Sharing the Stage: Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill on Four Decades of Friendship
Vince Gill, left, and Rodney Crowell talk in Crowell's home in Nashville last month. (Photo by Alison Auerbach.)
This month, longtime friends and musical collaborators Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill release new albums within a week of each other. Each album takes its title from the singer’s home state: Crowell’s Texas is out today and Gill’s Okie lands Aug. 23. We used this occasion to sit down at Crowell’s house outside Nashville for a wide-ranging and laugh-filled conversation about their new albums, their songwriting, and their long friendship.
That friendship started in the mid-1970s, and Crowell remembers the moment vividly. They both were playing sets at the Troubadour in LA, Crowell with Guy Clark and Gill with the opening act, fiddler player Byron Berline. When Crowell walked in, Gill was singing “Till I Gain Control Again” — Crowell’s song.
Crowell recalls “this tall skinny guy just singing like a bird. I remember the series of thoughts: ‘That’s my song. Who is that guy? Why is he singing it so damn good?’ … As soon as they came off I grabbed a hold of him and said ‘Who are you?’”
“We’ve been best friends ever since,” Gill says.
When Rodney Crowell hit Nashville in 1972, he soon started hanging out with a group of songwriters who would meet over at fellow Texan Guy Clark’s house. “The only discussion that happened,” he says, “is what are you writing? What’s working for you?” By the mid- and late 1970s, Crowell was playing with Clark on the road, honing his own songwriting chops, guitar playing, and co-writing with Clark.
In 1975, Emmylou Harris recorded Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” on her Pieces of the Sky album. When Warner Bros. told Harris that they would pay for her to put together a “hot band” for her next record, and she recruited guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer John Ware, pedal steel guitarist Hank DeVito, bassist Emory Gordy Jr., and Crowell on rhythm guitar. That album, Elite Hotel, included another Crowell song, “Till I Gain Control Again.”
Crowell left Harris’ band at the end of 1977 to embark on a solo career. He put together a backing band called the Cherry Bombs to back him on his 1980 album But What Will the Neighbors Think? Vince Gill had been playing with Pure Prairie League, but he left them to join the Cherry Bombs, whose members also included DeVito, Gordy, Larrie Londin on drums, Richard Bennett on guitar, and Tony Brown on keyboards. The Cherry Bombs disbanded in 1988, but reunited in 2003 for a short time, releasing The Notorious Cherry Bombs (2004).
In the mid-’80s, Gill joined Harris’ backing band for three albums — The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985), Thirteen (1986), and Angel Band (1987) — with Thirteen being another project that brought him together with Crowell, who also played on the album. By the end of the 1980s, Crowell and Gill were growing in their solo careers, but they always kept an eye out for each other, encouraging each other as songwriters and musicians.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the first thing you noticed about Rodney, Vince?
RODNEY CROWELL: That I was stoned to the gills. (Laughs)
VINCE GILL: I was too young to notice that those guys were high. What was neat for me was here were all these people I just had in my mind, I had their songs in my mind, their voices in my mind, but never really knew them. Didn’t know what Rodney really looked like. It just was, I don’t know — I feel like I was meant to know all those guys from an early time.
There’s kind of this whole lineage of how I found all this music. I knew of Guy; in a high school band I was in we played several of Guy’s songs. And then I heard a Linda Ronstadt record, Heart Like a Wheel. I bought it because I wanted to know who the harmony singer was on “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You.” I got the record, and it said Emmylou Harris. I thought, “Nobody’s named Emmylou Harris; that’s impossible.” And I got it in my mind that it was Dolly, using a fake name to sing on somebody else’s record. I started telling people: “That’s Dolly Parton singing. I can tell. I can tell by the voice.” And I was in the record store not too long after that and I found Emmy’s first record. What I liked about it was that I played in rock bands in school, a little bluegrass, but when I heard that record and heard those songs, the way it was put together, the production, was the first time I ever felt pointed. I felt like that’s where I’m going; that’s where I wanna head. That’s where I see myself someday.
