RODNEY CROWELL: Closer to Heaven

Photo by Alan Messner

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by Alan Messner
Photo by Alan Messer

“I ditched it,” Rodney Crowell says, sitting in his home studio and explaining what happened to a full album of brand new songs, written by a Hall of Fame songwriter, sung by a Grammy Award-winning singer and produced by a guy who has helmed projects for luminaries including Rosanne Cash, Bobby Bare and Guy Clark.

Crowell, of course, is that songwriter, that singer and that producer, and he’d had about enough of himself-or not enough of some of himself and too much of other parts. He took the album, listened to it and pronounced it unworthy. To him, the whole deal added up to something he’d already done, several times over. And so he undid it. Then he went to work, crafting new songs and enlisting Joe Henry to produce.

“I said, ‘I’ll come out to California, and I don’t want to know the musicians,'” Crowell said. “I don’t want to know nothing. I’ll bring some songs, and you put it together, and I’ll sing it. I need not to think.”

The result of that trajectory is Sex & Gasoline, which is…well, a full new album of brand new songs, written by the same Crowell fellow. The differences are in process, subject matter and point-of-view, and in truth, Crowell has been shifting those things around all of his professional life. He’s been at it for a long time. He’s now 58, and has been kicking in and around Nashville since 1972. Crowell has experienced the songwriter’s life-the artist’s life, he’s fonder of saying-from all sorts of odd angles.

He’s been a T.G.I. Friday’s dishwasher who would catch a buzz from discarded, not-quite-finished drinks and then walk to Guy Clark’s house after work for post-midnight song swaps with Clark and Townes Van Zandt. He’s been a young buck guitar slinger who latched on with what turned out to be one of the best country combos of all time: Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He’s been a successful, money-earning writer who yearned to be a successful, money-earning performer. Then, when Diamonds & Dirt hit in 1988 and spat up five No. 1 country singles, he was a big-time performer who yearned to reveal his core artistic self. In the new century, he’s authored a largely autobiographical trilogy of albums that have cemented his status as a patriarch of the amorphous Americana movement.

Regardless of the status of his up-and-down solo career, he’s always written enough hits for others to subsidize his art. Of late, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and others have taken his songs to the top of the charts. Meanwhile, Crowell worked up his latest reinvention. Sex & Gasoline comes from a writer who balances the notions that ignorance is the enemy of society, while self-consciousness is the enemy of art. Crowell has spent a life in music working at being highly aware without being self-conscious. He thought he was onto something along those lines, and then he ditched it. Pencils and tape machines each have erasers, and Crowell figures he’s gotten better about knowing when to use those things.

How’d you get to Nashville in the first place?
Me and Donovan Cowart made a record in Crowley, La., with this old drunk producer. As it turned out, the producer took the 8-track masters to Nashville, thinking he would get a big deal. He wound up selling it all to SureFire Music, the Wilburn Brothers’ company, for $100. And he got a bus ticket back home to Houston. He called us and said, “I’ve signed you to a 10-year recording contract with Columbia Records, and you’re going out on tour with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Get up here.” We got up there, and he was already headed back to Houston. This other pill-head songwriter named Glen…he got in a car and drove from Houston to Nashville, found us and said, “Jim sold your publishing and tapes for $100 to SureFire Music. See you.” And then he drove back to Texas. Real shady Houston stuff, you know. So Donovan and I found SureFire, waited until lunchtime, and I went in and stole the tapes. They were on top of a filing cabinet with the song publishing agreement. I swiped it all, walked out and said, “Well, we did that. Now what do we do?”

