Rodney Crowell is a songwriter and recording artist – with a Grammy and an ASCAP lifetime achievement award. Rolling Stone Magazine announced him as some kind of can’t-miss star of the future after the release of his first album and the over-worked distinction of being the only guy to write, sing, and produce five consecutive number-one songs in the country music field. Born in Houston, Texas, his Crowell/Willoughby blood-lines are of the Scottish, Irish, English and Cherokee blend found in the sharecrop farm lands of Western Kentucky and Tennessee. In the late depression era barn dance society of Paris, Tennessee, and Calloway County, Kentucky, his father, his father’s father, his mother’s mother and sister were fairly well known for their musical inclinations. The more industrious of this particular gene pool were recognized as the local purveyors of mirth and merriment. Assorted uncles were equally well known for their hard drinking and fist fights.
Rodney’s mother and father met during World War II at a Roy Acuff concert in Buchanan, Tennessee. Eager to flee the farm, they married and eventually moved to Houston. In the late fifties, his father formed a musical outfit called J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires. The honky tonks and ice houses plentiful on Houston’s East Side gave Crowell’s father a format for his particular blend of hard core honky tonk, Texas swing and Appalachian folk music. It was his colorful good fortune to be, at the age of eleven and twelve, the drummer of this illustrious musical combo. When the cute novelty of the child drummer wore off, it was decided Rodney would give up his seat in the Rhythmaires rhythm section.
At the age of fifteen, with two older guys and a girl drummer, Crowell formed a rock-and-roll band called The Arbitrators. In high school, he made most of his spending money playing teen parties and Legion hall dances with the band.
Thanks to his college roommate, Donivan Cowart and his truck driving older brother, Crowell began dabbling with the notion of writing his own songs. Donivan and Rodney
decided they were destined to take their place among the elite songwriters in Nashville. With a few bucks in their pockets we arrived in Nashville on an August night in 1972.
It was their good fortune to fall in with the misfit songwriters and self-styled characters who used Bishop’s Pub as a combination soup kitchen and open mic stage. Donivan and Rodney averaged five or six dollars a night (food and gas money), passing the hat after a twenty-minute set. Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robin and Linda Williams, Johnny Rodriguez, Lee Clayton, Skinny Dennis Sanchez, Steve Earle, David Olney, Richard Dobson, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Bronco Newcombe, Harlan White, Steve Runkle, Uncle Walt’s Band, Steve Young, a singing trapeze artist, a sword swallower and a guy named Johnny Dollar were a few of the regulars at Bishop’s Pub.
Guy and Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt and the legendary Mickey Newberry set the bar for what was considered real songwriting in early seventies Nashville. When Guy Clark took an unexpected liking to Crowell, it became a singular goal for him to write a song that Clark would dub “a keeper”. After six months of failure, Rodney wrote a song called “Bluebird Wine”. It caused Guy to raise an eyebrow in approval. With Guy’s approval, Crowell then set out to win over Townes. This proved to be an extremely difficult task. In the end, he had to settle for a grunt and a “yeah, but can you do it again” when Crowell played “‘Til I Can Gain Control Again” for the first time during an all-night drinking and song-swapping session. It was a great way to learn the craft of songwriting.
“‘Til I Can Gain Control Again” and “Bluebird Wine” came to Emmylou Harris’s attention as she was preparing for her first album in late 1974. She recorded both songs. As a result of this rather fortunate turn of events, it was Crowell’s good fortune to become a family friend and collaborator of Emmylou’s. When Emmylou formed The Hot Band in ‘75, Rodney moved to Los Angeles as her rhythm guitarist, harmony singer and songwriter. Thanks to Emmylou’s rising star, he was able to hitch a ride around the world three times over. In the same way it was Crowell’s great fortune to stumble my way onto the perfect situation to learn the art of songwriting, so it was, that with The Hot Band, he stumbled onto some of the best arranging musicians that Southern California had to offer. With Glen D Hardin, James Burton and Emory Gordy splitting their live dates between Elvis Presley and Emmylou in ‘75 and ‘76, Crowell was given a crash course in the art of arranging music for the studio and stage. Thanks to my association with Emmylou, his reputation as a songwriter grew rather quickly. Warner Brothers Records signed Crowell to a recording contract late in ‘77. It turned out to be his last year of touring full-time with Emmylou.
