Rodney Crowell – Born on the Bayou
One morning in the summer of 1956, when Rodney Crowell was not quite six years old, his father rousted him from bed before dawn and hustled him into the back seat of a borrowed 1949 Ford. Three cane fishing poles leaned out the window of the jet-black, white-walled roadster, and with his chin resting on the front seat between his father and grandfather, Rodney could see the twin funnels of the headlights sweeping across a dirt road into the pines of East Texas.
Then it happened. In just three minutes, his life changed forever.
“I was just a half-asleep kid excited to go fishing,” he remembers. “I was dreaming of the fish I was going to catch; I wasn’t even paying attention to the radio. Then out of nowhere, the chugging rhythm of a freight train came out of the glowing dashboard, and a guitar that sounded like sandpaper started strumming. Then this voice that sounded like Abraham Lincoln started humming those long, low notes.
“It was Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk The Line’. And a hallucination overtook me; it knocked me out of my body and took me to another place. I can still see the headlights ahead of us and I can still hear that song. I was filled with a longing to know where that song came from, and that longing has sustained me ever since.”
The moment was so important that it became a centerpiece of Crowell’s new, autobiographical album The Houston Kid, (due out January 23 on Sugar Hill Records). He re-creates that morning from 1956 in a song called “I Walk The Line Revisited”, with Cash singing the chorus. Moreover, Crowell wrote a whole chapter about the song for a new book, “Songs Without Rhyme: Prose By Celebrated Songwriters” (Hyperion).
“You have to understand how unprecedented that song was back in 1956,” he insists. “Let’s go back — can you find a prototype for that song? Those chord changes, that modulation, those lyrics; I had never heard any music that came close to that. Even being five years old, I could sense that that was an original piece of music. That got me. That’s why I became a songwriter. I wanted to know how that happened; I wanted to do that.”
Drawing up a mental list of Texas singer-songwriters — a list that might begin with Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Butch Hancock — it’s not automatically apparent to add Crowell because, like Steve Earle, he left the state behind before he started his professional career.
But Crowell lived in Houston till he was 22, and he later became a close compadre of many top Texas tunesmiths. At his best, Crowell evinced the best qualities of the Lone Star troubadour — the conversational storytelling, the bouncy beats and sing-along melodies of the dance hall, the occasional flash of poetry.
And Crowell is at his best on The Houston Kid. A concept album examining the events, places and people that formed his childhood, The Houston Kid sent Crowell back to his Texas roots and reawakened his strengths. Writing about actual events rather than generalized situations forced his lyrics to be more specific, and that specificity forced the vocal melodies to become less pop and more conversational.
“My voice works very well for me when I’m functioning as a storyteller,” he says. “When I start recording backing tracks and then go in to create a perfect vocal thing, I lose that original intent. Some people who record my songs overdub vocals, and it works real well for them, but it doesn’t work for me.”
Crowell has been showcasing the songs from The Houston Kid since 1998, including a gig that summer in Columbia, Maryland, as part of the Newport Folk Festival tour. Wearing black denims and a black T-shirt, he appeared alone onstage with just his acoustic guitar. A splash of gray was visible in his wavy brown hair, but with his bright blue eyes and high cheekbones, he was still too good-looking to be a convincing folkie. And inasmuch as his idea of folk music is a Nashville song swap, he declared, “Because this is a folk festival, I’m going to play all new songs to try them out on you.”
The first number was “Rock Of My Soul”, which immediately sounded like one of the best songs Crowell had ever written. The sturdy, Cash-like guitar figure immediately grabbed attention, and the portrait of a father was sharply sketched:
The rock of my soul went to church on Sunday.
The rock of my soul went to work on Monday.
Clean across the levee by the railroad tracks,
The other side of Houston in a two-room shack.
Sweeping out confetti from a third-grade classroom,
The rock of my soul pushed a dust-mop broom.
The picture quickly turned dark, however, as Crowell described the father “disappearing on an eight-day drunk” and coming home to beat up his wife. The son imitates the father so well that the young man ends up serving a seven-year prison term, while the wife finally shoots the husband with a pistol.
The whole thing was delivered in such a Cash-like deadpan voice that it was hard to tell where the affection ended and the resentment started. That inexplicable but familiar mingling of the two gave the song its power.