And what you did was stay…and worked and wrote. Do you look back on those as fun days?
There was a lot of fun to it, and there were things that weren’t fun at all. But, here in this room, I’ve got a half-inch tape where I was in the studio with Guy Clark and Don Everly and some others-a bunch of crazy loons, all gacked up and competitive and stuff, trying to outdo each other. I need to get a two-track machine in here and put it on disc. It was…really good. I’m lucky because I came through the ropes at a time when I could put my best foot forward and try to be like Mickey Newbury or Guy or Townes and try to write something meaningful-the way I thought their stuff was meaningful. Waylon and Willie and Johnny Cash and Emmylou and the Dirt Band were feeding off those kinds of songs, and it let me follow my sensibility and try to create, just like a painter does.

Do you have any memories of writing “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” which was one of your early classics?
I have some vague memories. I was hanging around late at night a lot with Townes and Guy and Steve Runkle, and I wanted to throw something in the hat. I had graduated from dishwasher, and I had a gig writing songs for Jerry Reed’s publishing company. I was over on Acklen Avenue…in this apartment. I remember the [song’s] emerging, but not much about the process. I was playing and singing that song onstage not long ago, and I sang, “What you’ve seen is what I’ve been/There is nothing I could hide from you/You see me better than I can.” I was thinking, “Wow, that doesn’t really rhyme.” “Can” doesn’t rhyme with “been.” I would struggle with that now. That would glare at me like crazy, and I’d spend a lot of time trying to find the hard rhyme. Yet a lot of people tell me that’s [their] favorite song of mine.

That song is also interesting, in that it’s a promise of future steadfastness in the face of an admission that things were about to get weird.
Very weird. I wrote that song and “Song for the Life” kind of back-to-back. Both of them are a projection into the future that I later lived through…and it was exactly like I predicted.

You wrote “Song for the Life” in the 1970s, and that wound up on your first album, Ain’t Living Long Like This. There, you sang the lyric, “I don’t drink as much as I ought to,” but I’ve heard you sing it as “As much as I used to.” When Alan Jackson recorded it, it was “As much as I used to.” Which is it?
I wrote it as “used to.” But that sounded so prudish. I sang it as “ought to.” When I recorded it, Willie Nelson was there in the studio singing that song with me. We were sitting there, and I was thinking, “As much as I used to? I’m gonna say this in front of Willie Nelson? That seems so light.” And “ought to” seemed more like the truth…at the time. So I sang it as “ought,” just trying to be more…more. Sometimes now I sing it as “I don’t drink as much as I want to.” There’s probably more gravity in that than any of them. I wrote that song in ‘72. It was 28 years later that Alan Jackson recorded it. I thought that was a good thing. The song got to have the life cycle that it was talking about.

Photo by Alan Messner
Photo by Alan Messer

Are you surprised by the songs that get recorded by others? For instance, “Please Remember Me” seems a very personal, nearly private statement, and yet Tim McGraw wound up with a huge commercial country hit on it.
I would venture to say that Tim McGraw probably had lived it, in some way. I don’t know a lot about his history, but I’ll bet he’s got one. The most recent big songs would be that one and “Making Memories of Us.” One, I was trying to break up with (wife) Claudia, and the other I was trying to make her love me forever-both with good reason and purpose. It seems like if you get a song right for its usage at the time, it can be useful to others. They seem to be more user-friendly somehow in the broad-stroke, love song genre. Those songs are more friendly to other artists looking for material. “Jewel of the South” is, I think, one of the best songs I’ve ever written. What I captured based on what I’ve looking for…I’ve scratched my head, thinking “Why has no one covered that song?” For my money, that would be the one. I’m almost always surprised when somebody does one of my songs, because I’m sure if I try to write something for somebody to do, I’ll fall flat on my ass. Every now and then I’ll get seduced by the idea of money, and I’ll take a stab at that…and I fall flat on my ass. I’ve never written a lasting song with that mindset. It doesn’t work.

You’ve been working on a memoir this year. Does writing prose help free you up as a songwriter, or is it a hindrance to that?
It’s different. If I am writing an 11 word sentence, I spend a long time on the first four words. If you write, “Often times I was aloof, because I was insecure,” then that could be “Most of the time,” or so many other different ways. Now, when I read writers I admire, I’m paying attention to how they get these sentences going. Writing songs, we’re almost always thinking about how we end those sentences.

