On ‘The Chicago Sessions,’ Rodney Crowell Finds Friendship and Fresh Setting with Jeff Tweedy
Rodney Crowell at Wilco's Loft in Chicago (photo by Jamie Kelter Davis)
Rodney Crowell working with Jeff Tweedy seems like a match made in musical heaven. Both are meticulous songwriters who spin dazzling tales of despair, loss, joy, and hope, and they both deliver just the right music the lyrics demand. Those strengths combine for something special on Crowell’s new album, The Chicago Sessions, produced by Tweedy and recorded in Wilco’s The Loft studio and space in the Windy City.
Before they came together for this project, Crowell had long admired Tweedy, but had never met him. A late-night drive, as it happens, put fate into motion.
“It was one of those nights when everybody was out on the road and there were a million headlights,” Crowell recalls. Jeff Tweedy’s song “I Know What It’s Like,” from his 2018 album Warm, came on the radio. “I was hypnotized,” Crowell says. “It sounded like a million bucks; I love that record.”
Six months later, he and Tweedy were both on a Cayamo cruise and found themselves at the same table. When Crowell told Tweedy how much he loved Warm, Tweedy thanked him and invited him to record in his studio sometime. Crowell took it as nice gesture and didn’t take him up on it right away. One day, though, he told his daughter that Tweedy had invited him, and she was incredulous. He told her he “figured Tweedy was just being nice.” She responded: “Have your management call his management, and you get your ass to Chicago!”
The Right Moment
Once the wheels were set in motion, the process was very organic. “Everybody thought this was a good idea,” according to Crowell, and “Jeff and I just hit it off really well, and his studio is a great place to play and record music.”
Recording in Chicago has long been on Crowell’s wish list. “This is where Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf recorded, at Chess Studios,” he says, “but there’s also the connection to John Prine and Steve Goodman. That’s why I called it The Chicago Sessions.”
During the pandemic, Crowell kept busy writing songs, many of which found a home on this album. “I wrote a bunch of songs and made a few demos there in my home studio. Some of the guitar parts I wrote made it onto the record,” he says. It was Tweedy, he adds, who picked out the songs for the album.
“Jeff was the perfect host, and he’s a great producer,” Crowell says. “He only steps in at the right moment. He inspired me to keep it simpler than I might have. I tend to overthink things.”
Under Tweedy’s light touch, Crowell and his band — guitarist Jedd Hughes, pianist Catherine Marx, bassist Zachariah Hickman, and drummers John Perrine and Spencer Tweedy (Jeff’s son) — recorded most of the songs live. In addition to producing, Tweedy played guitar on most of the songs, and contributed vocals to roots rocker “Everything at Once,” which he co-wrote with Crowell.
“I was thinking Jeff and I should write something together,” Crowell recalls. “I was tinkering with this melody, and I would send him bits and pieces and he would send me pieces, and we had a song. We sang together in unison on this one, too.”
On The Chicago Sessions Crowell sounds like he’s enjoying himself, and his vocals sound stronger and clearer than they have on his past few albums. “I learned something about myself while making this album,” Crowell chuckles. “I’m a better singer when I’m not producing my own records. I like to please a really good producer. Jeff put me 100% into performing.”
Crowell lets loose both musically and lyrically on these 10 songs. Seven are songs Crowell wrote during the pandemic, and two are earlier compositions: “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good,” which Emmylou Harris recorded on her 1977 album Luxury Liner, and “Ready to Move On,” which is about 15 years old, says Crowell. Added to those is an interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall.”
The album opens with the rollicking “Lucky,” with Marx’s rollicking piano laying down a New Orleans-style groove. “I wrote the song for Claudia [Crowell’s wife] on her birthday; I played it for her, and she was happy,” laughs Crowell. “We were going for a vibe that was somewhere between Woodstock and New Orleans; we were trying to capture The Band’s Richard Manuel’s style, and Catherine did a great job with it.”
Crowell wanted to honor one of his songwriting mentors, Townes Van Zandt, by including “No Place to Fall” on the album. “I first heard the song when I was sitting at the breakfast table at Guy and Susanna Clark’s house. Townes said he had a new song he wanted to play for me, and it’s been on my mind to record it ever since. I mentioned it to Jeff, and right away said we had to have it on the album.”
Crowell has never himself recorded “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good,” and he’s never even performed it in his shows. His version on The Chicago Sessions has a bright pop feel, with sonic shades of the harmonies of Daryl Hall and John Oates on the outro and an upbeat Beatles-esque rhythm that gives a “feeling good” vibe to lyrics that decidedly relay the opposite. As much as he loves Harris’ version of the song, hers “was not close to what I had in mind for the song. It took me years to own the musical composition of it,” he shares. In his rendition, Crowell says he “found a way to get it close to the way I wanted it to be. I’ve even re-written some of the lyrics to some degree to reflect the differences between that early version and this one.”
The most notable difference comes in the refrain, where “you’re supposed to be feeling good / everybody said you would / honey, does it blow your mind / that the prophets would lie” becomes “you’re supposed to be feeling good / everybody said you would / did you ever wonder why / it all comes down to one big lie?”
The Chicago Sessions closes with “Ready to Move On,” which Crowell wrote about 15 years ago. “I’ve had it around and always wanted to do it, but never found the right place for it. It could have probably fit on my last album, Triage,” maintains Crowell. It’s a narrative about looking beyond the superficial view of the world that passes for truth these days. He delves into a litany of opposites that portray the complexity of the world around us: “no weak, no strong / no black, no white / no in, no out / no dark, no light,” for example.
An Evolving Mindset
While Crowell declares that he was “just enjoying myself” writing the songs that went onto The Chicago Sessions, he realizes his songwriting has evolved over his career.
“On Triage, I tried to bring my inner Leonard Cohen to the page, but The Chicago Sessions evolved out of a more consciously writerly mindset,” he says.
Writing his autobiography, 2011’s Chinaberry Sidewalks, made him conscious of narrative rhythm, which he has brought to his songwriting, and Guy Clark taught him about self-editing in songwriting. “When I was younger,” Crowell chuckles, “I was smoking a lot of dope, and I was just happy to finish a song enough to get it out there and let it do what it would. Then I went through a period where I was very conscious of my writing and editing. Now, I just want to paint these little pictures in my songs.”
The Chicago Sessions finds Crowell working at the top of his songwriting game, celebrating the simple joys of love and life, probing the darker side of human nature, and never letting the simulacrum substitute for the depths of emotion and truth. He may be one of our most philosophical songwriters, but he’s having fun asking the questions and amusing us along the way.
Rodney Crowell’s The Chicago Sessions came out May 5 via New West Records.