“My mother heard ‘Rock Of My Soul’ before she died,” Crowell reveals, “and she said, ‘You didn’t go to prison.’ I said, ‘Yes, but the kid from four houses down did.’ It could have been me. Eventually I realized The Houston Kid isn’t just about me; it’s about what it’s like to be a kid, and how our surroundings affect what we turn out to be.
“As it turned out, armed robbery wasn’t my major; Chuck Berry and the Beatles were. I was saved by the music, but a lot of kids I knew weren’t. A lot of people who grew up around that domestic violence didn’t have a star to follow and wound up stealing cars and committing robberies till they ended up in Huntsville [a Texas prison]. I feel I know the mindset of a petty criminal; I hung out with enough of them. I broke into houses with a guy who later made it his career.
“I take on different characters in these songs, even though I sing them all in the first person. I took certain liberties in telling these stories. In ‘Highway 17’, for example, I assumed certain things about this man I didn’t really know, though I did know his children. The thing that ties all these songs together is that they all stem from that same environment.”
“The Rock Of My Soul” is one of three songs on the album loosely based on Crowell’s parents. “Topsy Turvy” is a frightened, angry, child’s-eye view of a home where Daddy’s “bustin’ out the windows with a baseball bat” and “Momma’s on the sofa with a big black eye.”
But the album ends with “I Know Love Is All I Need”, a ballad built around a pretty acoustic guitar figure. It begins, “So I’m an orphan now,” and ends with a dream of his dead parents moving into a new house. In the heartbreaking line, “When I awoke, they were gone again,” Crowell captures the sinking feeling of every child who has ever realized too late that once your parents are gone, they are gone forever.
“Where there were these two people there is now this void,” he explains, “and you go looking in that void. The only thing I have to show — other than the love — is what happened. I think showing what happened is an act of love.
“I’ve forgiven my father. I wasn’t enthralled with the violence, but what I’ve come to learn is that they were just acting out what they learned to do. I saw that when I visited my grandparents. And I wouldn’t be the songwriter or the person I am today if it weren’t for both of my parents.”
Two developments spurred the creation of The Houston Kid. For one, Crowell’s commercial clout had evaporated. After being the first artist ever to score five #1 country hits from the same album (1988’s Diamonds & Dirt), Crowell hadn’t had a Top-40 country hit since 1992.
He had moved from Columbia to MCA in 1994 and released two albums that went nowhere on country radio. In 1997, he formed a democratic band, the Cicadas, with three of his former sidemen (Steuart Smith, Michael Rhodes and Vince Santoro). They released a 1997 album on Warner Bros.; that struck out at radio, too.
“When country radio lost interest in me,” he now says, “that was a blessing. After I made Diamonds & Dirt, the squeeze was on me to make Diamonds & Dirt, Part 2. I did it halfway, with the result that the albums didn’t really work commercially or artistically. I tricked myself into thinking I was standing for the art, but I didn’t have the resolve I have now.”
The other crucial development was the death of his mother, Cauzette “Miss Cozy” Crowell, in 1998. Rodney had always shied away from writing about his childhood while his mom was still alive, but after her death he felt free to be more honest than he ever had before. His first response to her death was to begin a prose memoir about his childhood, The House On Norvic Street, which he still hopes to finish and publish next year. That, in turn, spurred the songs that became The Houston Kid.
“I’m six and a half chapters into the memoir,” he notes, “and I love the freedom of it. When I’m writing songs, I’m constantly whittling away at the words to sculpt them to fit the music. With the book, I can write five pages to describe one thought. But I wish I had paid attention in English class. Now that I’m writing prose, I’m always checking the dictionary to see if certain words mean what I think I mean.
“I have a particular way of translating the way I perceive reality into art, which is the same whether I’m writing prose or lyrics. But while the sensibility is the same, the craft is different, and I have to learn the craft of prose writing, just as I learned the craft of songwriting 25 years ago. Writing the prose has been great for my songwriting. It’s like I’m working in a workshop of words, so when I stop and pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano, I have access to a whole lot of words now.”
Those words come spilling out in “Telephone Road”, the first song on The Houston Kid. The title refers to the main thoroughfare through Crowell’s childhood neighborhood, a poor-white kingdom where kids would go “skiing in a bar ditch behind a moped,” where hurricanes “split pine trees down to the roots in the shadow of the Astrodome,” and where everyone lived on “bar-b-que and beer on ice, a salty watermelon slice.”