So you get more than 30 years into your career, and you’ve got some songs together and you are producing the latest of many, many albums. What was it this time that made you feel like you had to start over and get rid of what you’d done?
The songs were OK…nothing wrong with the songs. But I went one step too far producing my own music. My tricks started to glare at me, and I had gone into the old Nashville style of cutting tracks and adding vocals later, and it added up to a big zero for me. I’d listen back and think, “That’s not a good performance by me. It’s a good track, but not a good performance.” Timelessness is not often overdubbed. There was nothing wrong with the musicians I was using; it was me. I was chasing the fire engine when I needed to be in front of it.

This is the most feminine of your records, in that you spend much of the album looking at things from that perspective.

I was being driven by some desire to articulate something about the feminine archetype, because I was going through a painful time with a loved one who was dealing with some really tough stuff. We were walking on eggshells on whether she was going to make it through or not, and I was trying to make sense of womanhood, for myself. I was trying to put myself inside it, to the point where I sing, “If I could have one wish, I’d want to be a woman.” So that I could understand how someone I love so deeply would make some of the choices she’d made. As popular culture imprints skinny and sexy as being the end-all-be-all, things get as twisted as hell. That’s what “Sex and Gasoline” is about. I started with that song…and “Truth Decay” and “I Want You,” and that became the pervasive thing, thematically, that I was looking for. I had some other worthwhile songs that I canned because I thought maybe they belonged on another collection of songs.

So you called Joe Henry and told him you wanted to make an immediate album-with everybody playing together. Was this an easy thing?
One day, it was absolutely a meltdown. I burned off all my old habits in one day, and they burned away hard. I stayed up all night…and melted down. I’d left my reading glasses in the guitar case, so I couldn’t read. I couldn’t take a hot bath in the hotel I was in, because there was no hot water. There was nothing on television. So I stayed up all night, aware that all these old habits of making music and doing things were falling away. It was different, and I wasn’t running the show. The next day, though, that was gone. I started with, “I’m not even going to listen to the playback. I won’t even come into the control room.” But then it started sounding good through the walls so I started going in and listening. But I split. I didn’t stay for any of the mixes. Four days and my part was done. I just told Joe to mail it to me.

Is what bothered you about the record that you scrapped entirely gone-with Sex & Gasoline?
Totally gone. I fixed that. That doesn’t mean nine months later I won’t listen to this record and not hear something else that bothers me. Hindsight’s not so friendly to me in print, because I have openly criticized my work in the past. Occasionally I’ll think, “When I was 36, I thought I’d gained some perspective.” What I thought I knew at 36 seems narrow bandwidth compared to what I know now. But then I can go six months from now, and what I think I know now won’t mean anything in six months. You only get the minute. You only get right now. And maybe to try to bring it back to Sex & Gasoline…that was what was missing from the record I’d trashed. I had no sense of Rodney Crowell…in those performances. When I left California after recording, Claudia patted me on the back and said, “When you sing around the house, that’s how you sing.” You start cutting in the middle of words; you’ve just cut the flow. It’s no longer the moment. It’s a collage of the past. So I achieved the moment, and I need to live with that.

Does that mean that you’ll also be writing quickly and in the moment?
It seems like I should really be careful with the writing and then make records quickly. I think it used to be the other way around. I think I took my gift for writing for granted and then filtered all my insecurity through the record-making…therefore, being very careful and trying to sing in tune and putting it together and making it a nice, clean photograph. I think I’ve devolved into another place. I need to make some messy records, sing out of tune a little bit to get the feeling across. And I probably will be spending a lot of time on the writing of whatever I’m singing.


3 Comments

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  1. Rodney is a great artist and an American treasure. We could use a few more like him. I’m afraid he’s a dying breed. Everything is getting so homogenized these days.

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