You’ve known each other for a long time. I’d like to know what you’ve taken from each other as songwriters and as guitarists.
RC: He plays guitar. (Laughs)
You play guitar.
RC: I do, and I’ve gotten better.
Have you ever watched Vince play a lick and wonder if he could teach you that?
RC: Hell no! If it was onstage, I was saying “man, I’m glad Vince is up here, and the people get to hear that.” Honestly, I’ve had a long illustrious career with guitarists. Steuart Smith, the other Eagle; Vince, James Burton. Man, I understood really quickly that having a really great guitarist in the studio or on the stage is the perfect balance for good songs.
VG: It’s still my favorite gig, is playing with Rodney. It’s the most familiar; it really suits what I do best. It was such a great showcase for a guitar player. I quit Pure Prairie League basically to go play with Rodney. Everybody goes, “Why’re you taking a pay cut to do that?” It was a move up. All the moves I tried to make are moves where I think I’ll improve as an artist.
RC: I’ve had a long, illustrious career with guitar players who took a pay cut to play with me. (Laughs) That says a lot about me!
For it to happen nowadays is rare. That was still under the artist development days at Warner. I had a record. Back then, they said, “We don’t know who your fans are. We’re not gonna try to push a single or anything. Let’s just get you a good band and get you out on the road.” So, they wrote a check for us to go around and play, and I could get Vince and Larrie Londin. Everybody was growing. I was growing inside that band, just having more confidence as a performer, just starting to sing better. And you know having Vince there — Vince had such a great voice that it was never competitive. What it was was that Vince was singing so well, I realized that, man, if I could hold my own it’s gonna make me a better singer.
I was always grateful for that. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the sound of my voice. Took me until I was 50 years old to really look at it and go, “Hmm, that’s pretty good.” I couldn’t ever before that. But when I sang with Vince he sounded so good with me that I thought I sounded really good. So Vince propped me up for a good long while.
I think it’s worth noting in this we all moved to Nashville from California. Hank DeVito moved to Nashville first, I followed, and maybe Vince came and then Emmy came. Not long after I met Vince, I understood how he was going to be a great help in the recording studio when I was producing some records. I was producing this Guy Clark record. I was working on the background vocals. I put mine on, and then I’d put the third on it, and then Vince would come in and take the fifth up there. He would add the stuff. Guy would look at me and go: “Yeah man, yeah man, he’s making us both look good.” That happened a lot. Then the Rosanne Cash records; he was on those. After we all moved to Nashville, an interesting thing happened that was sort of cool to watch happen and really awe-inspiring. Vince sort of presented himself as your helpmate in every way, sort of generous and unassuming. But when we got to Nashville and we would hang around at [engineer and producer] Dave Malloy’s and [composer and producer and Dave’s son] Jim Malloy’s place over there and started making some recordings, demos and stuff, then all of a sudden Vince grew into the solo artist he was gonna become. I remember the particular moment; I don’t remember the song, but David Malloy was sort of tweaking it and we were all sort of doing this and that.
VG: It was a demo called “The Price You Pay” [in the mid-1980s].
RC: I remember it. Vince had arrived as the premiere vocalist on that. That was the first indication. We were talking for a long time to a journalist out of Baltimore — I can’t remember his name — but he was trying to frame Rosanne, Emmylou, and Guy, and me and Vince, and put it in a context. I said, “Here’s what you need to know: Of all of us, the only one who’s destined for superstardom was Vince.” I remember when I first saw him go from everybody’s helpmate to “Oh, hang on” and from there on it just grew. And it was that demo. And I think you’d already made several records.
VG: Yeah, I had a few on RCA already.
RC: But you found yourself there, the things you started to do from then on were so understandably for people to get: great songs, great singer, impassioned, and oh, by the way, when he gets out on the stage to play he’s a brilliant guitar player. So the whole thing came into focus. I had my moments. Emmy was always steady. Rosanne had her moments, but the rest of us never came into focus like that. That’s okay. I don’t regret that I haven’t. But it was destined for Vince because he had that particular something that went beyond everything else. And it was a joy to watch. It was at a particular time when Vince was shot out of a cannon. But it was lovely to watch and a good learning curve for me.
