The Writer’s Block: Rodney Crowell’s Reservoir of Songs Keeps Filling Up

For more than half a century, Rodney Crowell has graced country and Americana with his affectingly present and prescient stories. Born in Houston, Texas on August 7, 1950, Crowell moved to Nashville in 1972 and began writing songs for Guy Clark, Jerry Reed, and Emmylou Harris, among other artists. By the mid-’70s, Crowell played in Harris’ Hot Band and formed The Notorious Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill, before taking off on his solo career, and releasing his 1978 debut, Ain’t Living Long Like This.

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By the early 1980s, Crowell was writing and producing albums for his then-wife Rosanne Cash and hit the charts with “Stars on the Water” in 1981, while he continued to expand his songbook, along with five No. 1 hits, including a cover of Buck Owens’ 1962 hit, “Above and Beyond,” and his 1988 duet with Cash, “It’s Such a Small World,” along with “After All This Time, “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” and “She’s Crazy For Leavin’.” 

Collaborating with everyone from Johnny Cash and June Carter, Jim Lauderdale, Wynonna Judd, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Waylon Jennings, and more, Crowell continued writing songs for other artists from the 1990s through the 2010s, while expanding his own material. His catalog spans several collaborative projects, and 18 solo albums, including Triage in 2021 and his 2023 album The Chicago Sessions, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

In 2022, Crowell also released a book of lyrics and stories, Word For Word, a partial chronicle of his earlier life and music career over the past 50 years with anecdotes and stories behind 150 of his songs.

Crowell recently chatted with American Songwriter about revisiting and rewriting previous songs, discovering that he still has a knack for writing a few love ballads, and why he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

American Songwriter: You’ve said that you can focus better on songs now than you did, say, in your 20s. How has songwriting shifted for you over time?

Rodney Crowell: In my 20s, I went on faith. Now, in my 70s, I go on experience. 

When the ones [songs] that are there are ready to get brought over into this reality, from wherever they are before, that process is still pretty much the same. Working on the new album [The Chicago Sessions], some of the songs that I’ve written for it, the experience of writing the song is not much different than when I wrote “I Couldn’t Leave You if I Tried” or “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” They came like that, with a day and a half of work and focus, or three days of work — I had it. Whereas, when I was younger, if I didn’t really have it in three or four or five days, I moved on and left it as is. 

Now, I’ll stay with a song for 30 years if I need to. There’s one song in particular that Will Jennings and I started a long time ago, it took 30 years to finish, but I finished it, and I recorded it. Then there’s a song that I did with Sheryl Crow [“I’m Tied to Ya”] that was 17 years in the making. Part of that is that when I was in my 20s I hadn’t been writing songs for 17 years in order to invest that much time into it to uncover what it really wants to be.

AS: As far as pulling from personal experience, is that something that was still easier early on? Do you find yourself looking outward now for inspiration, or is there still more you can pull from that personal well?

RC: That’s an interesting question. The record I released a year or so ago, Triage (2021), is probably the most personal record that I’ve ever made, even more than The Houston Kid (2001), but it’s almost entirely outward looking, in my internal experience with myself. It’s not so much about making sense of my inner chaos, from a young man growing into whoever he’s becoming, and more of my inner resolve, trying to make spiritual sense of the chaos out there. When I was working on that, I was really aware that “I’m working from the interior outward, but I’m trying to make sense of what’s out there for myself.” Hopefully, it rings true for somebody that hears it.

AS: In revisiting and compiling all these lyrics for Word For Word, were there any songs that you discovered shifted the most—whether in meaning or something else—for you?

RC: There were some pieces that I might have been critical of, or felt unsettled about. With “Shame on the Moon” (1981), I wound up thinking it was okay as a narrative to include three different versions of a song that I still consider unfinished. Strangely, it’s my second most-performed song I’ve ever written. 

As I was reexamining the whole arc of “Shame on the Moon,” I discovered some things about it that had a kind of delayed reaction. As this year progressed, and I was out with my band, we put it in the set for the first time in 35 years, and finally, in a live setting, singing the song for people, I settled on what I think the last verse should be. 

It would have been nice if I had hit on that before I compiled this book, but it was definitely after the fact. I pondered for a while “Do I just stick one set of lyrics in [the book] for those who are interested in this process, or should I open up and say, “I’m still not sure how this freaking song goes.”

Rodney Crowell (Photo: Claudia Church)

AS: You’ve proved you can write anywhere since you wrote “I Ain’t Living Long Enough” in your head, without pen and paper, while you were in jail. Were there any other songs that came through in unexpected moments like this?

RC: There’s my song “After All This Time” (1988), which won a Grammy for Best Country Song. I was playing in Emmylou’s [Emmylou Harris] band, and we were touring for a full year with Willie Nelson. We did 200 shows with Willie Nelson, so I was very steeped in Willie at the time, so when I wrote There were trains / And we out-run ‘em, it was very much Willie Nelson-inspired. 

When we closed up shop in California—when I was married to Roseanne [Cash]—and we moved to Nashville, we packed everything away. And seven years later, I opened up a box and there was a notebook in there with the first two verses of “After All This Time,” and I remembered the melody and everything about it. I said to myself, “God after all this time, I remember this song,” and that’s how the song became “After All This Time.”

AS: What kind of songs have you found yourself pointing towards now?

RC: Working up in Chicago with Jeff Tweedy [for The Chicago Sessions], and out of a large group of songs that I had to choose from, Jeff and I kind of zeroed in on the ones that the two of us felt were the best songs to do in this particular moment. There are some love songs and some despair. I think that my sensibilities and my desire to write great songs does not always leave me that vulnerable, because I’m almost pedantic about getting it right. In this case, Jeff was very instrumental in loosening me up (laughs) in a really good way to where I’m doing tender love ballads.

AS: It’s surprising what can come out over time. It also has a lot to do with who you’re working with, and that “other” perspective in the room.

RC: It’s very helpful to me because I’m understanding that over these years having written a memoir, and really working so hard to make it a cohesive narrative in the way that my songwriting is, was a blessing when I step into the creative process with Jeff, who holds up a mirror that reflects another individual entirely. When I’ve produced my own albums, sometimes I’ve been fairly successful at it, and other times there’s too much of me.

AS: It’s easy to get stuck in your head. There’s an advantage to being uncomfortable because there’s always something to learn when writing.

RC: That’s so true. It’s a matter of revelation. It’s constant revelation. I started my songwriting workshop, and one of the first things that I discussed with the attendees is “What are your intentions?” because for me my intention is “I intend day in and day out to write a song and to write prose.”

That’s part of the reason I don’t buy writer’s block. When I’m not writing, my reservoir is just filling up. Something is going to trigger it, and it’s going to come out.

That unfinished song that I get to work on every day until it’s done is my invitation to stay on the job.

Main Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis / New West Records

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