Rodney Crowell’s Melodic Literacy
Rodney Crowell, who turns 62 on August 7, has been on our radar since the 1970s, when he was the freshest horse in Emmylou Harris’ songwriting stable. Since then he’s been a left-of-center presence, a master of diverse categories but a prisoner of none.
He’s always been a words guy, and his latest project, Kin, is a joint effort with writer Mary Karr that features Harris, Norah Jones, Vince Gill. Rosanne Cash and a great LeAnn Womack rave-up, “Momma’s On A Roll.” It’s all about family and relationships; quirky folk and home cooked meals.
Adding to his lit cred he authored a memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, which talked about his hardscrabble childhood and painted a remarkable portrait of his parents and their influence on his life and music. A lot of musicians are writing books to tell stories we already know in greater detail, but you can be halfway through Crowell’s character driven tome before realizing that he’s not feeding us the true dope about Emmylou or Johnny Cash or life on the road. And that’s a good thing.
This winter Crowell will appear on the Cayamo Cruise, joining Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, Brandi Carlile and others to create a floating songwriter’s paradise. This will be followed by One Yellow Moon, a duets album he recorded with Harris that has been in the works for a while.
So for Crowell, 62 looks as exciting as 26.
How did ‘Kin’ begin?
I sat down with Mary Karr, she’s a great poet and a writer and was real supportive when I was writing book, so we fell into writing songs. I wasn’t thinking about making a record of any kind. I was just saying to her “you’re brilliant, you’re a language scholar, let’s see what we can do. “ It just caught fire. After five or six songs I knew these weren’t songs that I was going to put on one of my albums, this is a collection of paintings that we need to put on a wall somewhere.
We didn’t set out to get a lot of people on the album on purpose. As we wrote the songs we realized that a lot of the songs had a female narrative and since Mary doesn’t sing we needed a female voice. We thought we’d get one female voice to sing those songs and I’d sing the male parts.
Norah Jones was a big fan of Mary’s and has recorded a couple of my songs, but she could only do one. Emmy hears about it, and it started to grow. It kind of made itself. A lot of my best albums kind of make themselves. There is a kind of art or music or storytelling that comes from a place where there is no design for a marketplace. These kinds of things have worked out better for me than when I was trying to anticipate what somebody wanted to hear.
I had a big success a few years back and didn’t recover fully when it was time to move away from that, I tried to reclaim it and I failed. Somebody gave me too much money, more money than I could handle, so I tried to oblige them with something that wasn’t true to my heart. Now no one’s waving a lot of money at me so I just do what I want to do.
What worked, and didn’t?
I made a few records, Let the Picture Paint Itself and Jewel of the South. If you but them both together you could get three quarters of a pretty good record. But I wouldn’t buy those albums. Sex and Gasoline has some of my best work, that one was overlooked. It happens. There is a natural flow in an artist’s career when things are happening in other corners of the room. You might have a really good piece of work that doesn’t get noticed. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not that people don’t care, it just means that the universe is elsewhere.
And you can’t force it.
I can’t. Back at the Brill Building they certainly could do it but it was a different time. The language hadn’t been poured over the coals. They were coming up with an interesting and compelling new language, and it is a lot harder to do that in 2012 than it was in 1967.
I work better when my intuition is leading the charge, if I follow my intuition and my heart chances are it will be more timeless. If my brain gets involved in trying to run the show chances are I’m going to come up short.
How did you end up on Cayamo?
I don’t really know, someone suggested me. I’m a decent songwriter so there was a movement that said “you’ve never had this guy on the boat.” I’ve gone on a boat before, Delbert McClinton has a blues cruise, I loved the music and the playing but the boats get a little queasy sometimes.
Will you bring a band?
I haven’t made up my mind, when I get some more information I’ll see what works best. Since it’s a songwriter cruise it might be better to be more acoustic. I attach a lot of importance to language, and I want people to hear the words. You want to move people and get people to move, that’s the balance we need to strike.
Sometimes when I play with a drummer and electric guitars I can’t hear anything. The other night my band was playing and they were really blowing, then I came out for the encore and sang with Emmylou. Her band was so quiet and I could hear every note I was singing. So I was thinking “why can’t my guys behave?”
What’s next for you?
There is the duets record with Emmy, we just finished mastering it today and it will be out early next year. With Emmy and I, our paths have crossed, we came up around the same time in the 1970s, and we always talked about making a record of songs that we liked and both wanted to sing. There are old Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson songs, we thought that we don’t have to write these songs so we might as well just have fun.
I also have another solo album that’s almost done. So I have some stuff in the pipeline.
If you were building the Mt. Rushmore of American music which four artists would you include?
Hank Williams, Howling Wolf, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. I’d also have to add Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. I’m going to need six.
photo: Allen Messer