I still think of myself as Vince’s big brother, and that relationship has never changed, but it got flip-flopped during that time. There’s a natural rhythm to career arcs. As Vince started to come back down, I actually started to come up in my own way. My confidence was rising in what I could do. This has been my most fulfilling time. Our friendship to me is about love, whereas before it was just learning how to do what we were doing. Now, I just love this guy. He’s my brother, and one of my best friends in the world.
Vince, did you feel that moment yourself? When you made that demo, did you feel you were destined for superstardom?
VG: I had so many years of struggle that it never occurred to me that it would flip. All I ever could trust was my ears. When I hear me do what I do, I’m not afraid of anybody out there. My ears tell me that I’ve got something worthwhile, and I just kept after it. And you know what, I was comfortable going either way. If it didn’t pan out, if they didn’t light the fuse in the cannon, I’d have been okay, too. What was neat for me was always having the mindset, “If this doesn’t work, I can go play with anybody.” I do what people need, in a sense. I can play and sing harmony. I can be an artist, and if it doesn’t ever blow up and the whole world knows, that’s okay, too. I was never disheartened too much by it not happening. And in hindsight, I’m actually pretty grateful that it took as long as it did. I’ve seen too many young people get too much too fast and they can’t handle it. I would never define myself by the results — how many records it sold. It’s been a consistent great friendship and partnership, and that means the most because it began at both of our very infancies. We got to know each other at the beginning, and I think that’s why we’re still here 43, 44 years later.
You guys were in the Notorious Cherry Bombs. Can you talk about the most famous song that came out of the group, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long”?
RC: Yeah. I think they were giving me some kind of award at ASCAP and so we got everybody together that was in the Cherry Bombs but we had [drummer] Eddie Bayers in the place of Larrie [who had died in 1992 of a heart attack] and John Hobbs [on keyboards] was helping. And we played and it sounded so good, it felt so good. I actually thought we were all better than we were doing it when we were younger. I said, “God, that sounded so good, we should make a record.” Tony Brown was recovering from his fall, and he said, “Well I have a record company.” [Universal South] And so we made that record [2004’s The Notorious Cherry Bombs]. We played four gigs. We did good.
We got a guilty conscience, though. We went on, was it WSM — or what station did we get the guy fired because we browbeat him into playing the song? We went in there one day and this guy was interviewing us, and we knew that they weren’t gonna be allowed to play the song. We both started working on him, but then you really started working on him. We left; he played it, and he got fired. That’s another part of our trail of destruction. All of our shadow side is funny, of course. Vince used his stardom to become the humanitarian of the world. He inspired me; you know, I’ve got my little fundraiser for Music Health Alliance. For everybody you got fired, you helped a thousand others.
VG: That record was a way better record that just that song. Most people, that’s the only song they really took from that record, and that’s too bad ’cause there’s some good songs on there. You know, “Making Memories of Us” was on that album. Some really great songs and some great performances on that record. Us getting to sing together in a way we’d never really done before. We both shared lead singing duties, on the same song. A lot of pride in that record, I just wish that people had seen beyond that one song.
RC: Everybody loves a good sense of humor.
VG: Man, I thought that was going to be a big song. I thought it was gonna be as big as Jimmy Buffett’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” or “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” (Laughs)
RC: If I’ve got a kind of a lukewarm thing happening with an audience, I’ll pull that one out.
VG: It truly was born out of something my dad said to me. He said, “I got an idea for a song.”
He wasn’t talking about your mom …
VG: Well, he was! (Laughs)
You each have albums coming out within a week of each other. The title of each album is the name of your home state. Can you reflect on why you’ve chosen to put those out now in your career?
RC: We can honestly say we didn’t call each other before we did the albums and say, “Why don’t you do Okie and why don’t I do Texas?”
VG: It was awesome to find out that he called his album Texas.