During World War II, thousands of poor white farmers left their fields throughout the South and flocked to Houston to claim menial jobs on the docks. J.W. and Cauzette Crowell came from Western Kentucky, and like many of the new immigrants, they settled in the area of East Houston known as Jacinto City or Jake City, right near the elbow in the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel. Rodney Crowell was born there in 1950 and lived there till 1972.
“My neighborhood was mostly white,” he recalls. “A lot of Cajuns, real salt of the earth, good people, hard drinkers, very funny, crazy lunatics. It was a vivid time and a place.
“It was Hank Williams drifting through the window from three houses down — no one had air conditioning so the windows were always open. It was oyster-shell parking lots and jukeboxes full of Jimmy Reed. It was so humid that the music seemed to linger in the air. I treasure the vulnerability, the humanness and the humor, of these people.
“My father was a sort of a savant; he knew billions of songs and could sing them all. When I was a child, he would sit and play Roy Acuff and Woody Guthrie, Appalachian dead-baby songs, and all the hits — Hank Williams and Hank Snow — and he would just go on forever.
“I became a songwriter because I was inundated with songs from my father and because my mother was just lyrical, the way she skipped and made rhymes up and was weird without worrying about it. The cross between my father and my mother made me predisposed to be a songwriter.”
Rodney started out as a drummer in his daddy’s band, J.W. Crowell & the Rhythmaires. But once he learned to play the guitar, he founded his own band, the Arbitrators.
“We had a car that was painted to say, ‘Surf Beat, English Sound and Country If You Want It,'” he recalls. “We could play ‘Your Cheating Heart’ and ‘Day Tripper’ back to back. At the same time, I kept a song notebook. I would pick up the needle over and over to get the words to ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, and ‘Gentle On My Mind’. Eventually I reached critical mass and I had to start writing my own version of all this stuff that was crammed inside me.”
The music had overtaken Crowell so completely that in 1972 he finally gave up on college and headed for Nashville, then California and then Nashville again. When he settled in Nashville for good, he finally met some of the Texas singer-songwriters he had heard at the old Sand Mountain Coffeehouse in Houston.
Soon after he arrived in Tennessee, Crowell ran into Guy Clark, who took the skinny kid from Houston under his wing and introduced him to Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury. At about the same time, another young kid from Texas, Steve Earle, showed up in Nashville and joined the circle.
Several nights a week there would be a party at someone’s house, and around midnight, people who had exhausted all their conversational gambits and had downed enough whiskey and beer pulled out their guitars. They would sit around on second-hand sofas or squat cross-legged on third-hand carpets and sing their latest songs.
“Those guitar swaps created a format that I don’t take part in anymore,” Crowell laments. “Singers-in-the-round has become a vehicle for playing your hits. The original late-night song swaps were not about your hits; it was always about playing the latest thing you’d written. The secret was getting drunk enough to say, ‘Hey, here’s something I just wrote,’ and to not be scared.
“It was never about booking a writing session to write a hit song for so-and-so; it was about, ‘How is your craft growing? Show me where you’re getting with this.’ It was about hearing Guy whip out ‘That Old Time Feeling’ for the first time, and just being stunned by the brilliance of it. Your mind was blown not because it was going to be a hit, but because it was Guy reaching his potential.
“When I first started going, I threw out all my old songs. I made it my goal to someday pull out a new song of my own at one of these late-night sessions and hold my own. The first time Guy patted me on the hand was when I played ‘Bluebird Wine’. But my ultimate goal was to get Townes’ approval. When I wrote ‘Till I Gain Control Again’. Townes almost acknowledged it.
“When I first came to Nashville I had a house with Skinny Dennis Sanchez and Richard Dobson on Acklen Avenue, and I washed dishes at T.J. Friday’s. I’d get off at 2 a.m. and come home to the party just as it was peaking. My relationship with Emmylou was born in that atmosphere. We’d get together and play new songs, and she’d say, ‘What have you been writing?'”
In 1975, Harris hired Crowell as rhythm guitarist and harmony singer, a job that had been held by Herb Pedersen and would later be filled by Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Carl Jackson, Jon Randall, Barry Tashian and Buddy Miller. Crowell made crucial contributions as a guitarist, singer and songwriter to some of Harris’ best albums: Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Quarter Moon In A Ten-Cent Town, Blue Kentucky Girl, and Evangeline.
“Going on the road with Emmylou took me into another realm,” he says. “I got into this band with cats who had been on jillions of recording dates in L.A. with Elvis and everyone, and I got a crash course in arranging. Before it had all been songwriting. What I learned from them is what played itself out in the records I produced.
