Painting Landscapes: A Q&A with Rodney Crowell

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Rodney Crowell returns next week with Tarpaper Sky, his first proper solo release since 2008’s Sex And Gasoline. We chat with our former “Lyric Contest Dream Co-Writer” about how he’s grown as a songwriter, the temptation to re-write an old hit, and the influence of Cèzanne on the new album.

 Stream Crowell’s New Album

Tarpaper Sky features a lot of musicians that played on Diamonds & Dirt. Were you trying to recapture the vibe of that album?

Man, don’t insult me by thinking I’d ever try to recapture something. I’m not that stupid [laughs]. It can’t be done! That’s the reason we threw the headphones out of the studio, and we just set up a circle of electric guitars, basses, drums, and everything, and we just played. It wasn’t to recapture anything, but it was to create with a team I feel very comfortable with.

You chose to include “God I’m Missing You,” which originally appeared on Kin, on the new album. Why’d you pick that one?

Because Lucinda stole it from me! I’m making a joke. When we got Lucinda [to contribute] on the original Kin, I was all suited up and ready to record “God I’m Missing You” and she came in and that’s the one she wanted to do. And she being there by my invitation, it wasn’t like I was going to say, “Hey, you can’t do that one, I’m going to do it.” So I stepped down, and rightfully so because her version was stunning. I had a vision of the song that I thought was uniquely my own, you know, true to my sensibility. I think that they can both exist – Lucinda’s smeared lipstick version of the song, and my mournful version of it.

Now the line “tarpaper sky” [from “God I’m Missing You”], which lends its name to the album, was that a Mary Karr line or was that your creation?

Well, “sanded moon” was Mary’s line and “tarpaper sky” was mine. For the most part, when I collaborate, I’m not one to draw attention to who recreated what line because to me that becomes an intellectual pursuit rather than an understanding of what we created as one thing. But in that case, “tarpaper sky” is my line but it never would have happened if Mary hadn’t come up with “there’s a sanded-down moon.”

You recorded a lot of this album in 2010. When did you write these songs?

I started “Fever On The Bayou” twenty some odd years ago. Will Jennings and I started it way back when but we never had a decent last verse. I tinkered with it off and on for twenty years or more. And then one day in the airport, in Denver, Byron House said the word “fromdelay,” which is French and English, and I said that’s what Cajun is really, it’s Franglais, which from there I said, “You know, I just need a Cajun patois bastardized Franglais and that would make the last verse” and I sat down and wrote it.  Twenty some odd years later, “Fever On The Bayou” was finally finished.

Do you ever have the inclination to go back and tinker with something you may have considered finished at one point?

Oh, man, I’ll tell you what. One of my biggest pop hit songs is “Shame On The Moon,” and I’ve been rewriting that song for thirty some odd years. I always thought the last verse was dookie. I don’t know why I recorded it, but I did. Maybe subconsciously I recorded it so it would get covered and I’d make some money. But I’ve recently re-written the whole song. It’s well within my rights to do another version of a song that I didn’t think was right in the beginning. It’s ironic that that thing was five weeks at Number 2, right behind “Beat It” or one of those Michael Jackson songs, and the whole time I’m cringing at the last verse. But I asked Bob Seger, I said, ‘Oh, that last verse, didn’t it … ,’ but he said “No, man, I like it!” It is subjective.

Were any of these songs born out of writing your memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks?’ “Grandma Loved That Old Man” seems like it could have come from that wellspring.

Well, it certainly comes from that early experience. I think the albums that really were coming out when I was writing Chinaberry Sidewalks were Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider and The Houston Kid, and there was a lot of verbiage in those songs. I think that was because at the time I was writing mile-long sentences and kind of drunk on the ability to use a lot of words to get something said. I’d have to look at the list, certainly the experience of writing Chinaberry Sidewalks is central to everything I do now, because having written a book and the process you go through with the editing is to get it down to the most crystal form you can make it. I don’t seem to be in the mood to let songs be as open to interpretation as I used to. I seem to really want to define what I’m saying. It makes the work harder, and I wouldn’t say anymore inspired, but certainly technically more sound.

From a strictly writing standpoint, are you able to do things now that you weren’t able to do as a young man? Did you have greater flashes of inspiration when you were younger?

With language, when I was a younger writer and less experienced and actually more fearful, I actually would let things pass or think things actually did the job when perhaps maybe they didn’t. But something about the inspiration of youth, the passion and the fire holds it together in a way that in later years [ doesn’t happen].

To me, the blessing of being an artist is working at it every day, and going to work every day. Maybe taking one day off. When I’m on the road, that’s different – that’s the work I’m doing. But when I’m home I’m working every day. When I think of Picasso, the man got up and went to work every day. Nabokov, the man got up and went to work every day. I’m not comparing myself to them, but I’m comparing the experience. If you are lucky enough to spend a lifetime as a working artist, the work, the day in and day out rhythm of the work, becomes the most important thing about it. And it just leads to clarity and a deeper focus.

And I enjoy and love the work. I do know this: the inspiration that comes to a 25-year-old man or woman is different than the inspiration that comes to a 55-year- old man or woman artist. And the 25-year-old inspiration is more forgiving than the 55-year-old inspiration. When that source of inspiration hands it to you, it expects a better job out of you when you’re older.

One of the themes of this album is reflection, a kind of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Did you set out to make that a theme or did it naturally develop that way?

Well, the discussion between myself and [guitarist] Steuart Smith was landscape painting and we talked about Cèzanne a lot, and we tend to talk in terms of art [when discussing] music. Our sense was that we were recording these songs that had a certain amount of pastoral landscape tonality to it. There were other songs that I recorded that in the end were songs that were very worthy of being on the album, but the decision was to let the pastoral watercolors set the tone for this album.

“The Flyboy And The Kid” fits in with that pastoral tone. It also reminds me of Dylan’s “Forever Young” in the way it opens up. Did you have that song in mind when you wrote it?

No, I had Guy Clark in mind, and I had that old Irish poem “May The Road Rise To Meet You.” I started writing it in Ireland, and I was thinking about Guy. But you know, there’s the line “May you always stay in touch with the things that keep you young,” and I understand that that would trigger “May you stay forever young.” It’s only natural, but I wasn’t thinking about Dylan’s song although of course I recognize that as a masterwork.

When you say you were thinking about Guy, does that mean you’re paying a debt to one of your big influences, as a writer?

Well, I wasn’t thinking about paying a debt with that song, I was actually thinking, “I love my friend.” It was more of a love song to a friend and the wishes [I had for him]. That song of Dylan you were talking about is about the things he wishes for his child. In my case, it was the things I wished for my friend.

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