RC: I’ve certainly mined Texas on my own. One of my favorite recordings on The Notorious Cherry Bombs is “Oklahoma Dust.” We’ve always sort of had a sense of place. I am a bit mistrustful of artists who don’t have some sense of place because, you know, Faulkner had Mississippi, Julian Barnes has England. Now that we’re discussing it, it seems like the perfect time in life for this to crystallize. I am pretty sure, though I’m not certain, that this will be the last thing I do that’s so Texas-centric. I feel like I’ve now documented whatever I had to say in a 20-year period. Now was the time for me to say it. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It’s funny, we did a few shows in Texas to debut some of the music, and folks kept saying, “You’ve got Vince Gill on this, he’s one of your featured performers on this, and he’s from Oklahoma.” And I said, “Well, Vince is as Texas as I am.” (Laughs)
VG: They’re the same place to me. I know there are lot of fun rivalries and all that, but they feel the same to me. I know a lot of Texans won’t agree with me on that.
I was struggling to come up with a title for my record. There’s a lot of different kinds of songs: it’s got tributes to Guy and one to Merle Haggard, one about my mom, two about Amy [Grant, Gill’s wife], some reflection-type songs about a long life lived. It’s got a song about sexual abuse, one about teenage pregnancy. For me I love how personal and emotional it is. I got to thinking about titles. Every record I’ve ever made has one of the songs as the title, but there’s not really a song on here that feels like a title-type song. Ran around with a few titles and didn’t like them, and then just all of a sudden it was really clear. I had been watching the Ken Burns documentary on the history of country music, and it was very emotional to watch all that. There’s a song on the record about equality and race, to some degree. Then I got to thinking that the term “Okie.” It was the same as the N-word. It was a disparaging term. It kind of comes from a sense of pride in the place where I’m from.
It’s a real singer-songwriter record; it’s not my typical kind of record. Not big choruses. I didn’t play any electric guitar on the record. Nothing gets in the way of the songs, which is unique and fun for me. It’s the one area that I think I have worked the hardest on, writing songs, because I had so many mentors who were the best of the best. I have never felt like an equal. I have a simplicity in the way I tell stories; this is an awful lot of pride in the songwriting. Even in my approach to singing on this record, I am not trying to sing like I normally sing. It’s very demure, and just being a storyteller.
RC: Whereas Vince is bringing his songwriting to the level it is, I had my first guitar solo. I’m growing. (Laughs)
VG: You know, it’s all about the notes you choose. The great thing about Rodney’s solo is that notes he chose are cool.
RC: “Caw Caw Blues” [the second track on Texas] was the last song I wrote with Guy. Guy was out of gas for the most part. I went to see him one day, and he said, “I’ve got two good verses.” He was telling me about an oil derrick museum. He’d seen a nest that the crows had made out of barbed wire. Put it into that blues thing, and I called up Vince and asked him “Who do I get to help me make this happen?” And he said: “Jack Pearson” [Nashville guitarist]. For a minute I lost my perspective on the song, so I called up Vince and he came in. I said, “I don’t know if I’ve got this.” He said, “That’s perfect,” and when he said that, I said, “You’re right.”
It had to be Vince. It was delivering that last thing that Guy asked. There were a lot of people around, and he’d entrusted me to finish it up.
Emmylou Harris has also been a constant in your lives. Can you talk a little about her influence?
RC: Emmy is the Energizer bunny.
VG: She’s the one in the middle that we all connect through.
RC: She’s marching on. All this stuff going on around her. The greatest thing I can say about Emmy is that she inspires loyalty. She’s so loyal to all those around her. If she calls up and says, “Look, I’m taking up skydiving … ”
VG: “… And I need someone to fly the plane. I’m going to fly the plane. I can get ’er up; I don’t think I can get ‘er down.” (Laughs) I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if I hadn’t met Emmy.
RC: Emmy has told me she learned from Gram [Parsons] that you don’t suppress your collaborators, you push them forward, shine a light on them. You really trust yourself when you do that. The light shines brighter on you when you do that.
VG: The stage is meant to be shared.