“Emmy wasn’t a songwriter then, but she had all the sensibility and perceptiveness of a poet. She was keenly aware of what goes into a song. I learned a lot from her.”
In 1977, Crowell left Harris’ band to record his debut album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, released on Warner Bros. in 1978. With tunes such as “Song For The Life”, “Voila, An American Dream”, “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down” and “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”, and backing musicians such as Harris, Skaggs, Willie Nelson, James Burton, Dr. John and Ry Cooder, it was an impressive debut. It failed, however, to dent the country charts.
“I was hard-headed enough that I had to get going with my career,” Crowell remembers. “It was a big wakeup call for me. I thought I could just go and do what Emmy did, but I put out a record and no one seemed to care, except for the songs. Other people recorded the songs, and that kept me in business. I did get to put together some great bands, which were an imitation of Emmylou’s bands.”
The first of those bands, the Cherry Bombs (Emory Gordy Jr., Hank DeVito, Albert Lee, Tony Brown, Richard Bennett and Larrie Londin), backed up not only Crowell but also his new wife Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter. Crowell produced and partially wrote her debut album, Right Or Wrong, released in 1980, a year after they were married. With 1981’s “Seven Year Ache”, Rosanne emerged as a major songwriter in her own right.
“I think Rosanne would be comfortable with my saying that my support gave her the courage to step forward and do it,” Crowell says of his ex-wife. “She gave me a lot of opportunity to apply my creativity to her music, and I think we made some really great records together. It was easy work once we established a few ground rules, like leaving the rough mixes at the studio instead of bringing them home to argue about. She’s a great gal, the mother of my children, and I have nothing but respect for her.”
In the ’80s, Crowell and Cash were at the center of a Nashville group that also included Cash’s stepsister Carlene Carter and her husband Nick Lowe, Lowe’s future bandmate John Hiatt, Crowell’s bandmate Emory Gordy Jr. and his future wife Patty Loveless, Crowell’s bandmate Vince Gill and his wife Janis Gill, Emmylou Harris and her first husband Brian Ahern and her second husband Paul Kennerly, Harris sideman Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon White, Guy Clark and his wife Susanna Clark, and Crowell’s songwriter friends Hank DeVito, Keith Sykes and Townes Van Zandt.
This community might be called the In-Laws. Just as the Outlaws had revolutionized country music in the ’70s, the In-Laws threatened to do the same in the ’80s. They all recorded each other’s songs and played on each other’s records. They were united by a common dream — to somehow fuse Johnny Cash’s conversational storytelling with the Beatles’ adventuresome melodies, rhythms and chord changes. They were convinced they could do it within the confines of commercial country music.
“If hearing ‘I Walk The Line’ showed me what I wanted to do, hearing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ showed me what I wanted to be,” Crowell explains. “What the Beatles did influenced me so much; the level of inspiration in their songs is beyond words. Having grown up on country music, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if you combined that musicality with the storytelling of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. That’s what we were trying to accomplish.”
The term “country-pop” has a bad reputation in alt-country circles these days, but in the ’80s, the In-Laws were fashioning a country-pop hybrid that blended the strengths of those two worlds rather than the weaknesses. The albums from that decade by Crowell, Harris and Rosanne Cash hold up especially well. And from 1987-89, when those three singers scored thirteen #1 country hits, it appeared they would take over country radio.
“We made a good show,” he says wistfully, “but none of us really surfaced as a superstar. When the superstars came later in the form of Garth and Shania, it was a different kind of country-pop. They had the musicality, but they didn’t have the language. I’m not sure why our music didn’t create a superstar; maybe it wasn’t mainstream after all.
“A friend of mine put it this way: ‘Rodney, you’ve always tried to make music for the A students; you have to make music for the C students if you want the big prize.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe that. The Beatles didn’t do that; Dylan didn’t do that.’ And my friend said, ‘The times they have a-changed.'”
And so, after the two MCA albums and the Cicadas album had flopped, Crowell resolved to stop worrying about becoming a star and to return instead to the spirit of the song swaps from his early days in Nashville. He wanted to make a record, in the words of a favorite Townes Van Zandt tune, for the sake of the song. Refusing to sign with any label, Crowell used his own money to finance the sessions for The Houston Kid.
