Rodney Crowell’s Closer To Heaven; Franklin Theater, Sept. 1, 2012
What is a life lived in music worth? Take away the Grammy Awards, the gold and platinum records, the being the first country artist to pull the Michael Jackson hat trick of 5 #1 singles off a single record (the seemingly perfect Diamonds & Dirt), as well as the songs cut by a coterie of the past four decades best artists, from Emmylou Harris to Roger Daltrey, keith urban to Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, the NItty Gritty Dirt Band who had both a pop hit with “Voila! An American Dream” and their first country #1 with “Long Hard Road (Sharecroppers Dream).”
Decidedly bucolic, occasionally romantic, always threadbare romantic, this is the poetry of a poor boy, knowing where he’s from striving for more. There is ache, raw desire, reasons to believe, euphoria in the rapture of connecting, but alaways, always the dignified of truth of being a man willing to be vulnerable, to mess up and own it, to find out he;s stronger than he knows.
For Crowell, who was on track to be country’s biggest star and heart-throb in the post-credibility scare ‘80s, the decision to be an artist instead of fame monkey has carved a – perhaps in the Chinese sense – far more interesting path. But it has also allowed him to make music, and even write a memoir called Chinaberry Sidewalks, on his own terms.
Freedom, of course, is anything but. It’s why he’s playing a small theatre insread of the mondo-dome, why he’s on an independent label instead of a major. But the output is its own reward.
Indeed, his Nashville play – in a city where Crowell has been the deacon of cool since arriving cocksure from Houston as a brash young 20-something, washing dishes at TGIFridays and holding down a house of Texas expats who would help define the raucous country-rock Southern California movement that would lay the groundwork for the credibility scare of the late ‘80s – was a celebration of unconventional wisdom and artistic merit. Drawing largely on a triumvirate of records that mined the depths of Crowell’s soul – the born and raised hardscrabble in The Houston Kid, the state of the world Fate;s Right Hand and the reckoning with consumerism, aging and bravado Sex & Gasoline, Crowell and his lean four-piece band through down the gauntlet on awareness, (d)evolution, love and what is possible. The dignity of the homeless in “Shelter from the Storm” was given a gentle grace, while the faltering homophobia when faced with one’s own brother being stricken in “Wandering Boy” suggested redemption in the worst places; the acquiescence to losing one’s love to their dream “Moving Work of Art” is matched against a throbbing existential need that is as mental/spiritual as it is abject lust in “I Want You.”
The latter delivered by Aussie multi-threat Jedd Hughes, a sweet voiced singer, burning guitarist and straight-up cutie, almost transcended Crowell’s own reading. The need is what leads, the awareness of what is desired – and there is a pungent musk to the way the band slows down the original slightly, grinding into each beat with a feral knowing.
The final “I want you…” is almost rendered with a sense of doom. Surrender to me, or I might not survive. As potent, as young, as engaged as it gets.
And how does one top that? Reach higher. With a few acoustic notes falling down, Crowell takes the 180, starts near whispering all of the faults, the disappointments, the truths that couldn’t be outrun by being smart and talented, stringing them together like some kind of garland that leads him to the most liberating revelation of all: “Closer To Heaven.” Mining a languid groove, the images are supported by the gentle tap of sticks on rim, brushes on tom and the exhaled knowledge that knowing these things is what makes life sweet.
“I love Sissy Spacek, I love Guy Clark…
“All the biscuits and gravy I can eat with a fork
“I don’t want to be famous, I don’t give a damn
I just want to be happy, right where I am…”
Having released an all-star project in the spring, a song cycle written with the acclaimed memoirist Mary Karr, Crowell has found a plateau where he can satisfy his own artistic yearnings and connect far beneath the dermis. With Rosanne Cash, Nora Jones, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill and Kris Kristofferson guesting – the women playing a loose net of sisters from the raw hank part of the Gulf Coast, KIN was a song cycle about family bonds, love growing up and people finding their way into the world.
“Anything But Tame,” Crowell’s first choice to sing from that project, painted the innocence of a boy and girl being buck wild, then as they grow older, realizing there’s more to their friendship than bird calls and tracking each other by scent. So begins the pride of the unyielding, the spark of hearts and the glint of the gautlet.
Carmella Ramsey, a noted fiddler/mandolinist/vocalist whose worked with James Taylor and Patty Loveless – and is now holding down the multi-instrumental slot with Crowell – brings a throatier, more lived-in reading to Jones’ “If The Law Don’t Want You (Neither Do I).” Using Johnny Cash’s chik-a-boom backbeat and a guitar part that reinforces the Tennessee Two’s spare urgency, this is a siren’s call to every ne’er-do-well six counties over.
Not that Ramsey’s expected to do all the girls’ songs. Crowell lifted Williams’ “God, I’m Missing You” and replaced her cracked crow desolation devastation with a sweeter homage to the things that defined the gone lover. More the dissolving the delusion that they might be coming back and a tender mercy for themselves in what’s been lost.
If Crowell understands anything, it’s keeping the soft place for the things that are no more. He can nurse the wound without bitterness, making peace with the good parts and reckoning with what’s gone wrong.
