Rodney Crowell – Preachin’ to the choirs
Consider the curious dual identity of Rodney Crowell. On the one hand, there is the mainstream star who racked up five #1 singles in a row with his 1988 commercial breakthrough Diamonds And Dirt. The man who married into country music’s most prestigious dynasty, the Carter-Cash clan, when he wed Rosanne Cash in 1979 (they divorced in 1991). The songwriter to whom established stars, both inside Nashville and out, turned to — and continue to seek out — when they needed big hits, including Crystal Gayle, Highway 101, Bob Seger, the Oak Ridge Boys, and, most recently, Keith Urban.
And then there is the renegade artist who emerged in 2001 after a six-year recording hiatus with a self-financed, autobiographical album, The Houston Kid. The one who tackled thorny questions of spirituality on its 2003 follow-up Fate’s Right Hand. A true blue free-thinker who resides in a deep-red state, and discusses the political savvy of Karl Rove, gay marriage, and deregulation of big business just as thoughtfully as he talks about his storied musical career.
Equal parts Music Row veteran and contentious maverick, with a rare gift for shuttling between those two stations, it’s little wonder that Crowell decided to name his latest album The Outsider. Released August 16 on Sony Nashville, it finds Crowell continuing to rail against the powers that be.
Sometimes, the two Rodneys have to be reconciled. The day before our interview, ASCAP feted Crowell for the success of his recent chart-topper for Keith Urban, “Making Memories Of Us.” “I take it at face value,” he says, reflecting quietly on the party. “I soak up some recognition, while, at the same time, knowing this ain’t got nothing to do with the next song I’m going to write. I just try to keep it in that perspective.”
Not to suggest Crowell, 55, is uncomfortable rubbing elbows with the Nashville mainstream. “I have no problem with that part of it,” he allows. Where it gets weird is when it comes time to explain himself. Yesterday, during a press conference, and ringed by eight microphones, he was asked by a member of the press what he’d been listening to of late. His reply — Led Zeppelin and Metallica — was met with raised eyebrows.
“I almost feel like a pretender,” he admits. “Half of the panel is looking at me, nodding, going, ‘Good for you,’ and the other is half scratching their heads, thinking, ‘You ain’t one of us, are you?'”
Well, no. Even a cursory listen to The Outsider confirms as much. The rockin’ music reflects the sound of Crowell’s current touring band, which is modeled on the classic rock ‘n’ roll lineup of bass, drums and two guitars. The track list includes a scathing screed against conspicuous consumption (“The Obscenity Prayer”), a modern meditation on the musings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus (“Dancin’ Circles Round The Sun”), a Bob Dylan cover (“Shelter From The Storm”), and a passion play in which both Emmylou Harris and John Prine serve as the voice of God (“Ignorance Is The Enemy”). Crowell may still know what contemporary Nashville likes to hear, but that doesn’t mean he records it on his own albums.
Give to me my Aspen winter
Sorry ’bout the World Trade Center
I can’t help the ones in need
I got my own mouth to feed
Give to me my Playboy Channel
Some killer weed and sheets of flannel
Lay me down upon my bed
With pleasant dreams to fill my head
— “The Obscenity Prayer (Give It To Me)”
To casual fans acquainted with Crowell from his run as a late-’80s chart presence, the sarcastic sentiments above might come as a surprise. But for those who got on board — or have hung on faithfully — through The Houston Kid and beyond, it fits an emerging pattern. The Houston Kid dealt primarily with autobiographical issues of Crowell’s Texas youth and his early years in music. Its follow-up, Fate’s Right Hand, expanded the scope of subject matter outward, reflecting Crowell’s desire to “articulate something spiritual” and hopefully share some wisdom accrued with age.
On The Outsider, the range of topics continues to broaden. In addition to the personal and the philosophical, Crowell also waxes political, going after corporate fat cats, government, and decaying social values. While pushing himself to grow as a songwriter, Crowell does his best to maintain clear focus, even if he sometimes seems perilously close to going off the rails.
“I keep thinking about the singularity of my sensibility,” he explains. By way of example, he cites “The Obscenity Prayer”, a hook-laden list-type song as tongue-twisting as any Gilbert & Sullivan showstopper (and infinitely more incendiary than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”). Crowell calls it “a very upside-down, tongue-in-cheek, ironic dig at greedy motherfuckers,” then chuckles. “Now there’s a judgment for you. Whereas yesterday, ASCAP threw a big party for me and Keith Urban, for a song that is a very broad-stroke love song. I have more love in my life now than ever, yet I seem more interested in the singular sensibility of trying to knock a scab off corporate greed in America than I do in contributing another great love song to the world.”
Like all seasoned writers, Crowell tries to follow the credo “show, don’t tell,” particularly as a tool for keeping finger-wagging in check. On the rousing “Don’t Get Me Started”, he begins by struggling to take inventory of the convoluted Middle East situation, then rails against “slick politicians” who seem as “crazy as bedbugs” and oblivious to the hard-and-fast concerns of ordinary folks — but then throws in a framing device: The storyteller admits he is just trying to enjoy a few cocktails and unwind.