“Spending your own money creates a kind of clarity,” Crowell points out. “When people are pouring buckets of money on you, there’s no pressure to figure anything out in a hurry. But spending my own money forced me to figure it out pretty fast. The very limitations of my budget sent me back to cutting vocals live with the band. I think I have a nice voice, but it’s most effective when I’m acting out the feeling of what I’ve written. If I start doing overdubs and trying to make it perfect, I lose that feeling.
“It wasn’t until this album that I finally found out how to make a Rodney Crowell record. I got lucky once with Diamonds & Dirt. But other than that, if I took all my recorded performances I’m happy with, I could maybe put together a double album. I think the songwriting stands up, but as a recording artist, I don’t think I ever found the meaningfulness I wanted.
“Part of the problem was the record business; they get you thinking they’re spending all this money so you have to act right and look good. It took me a while to grow up and realize that none of that had anything to do with the work I wanted to do. But part of the problem was self-induced; I wanted to get my mug on MTV and be a star. The posing got in the way of doing good work. That’s no one else’s fault; I volunteered for that one.”
As he gathered songs for the new album, Crowell realized many of them were about his childhood in Texas. Three different songs — “The Rock Of My Soul”, “Telephone Road” and “I Wish It Would Rain” — all contained the phrase “The Houston Kid”, which was also the title of a Guy Clark song about Townes Van Zandt. Crowell even considered including Clark’s song on the album, but finally decided it was important that every song be written in his own voice.
He resurrected two older songs about his childhood — “Banks Of The Bandera”, written in 1976, and “Highway 17”, written in 1987 — and added new songs about his parents and about other families in the neighborhood. It never would have worked, though, if Crowell hadn’t struck exactly the right tone — neither lionizing these people as saints and heroes nor belittling them as villains and victims. He had to allow their flaws and virtues to emerge in all their tangled humanity.
“I had to find my own way into this subject without being self-serving or precious about it,” he admits. “I can’t be fishing for sympathy with these songs, and I didn’t want to be perceived as being self-indulgent. Self-indulgence is the enemy of art. I couldn’t have done it unless I had finally accepted that I was one of those people.
“When I first left Houston, I tried to deny my background, like a lot of 22-year-olds. And when I had a little success in the music business, I felt like I was wearing the emperor’s new clothes. I was suddenly rubbing elbows with millionaires, and I had never been in a sit-down restaurant until I was 13. I was ashamed of my lack of worldliness.
“But now I’ve come to love where I’m from. I love writing about it. People always ask me, ‘What is it about Texas?’ All I can say is we went barefoot seven months of the year, everyone was crazy, and there was a big blue sky overhead. Most of the people in the neighborhood were characters whose lives were poetry. Huck Finn came out of that kind of neighborhood and so did a lot of other great literature and music.”
Once he had completed the album, Crowell went looking for someone to release it. He talked to several major labels and seriously considered the possibility of starting his own label. In the end, an established independent label seemed the way to go, and he chose Sugar Hill.
“Several people at major labels said they would take me on,” Crowell reveals, “but I could tell they were doing it just because of my legacy and not because they believed they would ever make any money with this alternative kind of project. But the independent companies said, ‘Yeah, we can make money on this; we know how to get it to the people who want it.’ Plus they’re having a lot more fun than the major labels — trust me.”
In a way, The Houston Kid is the fruition of that morning in 1956 when Crowell first heard Johnny Cash sing “I Walk The Line”. So a high point of recording the new album came when Cash himself agreed to sing the chorus of Crowell’s “I Walk The Line Revisited”. That chorus takes the original lyrics from Cash’s single and puts them to a new melody Crowell had written.
“I just called him and told him, ‘Hey, I wrote this song with you, and you didn’t even have to do anything,” Crowell explains. “‘How would you like to come sing it with me?’ He showed up expecting to just sing ‘I Walk The Line’, and he was taken aback when I told him he had to learn a new melody.
“He said, ‘You have a lot of nerve to write a new melody to my words.’ He went along with it good-naturedly, but only after he had put me in my place. When you think about it, that’s quite a feat to sing those words to a new melody after he’s sung them to the old melody ten million times.
“That song has meant so much to me in my life that it was pretty strange to be singing it with him in the studio. And the fact that I was his son-in-law for a short time and that he’s still the grandfather of my children made it stranger yet.”
Geoffrey Himes interviewed Rosanne Cash for Musician in 1982 and for The Washington Post in 1990.