When director Haroula Rose was casting Once Upon a River, she initially had country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell in mind for one of the film’s key characters. Unfortunately, a health issue led Crowell to bow out of the role. Instead, he penned a captivating and calamitous tale of loss, need, and lone survival on “The Damage.”
Part of the Once Upon a River soundtrack (Thirty Tigers), an original score by Death Cab For Cutie’s Zac Rae, and co-written by Rose, the film’s music also features original music from Will Oldham, JD Souther, Bridget St. John, Peter Bradley Adams, and Fran Farley.
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River centers on a 15-year-old Native American girl, Margo Crane, who embarks on an unexpected river expedition to find her estranged mother after her father is killed in a tragic accident and follows her unintended links with men along the way. Written and directed by Rose (As They Slept, Lost & Found), Once Upon a River twists and turns around its heart-ending storyline and a perfectly curated, haunting soundscape.
From the start, the soundtrack was deeply embedded in the making of Once Upon a River, with Will Oldham’s “Always Bound” playing by a campfire at dusk. “We were all able to connect and to be in the same emotional space with the music as a guiding creative light,” says Rose of the filming process and its connection to the soundtrack. “Being able to weave the fibers of the songs and music together as its own character essentially, was truly a gift, along with the period appropriate ’70s music.”
His first single since releasing 2019’s Texas, an album featuring friends Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Billy F. Gibbons, Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Dunn, Randy Rogers, and Lee Ann Womack, in addition to Ringo Starr and Crowell’s former Cherry Bombs bandmate Vince Gill, “The Damage” stirs slowly. It’s a devastating tale that’s hard to read but impossible not to.
Piercing the heart of the story from the beginning, Crowell cuts through stirring lyrics The story that ends before it begins, means nothing is written in stone… Once there was a time when I might have been for you a guiding light / Cross my heart and hope to die, a thousand needles in my eye. Capturing the distress and a troubled situation with deft honestly, “The Damage” keeps unraveling in I was once as young and wild as you my dark-eyed woman child / How I spend my days in dread is how it is I made my bed.
“The Damage” initially started piecing together once Crowell read Rose’s script and the book. “I was thinking about the character that I might have played and wrote it from that character’s point of view,” says Crowell. “I just like ‘The story that ends before it begins, means nothing’s written in stone,’ and ‘How I spend my days in dread is how it is I’ve made my bed.’ Those specific words stood out in my head.”
After the character of Crane runs away, she runs into an older man who is coming to the end of his days, says Crowell, not because of his age per se, but because of the way he’s lived.
“I put myself in his place to give the song narrative,” shares Crowell. “Eventually, they heal each other in their own skewed way. I started from a place of sarcasm, and then it becomes spiritual. The thing I added from the arc of the narrative was that he eventually softens, becomes more open and caring and puts a wing around the girl. I was always inspired to write it, so it was not a job. It was a joy.”
In working on Once Upon a River, Crowell says his fondness for Rose made him get ‘The Damage” just right. “She’s got a deep heart, and her method just comes from such a soulful place, and I just adore her,” says Crowell. “One of the things about ‘Damage,’ is that I just adore Haroula, and I can’t let her down. So that was another part of the inspiration for writing it.”
Already mastering a new album, Crowell says his upcoming release addresses climate change, human rights and his own spiritual path.
“In some ways, I’m having an experience now, because I’m incredibly frustrated with our lack of respect for our environment and for the planet as a whole,” says Crowell, who refers to the new collection of songs as “11 prayers.”
“As an artist, I have a responsibility to create songs where I’m not pointing fingers,” he says. “It’s show, don’t tell. If I manage to come up with some language and some emotional music that expresses truthfully what’s inside of me, then I think I’ve got a shot at putting something pretty good out.”
In a way, the album is 11 prayers, says Crowell. “I know if you make that claim, then you kind of back it up,” he says. “I don’t come from any religious background… I’m just making it my truth.”
For Crowell, the process of writing has always had its shifts, particularly after the past decade and penning his memoir Chinaberry Sidewalk in 2010. “I spent a long time writing that book,” says Crowell. “In all the revisions and editing, that experience and that process changed me.”
Typically, songs still tend to come to him in the same way they always did for over 30 years, but there are certain “bursts of inspiration” that help seal a song. “When I was younger, those bursts of inspiration are kind of handed to you,” says Crowell. “As you get older, those bursts of inspiration are earned. I think when I was younger, I knew I would make something out of it [a song], but I didn’t always complete the task.”
He adds, “The difference now is that if I get handed an idea or a burst of inspiration and it looks like it’s going to be a song, I don’t let it go until I’ve got it.”
Reminiscing on mentor Guy Clark, Crowell says they had this ritual where Clark would tell Crowell to look into his eyes as he said every word of the song.
“If I wanted to look away, I knew it was weak,” says Crowell. “Those intense eyes that Guy had… I learned a lot, and that was a gift to me. Now I have to learn how to do that myself. Not many people are telling me no, so I have to be willing to say no and sometimes I miss it.”
Crowell adds, “I think I’ve gotten better at not letting it go until I got it.”