Since leaving The Hot Band, Crowell has ten solo records and a greatest hits package to show for his efforts as a recording artist. Along the way, he produced Rosanne Cash’s first five studio albums, a couple of Guy Clark’s and a handful of others. Rodney was also lucky to have several hundred versions of his songs recorded by an assortment of artists ranging from The Grateful Dead to Andy Williams.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Crowell was a full time touring “act” with two buses and a high end payroll. As the single father of four girls, all of whom lived with him for extended periods after a divorce, Crowell found it impossible to continue touring and parent his children properly. He called it quits. From 1994 until 2001, his live performances dwindled down to an occasional writers’ night at the Bluebird Cafe. It was the best thing he could have done. Not only did Crowell develop a deep and lasting connection with his daughters, but also Rodney found a way to re-invent himself as an artist. The so-called down period of his career was in many ways the richest by far.
During this time, Crowell and his wife, Claudia, spent a great deal of time learning how to live their lives together. They built a marriage from the ground up. Along the way, Claudia kept saying to him, “You haven’t the slightest idea how much people in this business respect you.” Something in the sincerity of her words found their way into his budding plans for the future. Thanks to her, the idea that people might still be interested in what Rodney had to say began filtering its way into what he wanted to do with the rest of his life as a songwriter and recording artist.
When Crowell started work on The Houston Kid, the goal was to make a record his family could be proud of. As you might suspect, there wasn’t a lot of support for a guy who had been producing a few records and raising daughters. He had to reach into his own pocket to make the music he wanted to make. It was a great awakening. Spending his own money is how he learned to make Rodney Crowell records. The Houston Kid turned out to be the beginning of a new phase in his musical career.
Although different in subject matter, Fate’s Right Hand is a continuation of this new mindset. This time, a bank loan facilitated the making of the music. Support for the end result came in the shape of DMZ and Columbia Records. Fate’s Right Hand is a quasi-spiritual look at the complexities of living the so-called examined life. Most of the songs are born out of vulnerability of some kind - those things, if you will, that spring to life when we are least prepared.
Americana literati Rodney Crowell continues down the path blazed by his previous three records with Sex & Gasoline (2008). With his new album, he continues to write about contemporary themes. Sex & Gasoline was produced by Joe Henry and contains what Crowell says are, ‘‘some of the best performances I’ve given to date.’’
How many male singer-songwriters have the guts to write, “If I could have just one wish/Maybe for an hour/I’d want to be a woman/And feel that phantom power”? That’s what Rodney Crowell does in “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design”, one of a number of captivating, autobiographical songs on Sex & Gasoline, all of which were inspired by women. The album explores - and at times nearly worships - feminine strength. In what nearly amounts to an audio diary, he tracks intimate moments with his wife, daughters, friends, and the women he observes from afar (including a screen goddess in “Moving Work of Art”). Though the lyrical tone ranges from biting and Dylanesque (the title song, about the objectification of women in advertising and the media) to tender and confessional (“Forty Winters”), more often than not, Crowell finds empathy with his subjects, his aching tenor taking on a mellow resolve. Producer Joe Henry keeps the backing sparse and uncluttered.
For the new material Crowell and Henry brought in some of music’s most skilled sidemen including Doyle Bramhall II (acoustic and electric guitar), Greg Leisz (acoustic and electric guitar, pedal and lap steel, mandolin, mandocello and dobro), Patrick Warren (piano, pump organ and Chamberlin), David Piltch (upright and electric bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums and percussion).
Crowell pushes himself harder each time out, making his transition from Top 40 hit maker to Americana god - a rich and powerful journey with no end in sight.