By John Cody
Im the lapsed Buddhist son of a Hell-fire breathing, unknown tongue speaking, Pentecostal Mother. What else am I to do but strip search the human condition for signs of a song? And thats exactly what Rodney Crowell has been doing for the past few years. He was once one of Nashvilles golden boys, churning out solid gold hits with guaranteed radio airplay. While he no longer rules the airwaves, his current output – brutally honest self-examinations that take no prisoners – is his best ever. I spoke with Crowell recently, and hes as passionate in conversation as his songs would lead one to believe.
One of those passions is democracy, and as a long time liberal, that includes keeping church and state separate. Hes cautious about going on record regarding these issues, and was concerned this would be reactionary attack piece. He agreed to talk only after seeing previous pieces I had written. The reason I was willing to speak to you [is that] Christianity in America is dangerous. He stresses repeatedly throughout the interview that its the U.S. might equals right version of Christianity he has a problem with. Hes no fan of the current administration and its close ties with the far right evangelical camp, and has claimed only half joking – that he hopes Bono might consider become an American citizen and actually step into the Christlike aura he has and wage a campaign. I still hold out for that kind of thing.
Theres a considerable spiritual component to his recent material. A local counselor who works with mainstream and Christian organizations recently had a client bring in Rodneys last couple of albums, claiming they spoke to him in a way no one else had. They listened for an entire session, and she was taken aback by his insight into the human condition, later commenting that God appears to be using Rodney in a powerful manner. I mentioned this to him, and he agreed with her assessment; The place Im working from is really a spiritual place. I consciously try to put myself in a place where I write consciously about the unconscious mind, or [where] the unconscious mind and the conscious heart meet.
Crowell is usually filed under the country section, but a single category hardly captures what he does. Hes described his music as first person narrative folk rock country blues jazz. Chances are youve got something he wrote in your own collection. There are several hundred versions of his songs available, recorded by a wide variety of acts including This Mortal Coil, Tim McGraw, Andy Williams, Blue Rodeo, George Jones, the Waterboys, Foghat, Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Michelle Shocked, Eric Clapton, Aaron Neville, Alison Krauss, John Denver, Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Michelle Wright, George Straight, and Keith Urban. Like that list, his songs defy easy classification. Theyre invariably catchy, intelligent, and easy to relate to.
Born in 1950, Crowell grew up in Houston, and moved to Nashville in his early twenties, where he was discovered singing in a bar by country singer/actor Jerry Reed, who signed him as a staff writer and recorded his first Crowell song the very next day.
He gained widespread recognition a few years later when Emmylou Harris drafted him as rhythm guitarist for her original Hot Band lineup in 1975. Crowells Bluebird Wine opened her major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, earlier that year, and he had joined in time for Elite Hotel, which included his Till I Gain Control Again. He stuck around for two more albums, Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon on a Ten Cent Town, before leaving to pursue a solo career 1977. Harris has continued to cover his songs ever since. She writes most of her own material nowadays, but the two wrote together on her 1995 career changing effort Wrecking Ball, and again on Red Dirt Girl in 2000.
Harris was the first to champion his work, but his songs became even more popular in the hands of other acts the Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gale, Highway 101 and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all had number one songs on the country charts. And it wasnt just country; Bob Seger scored his biggest ever hit with Shame On the Moon, which held the number two pop position for a month in 1982.
Crowell signed a solo deal with Warner Brothers and released his debut Aint Livin Long Like This in 1978. A country rock gem, the critics loved it, but sales were slow.
The following year he married Rosanne Cash, and produced her first domestic release, Right Or Wrong. He would continue to produce her throughout their marriage, and the couple had three daughters before divorcing in 1992.
1980 brought But What Will the Neighbors Think. Smitten with the then current New Wave movement, particularly Elvis Costello, he brought in Ramones/Blondie producer Craig Leon, who sculpted a far more rock oriented sound. Again, it met with rave reviews, including a Rolling Stone feature that pegged him as a major new star. The disc included Ashes By Now, his only pop hit to date, which made it into the bottom of the top 40, but sales still remained slow.
After one more album, 1981s Rodney Crowell, he was dropped from Warners.
He signed with Columbia and released Street Language in 1986. An interesting, if at times awkward mix of country and soul music, the disc failed to make the mark artistically or commercially.
