An Interview with Rodney Crowell: Crowell Writes On Instinctive Level

Rodney Crowell has always been known as a singer, songwriter, producer, and performer; not necessarily in that order. In fact, it seemed for a while that he was destined to be known as a songwriter who would write hits for other entertainers (“Shame On The Moon” for Bob Seger, “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” for Waylon Jennings, “Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” for The Oak Ridge Boys).

That destiny took a swift curve to the right when Crowell’s latest album, Diamonds And Dirt came out, and the first single, “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” a duet with wife Rosanne Cash, hit the top of the country record charts. In addition to his performance, Crowell had written and produced the record. Three records later, that curve has brought Crowell to the point of being the first entertainer in the history of country music to have four consecutive number one Billboard magazine singles from the same album that were written, produced, and performed by the same person. In addition to the above mentioned duet, “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” “It’s A Small World” and “After All This Time” are the songs which brought this honor to the hard-working Texan.

While he’s certainly proud of the history-making news, Crowell continues to maintain that he most wants to be known as a singer/songwriter.

“The singer/songwriter is the bottom of the line,” he says. “You’ve got to have a song, but you’ve also got to have someone sing it. That’s probably the most important thing as far as people being entertained by music.”

Crowell began writing songs before moving to Nashville, but it was his move there in the early 1970s that those developing talents were recognized by Jerry Reed, who signed him to his publishing company.

“What I learned most at Jerry’s was not just from being signed as a writer there, but actually being around other songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Dick Feller. These guys, who are all fine songwriters, taught me to be a self-editor. When you’re around really masterful songwriters like those people, you can hold your work up against theirs and if you’re honest, you can see how inept, how immature and how transparent you might be. It was a very good situation where I could be around these songwriters, I could tear my stuff up and throw it away and start over again, and do things that were worthy and that held up in the long run.”

Clark became a close friend of Crowell’s as well as a huge influence on his career. Crowell explains why. “Guy is the supreme self-editor. He’s just ruthless and brutal. He can write something that is absolutely brilliant and rhymes, and if it’s not in keeping with the overall thing that he’s going for in the song, he’ll throw it out. He’ll throw things out that other writers would die to come up with. In me early relationship with him, when I saw him doing those things, I was frightened because I thought a line like that might not come around again. Then I began to see that the totality of the song was more important than one stroke of brilliance. The starkness and poignancy of Guy’s writing is so vivid and graphic – he’s a very rare individual. He has a mind like a steel trap.

“There are other writers that I admire too. Roger Miller, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman – I could go on for a week. When you admire somebody, you can take on the best of what you admire and incorporate it somehow to a strong degree, sometimes to a lesser degree, into your writing.”

Crowell is not a part of the school of disciplined writers in Nashville. In other words, he does not set aside every day from 10 AM to 2 PM to sit down and write a song.

“Discipline doesn’t sound like a very creative format to me,” he explains. “You can’t discipline inspiration. I know the craft, I’m very skilled in songwriting but you can’t harness or discipline true inspiration. The best songs come when you’re inspired. If I can be inspired, I can write good stuff. Discipline is not conducive to inspiration. The thing about being inspired is having the patience to wait for it.”

Crowell does not often participate in another Nashville mainstay, co-writing, partially because the term co-writing conjures up visions of setting a specific time to write.

“I guess I prefer to write alone because I tend to write in spurts. I’ve had some real good situations crop up but I don’t really do it,” Crowell says. “Just because two people are successful doesn’t mean that if they book Wednesday a week to write, something meaningful is going to happen. Co-writing situations are better for me when they just happen.”

Though a diverse group of people have cut his songs, Crowell maintains that he does not decide to write a country or pop song when he begins to write.

“I just try to write the best song I can and go where my instincts are leading me,” he says. “I have to trust those instincts. Trusting instincts is a very basic thing. I’ve learned not to intellectualize what I do, but keep in on a very instinctive level. My best successes in that area have been where I was operating from some sort of unconscious plane where the songs are less manufactured and more creative.”

Crowell considers the kind of writing he does unconscious writing, songs which are just there that are not thought out or manufactured and more creative.”

Crowell considers the kind of writing he does unconscious writing, sons which are just there but have not been thought out or manufactured with a specific artist in mind.

“To me the best songs that I’ve written and ones that live the longest are the ones where, just through the course of my day or a phase I was living through in life, the circumstances got together and I wrote a song. “‘Til I Gain Control Again” was like that. I wrote that while I was still with Jerry. I wasn’t thinking about writing a song at the time, but it started to spill out on this page. I didn’t have the idea that I would write it, I didn’t intellectualize it, I just wrote the song and later evaluated what I had done.

“Conscious writing to me would be to be commissioned to write a song for Kenny Rogers. That doesn’t work for me, when I think it out beforehand. I call that manufacturing songs and that’s not the best way for me to work. That’s not to say it’s not the best way for others. It’s hard to explain, but the best songs I write come from not trying to think about it, just trying to do it and be it and live it, as opposed to creating a song because I think a certain style would work.

“It was hard for me to understand that I didn’t have to write everyday, that I didn’t have to sit down and stare at a blank piece of paper,” he admits. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job, but there was a time when I thought I had to enforce discipline. Just because you discipline yourself to write everyday doesn’t mean you’re going to do your best work. Inspiration is the key word. Having faith to call yourself a songwriter when you’re uninspired. If I don’t feel like writing today doesn’t mean that I won’t do it tomorrow.”

Many of Crowell’s songs come from memories, while other come from situations in which he is involved at the time.

“Sometimes I’m inspired, poignantly inspired, by memories. “Sharecropper’s Dream” was written out of memories. Recollection is so vivid. If I can get a thread of recollection going, it’s almost like domino art. You knock the right first domino over and the rest go down easy.”

Other songs, like “After All This Time,” are a combination of experiences from one relationship over several years.

“That’s an odd song because it was written into the air,” Crowell explains. “I started writing when Rosanne and I started getting together. I was hanging out a lot with Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael, and I was really under the influence of Willie. I wrote the first couple of verses but I lost the notebook they were in back in ’78 when Rosanne and I moved in together.

“Then in 1984, we moved into an office and unpacked some stuff and I found the notebook. There were those two verses and I started adding on, even though the song hadn’t entered my mind for sox or seven years. That’s where the title “After All This Time” came from.”

Cash is obviously an influence on Crowell in all aspects of his life. “By the very nature of our life together, it makes me a more thoughtful person. I think that absolutely spills over into my work as a songwriter,” he says. “Usually the last thing Rosanne and I want to do is work together. When we do write together, it stems from the domino principle – we’re there, it happens and we get in done.”

It was Rosanne, however, who provided the inspiration for Crowell’s composition of “It’s Such A Small World.”

“Rosanne found out that I’d never been to a Broadway play and she set about on a mission to haul me off to a play,” he explained. “She put me on the second row and I was intrigued by the beauty of the whole thing it washed over me. I was especially intrigued by the dialogue and in writing dialogue. I sat down and wrote “It’s Such A Small World” as an exercise in writing dialogue in a song.”

When asked for advice for the new songwriter, Crowell stressed honesty with yourself.

“The first thing you should do is go where there is a group of professional songwriters. Be honest with yourself and admit how inept your songwriting might be, and then rebuild it based in your understanding of the people who are successful at songwriting because they write good songs.”

That’s basically the philosophy Crowell used when he signed with Jerry Reed’s company back in the 70s. It seems to have worked well for him; newcomers would do well it put it to the test.