who would prove to be a mentor, provided valuable guidance by urging Crowell to evaluate his songwriting by viewing the lyrics as poetry stripped of the music. In so doing the lyrics stood naked, and had to tell the story without the support of the music and production values. Moving forward, Rodney heeded Clark’s sage advice.

Crowell, who always saw himself primarily as a songwriter, did what hundreds of would be songwriters did to prove their worth – he moved to Nashville. It was in Nashville where he got his first big break when Emmylou Harris – looking for songs for her debut “Pieces Of The Sky” – selected his “Bluebird Wine” from the hopefuls presented to her. Harris then convinced him to move to L.A. and join her new band that was slated to pick up where she and her former musical partner, the late Gram Parsons left off. Although Crowell didn’t feel he was up to the task as a musician alongside the likes of guitarist James Burton, he could sing harmony and Emmylou had the utmost admiration for his song writing skills. Said Emmylou: “I always wanted everything he wrote, and I was lucky enough to kind of have him all to myself for a while, before other people discovered what a great writer he was”.

Crowell would stay on with Emmylou’s Hot Band for 3 years before returning to Nashville in 1977 and striking out on his own. Steeped in Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, Crowell unveiled his own persona fusing singer songwriter with reverent traditional Country roots laced with a Rock & Roll thump. That formula worked to success on his debut “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and in varying degrees on subsequent releases.

 Crowell continued to write songs, (covered by an assortment of artists counting Waylon Jennings, Bob Segar, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash among them), and produce records for other artists, including Rosanne Cash’s breakthrough release “Seven Year Ache”. And, while all of his records were critically acclaimed, commercial success had eluded him until 1988’s “Diamonds & Dirt”, (his fifth release, with his then wife Rosanne Cash at his side), that yielded no less than 5 consecutive # 1 singles on the Country chart!  Amid those hits was the stunning Country Pop duet with Rosanne, “It’s Such A Small World”.

Among Crowell’s always outstanding work, another album – the 2001 release “The Houston Kid” – rivals “Diamonds” as possibly his best. After a self-imposed 6 year recording hiatus “The Houston Kid” takes an abrupt left turn, trading his Country Pop sensibilities for a decidedly autobiographical perspective. Mixing fact and fact inspired fiction, Crowell tells determined stories of marginalized characters. There’s no self-absorption or judgmental stance here, just Crowell trying to come to terms and make sense of the situation. If you don’t believe that he makes it so real that you can almost taste the grit, have a listen to ”The Rock Of My Soul” or “I Wish It Would Rain” or “Highway 17”. Separate or together they are a songwriting tour de force.

Over the course of his 40 year career, Crowell has released 21 albums and has been recognized a number of times for his artistic achievements:

  • 2 Grammy Awards:
  • “After All This Time”, 1989, ‘Best Country Song’
  • “Old Yellow Moon” (w/ Emmylou Harris), 2013, ‘Best Americana Album’
  • 14 Grammy Award nominations
  • Nashville Song Writers Hall Of Fame, 2003
  • Music City Walk Of Fame, 2007

If you follow someone’s work long enough you tend to get the impression, to whatever degree, that you know them. And you might think that it would be cool to actually meet them and have a casual conversation. It’s only after careful consideration that you think better of the notion because, from your vantage point as a fan, you can’t really know them and be guaranteed that meeting them would be a positive experience.

But, based on what I’ve heard and read about Rodney Crowell, if given the opportunity, I’d take the chance.

Suggested Rodney Crowell Playlist:

  1. Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight – from Ain’t Living Long Like This 1977
  2. I Ain’t Living Long Like This
  3. I Couldn’t Leave If I Tried – from Diamonds & Dirt 1988
  4. She’s Crazy For Leaving
  5. After All This Time
  6. It’s Such A Small World
  7. Telephone Road – from The Houston Kid 2001
  8. The Rock Of My Soul
  9. I Wish It Would Rain
  10. Highway 17
  11. Sex And Gasoline – from Sex And Gasoline 2008
  12. Fever On The Bayou – from Tarpaper Sky 2014
  13. Frankie Please
  14. God I’m Missing You
  15. It Ain’t Over Yet – from Close Ties 2017
  16. 56 Fury – from Texas 2019
  • Rico Ferrara, November 2020

4 thoughts on “Rodney Crowell – A Perspective

  1. So great to cast an ear back on familiar Rodney, and to be pointed at some newer nuggets. What a pleasure to hear such quality work from a unique talent. Much appreciate this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One thing that might be added here is the longevity of Rodney’s career and creative output. It’s amazing how he has kept writing and performing for decades, and such wonderful songs.

    Liked by 1 person

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