It was 1988s Diamonds and Dust that finally brought him into the major leagues. Everything clicked this time, and the album brought five number one Country singles, a feat never before accomplished in any genre. Far more focused, it was Crowell playing straight ahead, with all cylinders firing. At last he was a bono-fide star.
A 2001 reissue of the album includes three tracks left off the original release, all worthy of inclusion. In the discs liner notes, Crowell admits that a decade on, he was hard pressed to remember why the songs hadnt made the final cut.
The albums follow-up, Key to The Highway (1989) was more contrived, a conscious effort to stay in the marketplace. It managed a couple of top five singles, and Crowell stayed on the road touring in support of the disc for two solid years.
For all the career success, things at home had fallen apart. Both Rodney and Rosanne had battled drug addictions, infidelity, and the pressures of maintaining high profile careers. The marriage was on its last legs, and the dissolution of their union was documented by both on subsequent albums. Cash released the extraordinary Intakes in 1990, and Crowell followed two years later with Life Is Messy. Tracks like I Hardly Know How To Be Myself (which he wrote with Cash), and Its Not For Me To Judge were far more mature then anything hed done in the past. On a promo version of the disc he discussed the latter song; In letting go of a long term relationship, one concept that came up for me was my belief that once love exists, its always there. So I was dealing with myself and asking, am I capable of a non-judgmental kind of love? The two have managed to remain friends, and continue to champion each others work.
Life Is Messy had the makings of a great album, but Crowell hedged his bets by including a handful of upbeat songs, diluting what could have been a devastatingly personal glimpse into the darker side of relationships, exactly what Rosanne had accomplished. As a writer, Rodney would get to that point, but it would take another decade.
Today, he readily agrees. Its a different artist. But if you go back, there are traces. Youll see that hes there. Back in the eighties I wrote a song called The Faith Is Mine (off of Keys To The Highway). The bread crumbs are there, but it really started to focus itself with the last three records for sure.
In the nineties Crowell chose to focus more on family than career. He was now a single Dad, raising four daughters he has one from an earlier marriage and parenthood took precedence over chasing hits. Near the end of the decade he met and married singer Claudia Church.
While he was concentrating on raising his family, the Young Country movement had displaced him, with far more generic singers burning up the charts. Not that he was releasing anything that special at the time. He admits today that when he did go into the studio, he was simply trying to get a hit, updating his sound to compete with the new guys, in the process losing what made him special to begin with.
During that time, he also got straight through the help of a Twelve-step program. Based on solid Biblical principals, one major tenant that differs from evangelical churches is in turning ones life over to God as we understood him. Its argued that this is one reason for the programs success. If you work the twelve steps its a spiritual pathway. I think that they did something really smart that religion perhaps doesnt do, which is frame it as the God of my understanding. And boy, theres no separation in that. Its inclusive, its all inclusive. Theres so much about organized religion thats exclusive. Just to say the God of my understanding is inclusive. It lets everybody [in], it lets in people who just dont have a clue about what God might be. When you crawl out of the gutter…I guarantee you, that fella – theres not much of a chance that he has a real understanding of what God is. You send him to the church and beat him up with what he doesnt know about God, [that] doesnt allow his own spiritual unfolding to happen, from my point of view.
After releasing a few albums that went nowhere, Crowell started the Cicadas in 1997. Preferring to work in a band situation, he wrote or co-wrote nearly all of the material, but left the vocals to the others members, preferring to stay in the background. The album didnt fly off the racks, but it was an positive experience to be making music just for the fun of it again. He began taking on more outside projects. In addition to guesting on a variety of albums, hes a member of a two part-time semi-super groups, the Notorious Cherry Bombs, which includes old pal Vince Gill, and Los Super Seven, which features a fluctuating membership including Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, and members of Los Lobos.
As the new millennium dawned, songs started coming. Far more personal than anything he had attempted in the past, he didnt censor, or attempt to fit them into any predetermined commercial slot. I think it became me caring more about my own self-respect. About doing the work that I came here to do doing the work thats closest to my heart. While it hasnt equaled the sales of his biggest hits, artistically the new material far surpasses his earlier work. Refusing to accept that the best was now behind him, he decided to ignore an industry that says he should be on the oldies circuit, rehashing his greatest hits.