Being able to walk that line is the mark of a man who’s done his sorting. After 63 years, Crowell has spent his time wisely. He has gone deeper, considered plenty – and his writing shows that. Even a trio of new songs – all verve-driven tempo songs that celebrate the pull of male/female attraction – have a vitality most artists who’ve achieved so much rarely have.
Whether the “Aint’ Living Long Like This”outlaw boogie that proclaims “she tore through my life like a tornado through a trailer park,” the loose Cajun shuffle that celebrates a Louisiana queen that’s equal parts Acadie and Opry or the sauntering finger-picked blues of Streetlight-era Bonnie Raitt that is both Sinatra tavern spare an demi-jazzbo tension “Can’t We Talk About It,” the songs are electric. Emotions have a current that makes you listen, beats – even Byron House’s elegant upright notes on “Talk” – that that drive your hips.
Three songs from an album unrecorded. Craziness, especially when most acts four decades into a career can’t play songs from their current work; yet the sold out Franklin Theatre crowd hung on every note.
Still, Crowell understands the value of his foundation, the realm of what’s been created. He recognizes the journey, offers up the touchstones of a life that’s been lived in song. He also celebrates the folks who’ve been there along the way: for his first encore, playing “Banks of the Old Bandera,” a request from Willie Nelson’s day-to-day manager for Willie’s recently deceased bassist Bee Spears.
Closer to the moment, he also called up his California running buddy from back when Crowell was Emmylou Harris’ Sancho Panza and Vince Gill was the lead singer of Pure Prairie League. Long before the general public knew, they were writing songs, drinking beer and chasing the dream.
Leaning to the hilarious, Crowell tells the story of how they thought it was a good idea to cross-dress for a video – and how badly the end result was. “We each have a story about this,” Crowell explained, then blamed the whole idea on Gill’s father.
“It’s Hard To Kiss The Lips At Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)” hit the bulls-eye. The ribald nature of lyric sung to the truest country weeper , the juxtaposition heightens the joke. Never mind the sad reality that is, no doubt, an active piece of the equation for plenty.
Gill’s honeysuckle tenor is still the easiest, sweetest male voice in modern music. Few have the tone or the nuance to do what he does, and when he opens his mouth, it is jaw-dropping, even on a celebrated novelty that is more punchline than song.
Rather than waste the gift of having his friend onstage, Crowell spoke over the explosive response, telling the tale of walking into the Troudabour somewhere in the ‘70s to hear “this tall good looking young man singing my song… better than I did. I knew that one was gone.”
Looking proudly at the acolyte that Gill in many ways was, it is the kind of transparency that we all hope for in our truest relationships. Not just knowing the flaws or broken places, but knowing that nothing diminishes the friendship – and there is only that which matters.
Clearly an audible, the less-is-more aesthetic took on an even leaner attack. Crowell starting the breaking “Til I Can Gain Control Again” with just his guitar and vocal; the Oklahoma-born mtulitple Grammy-winner joining in and trading the chorus face-to-face at the mic. It was a quivering admission of needing help and perspective from the one who no longer needs you, and it is vulnerable in a powerful way.
So powerful that it resonated as hard as anything that had been played. By the time Hughes started etching those molten guitar lines on the song, everything about profound need was already laid on the table.
Recognizing what had been conjured, Crowell turned up the sterno. After hugging his friend, he led the band into the charging Cajun shuffle “Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight,” a tale of girl gone bad and the traveling salesman that aided and abetted, with sheer joy. The precision romp was all fun and jubiliation…
And it pivoted into Crowell’s insurrection manifesto “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a signature song for the baddest of the Ourlaws Waylon Jennings, as well as Emmylou Harris and Foghat. Building and thundering, mining the ferocity of the groove and the throwndown swagger of the singer, “Long” kept circling to climax, then backing off, circling and backing until finally everyone in the room was cross-eyed crazy, stomping and whooping with the need to culminate.
Hughes final guitar break was a mixture of squad car siren and wah-wah pedal that suggests the no good end to come from this sort of high jinks and misadventure. It pulls you in for release, romp, a moment of pure satisfaction and dereliction – as full tilt as anyone would dare to dream, dare to even dare to imagine.
Spent, the final chord struck, it’s almost dizzying in the room. Not quite vertigo, but not quite the usual politely resolved culmination of 90 minutes of music. That final whump broke the spell, but not the mood conjured.
After the band left the stage, Crowell returned alone. A man and his guitar, he explained about Spear’s passing and rendered “Banks.” But it was in the song played for his daughter that the entire night came into focus.
“I Know Love Is All I Need,” written straight from a dream, balanced the jaggedness of how people live and what what they put each other truth with the abiding truth that broken people can love absolutely, love through the failings and the screw-ups. It is a quiet reassurance in the storm, the ultimate settlement of what our time here is for.
Crowell wrote it after losing his own parents, and that colored the initial recording. Now with his own girls, he softens the edges to let them know it’s okay, it’s what matters – and no matter the realm, that love is what you should reach for.
Trust and faith are hard. Rodney Crowell knows that. By way of his music, the throwdown and the stuff most people would rather not see, he shows us that it’s also the only way.