Instead, Crowell took out a bank loan and financed the recordings himself. He brought in producer Peter Coleman, who had made his name in the eighties producing rockers like Pat Benatar and Lee Aaron. They completed The Houston Kid, a song cycle inspired by Rodneys experiences growing up poor in a dysfunctional home. Released in 2001, the disc was a stunning artistic success, the finest album of his career up to that point. There are traces of pop, folk and country, but like all great music, it transcends genre. Its powerful, moving music from the heart.
Topsy Turvy is a glimpse inside a world gone wrong; Mommas on the pavement with a broken arm/Telling everybody that he meant no harm/Talk about denial with a great big D/You can try to fool the neighbors but you cant fool me.
Theres a sense of regret and loss throughout. In Wandering Boy the protagonist comes to terms with his brothers AIDS virus; I used to cast my judgment like a net/All those California gay boys deserve just what they get/Little did I know there would come a day/When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay.
I Walk the Line Revisited features a guest vocal from Johnny Cash. In one way or another, Cash had been a presence throughout most of Crowells life. The song recounts the first time he heard Cash sing. He later wrote about the experience in Songs Without Rhyme (Hyperion, 2001), a collection of short stories from a dozen songwriters. He was five years old, heading out for a fishing trip with his dad and grandfather early one morning, when I Walk The Line came on the car radio; and it just took me. It hijacked me out of there – it felt like it was an alien abduction. His grandfather was just as taken with this new sound, exhibiting a strange and maniacal reverence for the music of the man he called the greatest singer in the world. Years later Crowell would become Cashs son-in-law. When his marriage to Rosanne came to an end, Johnny assured him that once youre in the family you stay in the family, and their relationship continued until the Man in Blacks passing.
Crowell believes Cash was an exceptional figure in that he managed to resonate with both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, and maintains that Bono is the only one able to do that today. I asked, why Bono? He just seems to be the most Christlike figure to me out there. He seems to work without judgment. Maybe away from the public arena he might curse under his breath about these thick-skulled people that hes trying to unite, but the way he works publicly, his method is inclusive, as opposed to separatist
The disc ends with one of Crowells his most beautiful compositions, I Know Love Is All I Need. After an at times harrowing journey, the song – offering simple, healing wisdom acknowledges the past but makes it clear you dont need to be a prisoner to it.
Fates Right Hand was released in 2003, and made it clear that Houston Kid was no fluke. An insightful look into what matters as we age, its themes are universal.
Its resonated with all age groups, even bringing in a sizable younger audience. But the songs are directed at his peers. Our age group is hard to wake up. Its hard to rally em, because theyre out there working, doing whatever One unfortunate thing about mid-life and our age group is that people start to abandon their ideals. Its unfortunate, because when you start abandoning your ideals your body starts to creeping its way to the finish line. We just start to cut some of the things that go by the way. [Just because] youre no longer physically vital to the survival of the species doesnt mean that your idealism has to go
Another music legend – the late country queen Minnie Pearl – gets mentioned on Time To Go Inward. When he was first starting out, she told him there would come a time when he would need to go inside himself, to come up with something new for his audience, and not to be afraid when it happens. When the change finally occurred, he recognized it was what Minnie was talking about. She called it your higher calling. Crowell, who describes her as a wise woman has commented, When I grow up I want to be like Minnie Pearl.
The Man In Me offers a harsh personal assessment, similar to T-Bone Burnetts classic The Criminal Under My Own Hat; Theres a man in the mirror/I dont like his looks/His teeth they are crooked/His hands look like hooks/He speaks four letter language/Because his mind is so small/His voice is like venom/I dont like him at all/God, I gotta get away from the man in me.
And hes not above poking fun at himself, as on Preachin To The Choir; My self importance is a god forsaken bore/I aim for heaven but I wake up on the floor
The Houston Kid was autobiographical, and dealt with the past. Fates Right Hand asked big questions about the spiritual journey into mid-life. The Outsider moves on to sociological issues. He calls it the most emotional and political of the trilogy.
While its dealing with political and world concerns, spiritual issues are implicit throughout. For instance, who is the Outsider? Crowell feels that in todays society, its God. For me, the great creator – I call it God to me that entity or that benevolent loving presence has become the outsider in our culture, and thats truly what the song is about. That God has become the Outsider.
At times Crowell comes across is like an Old Testament prophet; a constant, irritating itch, letting us know how far weve gone astray. Like some of those same biblical characters, he can also come across especially in print as hard-edged, unbending and self-righteous. Thats hardly the case. Throughout our conversation, he was respectful, repeatedly pointing out that these were his own personal opinions, and willing to poke fun at himself when he got a bit too pretentious. Hes passionate, but appears willing to examine all sides of an argument, and loves to debate.
Like Buddy Millers Universal United House Of Prayer, many of the songs were written during the last U.S. Presidential election, born out of frustration at seeing God co-opted by a political party. Its no surprise that Buddy and his wife Julie are guests on this album. For the most part both albums refuse to go after specific individuals or simplify things down to a dogmatic us vs. them. The intent is to show that theres more that unites than divides.
Ignorance is the Enemy is a prayer that reveals a humility all too rare in political debate: Forgive me all my vanity forgive me my conceit/Forgive when Im crawling like a beggar at your feet/Ignorance is the enemy and it wields a mighty sword/It can cut you down in a blaze of glory it can nail you to a board.
Obscenity Prayer takes on hypocritical right wing conservatives with tongue planted firmly in cheek; I can search for truth some other time/but right now I just want to get whats mine I cant help the ones in need Ive got my own mouth to feed. I wondered if its been misinterpreted. Has anyone missed the songs intent? Yeah. Thats happened – both ways. Theyve not gotten the irony, or the third person Ive seen people think that I was literally dissing the Dixie Chicks. [The Dixie Chicks can kiss my ass/But I still want that backstage pass] This one woman in New York said Im gonna buy your record as soon as it comes out, because the Dixie Chicks can kiss my ass. And I said, Lets stop a minute. Lets understand each other. I dont want you to go buying something that s not what you really think it is. Im being sarcastic and ironic with this. She considered that for a moment, and then said I dont care, Im going to buy it anyway. So I said okay. Let people have their experience.
Along with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylans influence is evident throughout Crowells entire career. He cites Dylans Bringing It All Back Home as his all time favorite album, and credits Mr Tambourine Man as an invitation to mysticism. Beautiful Despair was inspired while listening to Dylans Every Grain of Sand, deciding that no matter how hard he tries, hell never write anything as powerful as that. The albums only cover in fact, the only cover on any of the last three discs – is a duet with Emmylou Harris on Dylans Shelter From the Storm.
His audience – fans who still care about music that says something – is just as passionate as him. At times the shows feel like a celebration, with the audience singing along as Crowell fronts a first rate bar band. Which is exactly where his roots lie. As a teen Crowell played garage rock with his band the Arbitrators. He refuses to trade on past glories at a recent Seattle show the only song he played from his back catalogue was Till I Gain Control Again. Everything else came from the last three albums, plus a few well chosen covers; Like a Rolling Stone and Tobacco Road tellingly, the Nashville Teens high energy version.
A highlight of the night was the as yet unreleased Sex & Gasoline. Written in response to his daughters wanting to look like models in Us magazine, the song is a sad piece of wisdom from a father, observing that in todays value-free society, these are the commodities that count.
The church played a strong role during Crowells formative years. And its wasnt a positive experience. I grew up in a very primitive Pentecostal environment there was so much emotional release in the church that my mother took me to that even as a kid of five or six years old, I realized that the histrionics and the speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor I mean, it was rock n roll I was thinking wow, this is all emotional release. I remember having a very conscious experience that you know what, theyre just letting off steam here. And it made me really suspicious of Christianity in America.
They hadnt become political back then, but wearing makeup was a sin. Women cutting there hair was a sin. Knowledge was a sin. As a young man, the counter culture made me want to wake up. I wanted to follow that, but I was around church people that were telling me, No. Knowledge is of the Devil.
So my relationship with Christianity very early on was this stuff is designed to hold me back. This stuff doesnt want me to flower. When I got around the Jewish faith, I started thinking Ah, this is so much more enlightened, and intelligent. And aspects of Catholicism, the ritualistic aspects of Catholicism started to feel really good to me, except that I realized that it had been repeated so many times that it had become rote.
Hes particularly concerned about keeping church and state separate. And hes no fan of the current President. The reason George Bush is so dangerous to me is that hes aligned himself with the right the far right. The far right Christian political agenda is to infiltrate government so that they can dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. [They] dont give one whit about protecting the environment, because the sooner they can destroy the environment, the sooner the prophesies in the Bible will fulfill themselves.
I was reading recently that it might be as many as fifty million who really believe in the end times and the rapture, that the graves are gonna explode, and all these souls are gonna go shooting up to heaven and the rest of us are gonna fry If youve got that many, its almost like a mirror image of the Islamic extremes. And its on a global level. To me thats really dangerous, because destruction is that pathway out.
And its goes against everything that the God of my understanding is about. The God of my understanding is about love and about acceptance. In my understanding, the spiritual guideline that Im following, I just dont have Hell in it. A loving God doesnt do that. So I have a real hard time with Christianity in America.
For all his problems with the church, hes maintained long-term friendships with some high profile conservative Christians. Vince Gill has a decidedly right wing view, yet theyve worked together for years, and he refers to Gill as Christlike. Marty Stuart is an old friend, and Ricky Scaggs who Crowell first worked with more than thirty years ago – is if anything even more conservative than Gill, but again theres a mutual respect, even if they agree to disagree on certain areas.
Crowell mentions his wifes writing partner – who pastors a church in Canada as another Christian he admires; Ive had the most satisfying conversations with him about forgiveness and about love. I feel more Buddhist than anything, but I havent heard anybody top do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and I havent heard anybody top Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.
Yet there are essential components of the Christian gospel that he flatly rejects. I have a real hard time about this guy who died on a cross for my sins so that I would be forgiven. I need to take responsibility for myself its hard for me to go to a place where Ill let that archetypal experience be a get of jail free card. Thats really hard for me. But the teachings, those very simple teachings on love and forgiveness, man, Im right there.
And the problem with allowing another to pay the price? Its looking for the answer from somewhere other than within yourself. The thing with Christ, I am the way. I never took that to mean that he was saying that he was the way. I always took that to mean that God was speaking through him, saying I am the way.
That whole from my point of view myth about Jesus dying for your sins and its as simple as just taking that in, thats what sets up the mindset that can be taken to the extremes that its taken to, because you dont have any responsibility or accountability. Whereas to me, if youre accountable and youre a decent human being, then you go into yourself and you find those Christlike qualities. And in finding those Christlike qualities, thats your redemption.
I really truly believe that God speaks to me, speaks through me, but I would never presume to have the arrogance to say that I know. Im an instrument that God uses, hopefully. Hopefully I take enough responsibility for cultivating the clarity of my inner spiritual life in such a way that God can use me. But as soon as my ego or mind get involved in that process then pretty soon Id be saying yeah, Gods talking to me. Its dangerous…As soon as you start saying that you know exactly what God wants, youre in trouble. You credibility just went out the door.
When I spoke with Peter Himmelman recently, he maintained that everyone has an agenda – at a typical rock concert, for instance, the audience delights to hear the performer bash the President; Its dogma on all sides. At least if I have dogma Ill call it exactly what it is. Im not going to call it some sort of posturing for freedom.
Crowell agree wholeheartedly. It is. To me Michael Moore is a propagandist. A lot of what he does resonates pretty well with me, but hes still a propagandist. And I think its mindless. I think that the left has to hold itself accountable, too. That same kind of sheepish mindlessness that allows people to not take responsibility for themselves and be led to the slaughter by the far right Christian movement, by the same token on the left side of it, to scream yeah, yeah, yeah to the dogma is to not take responsibility and be accountable for yourself I think that was my problem with the New Age movement a few years ago, going to the psychic and everything (its) not taking responsibility for your own spirituality.
As our conversation came to a close, Crowell said he was happy we had talked, and surprised that he got a fair hearing; I gotta tell you something these are conversations I like to have and I couldnt have this with most Christian organizations in America.
He ended by summarizing his goal as an artist. Its my job to articulate how I feel. And hopefully that resonates. If I get it right it does resonate with others. Tricky business.
© John Cody 2006