After working in Emmylou Harris's celebrated Hot Band for much of the 1970s, Texas-born songwriter Rodney Crowell began cranking out the hits for the likes of the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson and ex-wife Rosanne Cash, while waiting patiently for his own solo career to take flight. That moment finally arrived in 1988, when Crowell connected for an unprecedented five straight No. 1 singles—including standards like "After All This Time" and ‘I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried'—all culled from his breakthrough release Diamonds and Dirt. But with the astounding commercial success came a dramatic change of life. "The freedomto not be self-conscious disappeared," Crowell notes. "And with Diamonds and Dirt, I began to think about who I was a little too much. Which, in a way, was counter-productive to my process as a songwriter."
With the release of 1997's group effort The Cicadas (and its stunning lead-off track "When Losers Rule the World"), Crowell decided it was time to start "living by the sword and not flinch." Working with ex-Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch and songwriter Ben Vaughn, Crowell abandoned country for pure pop, though it was hardly Crowell's Nashville farewell. In 1999, Tim McGraw took Crowell's "Please Remember Me" (co-written with frequent partnerWill Jennings) all the way to No. 1; six years later Keith Urban had the same luck with another Crowell composition, "Making Memories of Us."
"I just don't think of myself as being outside of the song. The thing I've found is that when I successfully write for myself, it works for anybody." Rodney Crowell
Crowell's albums since the start of the current decade—The Houston Kid, Fate's Right Hand and his most recent, 2005's The Outsider—offer stark, poignant, and largely autobiographical images built around acoustic-based rhythm tracks and dry, conversational vocals. The kind of stuff that Nashville has long since abandoned—and in many ways, represents Crowell's most immediate and compelling work of all.
Many of your songs contain lyrics that are very personal and biographical, particularly the material from The Houston Kid on up.
Everyone's always telling you, "Write what you know." Forme, there's this poignant vividness about that early part of my life. With The Houston Kid, I just felt like I'd found a thread that had meaning—the perspective of the kid who's grown up and starts to take stock.
Do you consider how those types of songs will come across on stage while you're putting them together?
Well there's no doubt that these songs really lend themselves to live solo performance—on the record, they're very dry and immediate. And the storytelling aspect is definitely something that you want to present strippeddown and austere—very much like Springsteen's Nebraska.
Though most of the material on The Houston Kid seems directly autobiographical, you also have a song like "Highway 17," about a father's criminal actions and his effect on his young children.
I think it's important to be able to take artistic liberties on occasion. Yet growing up I was surrounded by that kind of behavior. It was just part of the lay of the land. I certainly never went to prison, but I knew plenty of kids who did. So I'd just grafted their experience into my own.
You've had the uncanny ability to transfer this kind of personal experience—not all of it pleasant—into the three-minute medium. "Talking to a Stranger," "That Ol' Door" and "Things I'd Wished I'd Said" do what classic country has always done but can't seem to do any longer: Tell a real story without real pretense.
The themes on "That Ol' Door" and "Stuff That Works" [from 1994's Let the Picture Paint Itself] were representative of where I had come as a writer at that particular time, even though I was still trying to couch it in terms of something that would still get on the radio.
How difficult is that?
T-Bone Burnett once said, "If you want to get rich, you make music for people who hate music, but if you want to be happy, you make music for people who love music." And when you can do both… well, that's one joyous occasion.
Traditionally, the storyline of the prototypical country song is laid out for you right there in the title. Do you perceive that as a benefit or a handicap?
It depends. Back in Waylon's [Jennings] day, a song like "When Losers Rule the World" would have been covered and become a hit. But then things changed, and by the late ‘90s when that song came out, country artists wouldn't touch it because it had the word "loser" in the title. They're all very image-conscious. Obviously they'd never heard John Lennon sing "I'm a Loser." [laughs]
Though you've often worked with collaborators, you seem to avoid the writing-byappointment style that's so prevalent in Nashville.
From time to time I've taken my chances and made a few songwriting appointments, but by and large they just don't work for me, because I don't really enjoy it. Whereas when I'm collaborating with a guy like Will Jennings, it's completely different. Will's an artist in the sense that he's a student first and foremost, he's very literate, and funny as well.
The same seems to hold true for another of your writing partners, Guy Clark.
Guy and I often get together and just sit around telling jokes, and if you can laugh with someone for the first 10 or 15 minutes before you start writing, then it really isn't like work.
For a lot of people, the sign of a great lyric is its ability to express a whole range of emotions.
"Stuff That Works," which I wrote with Guy, is like that. It works on somany different levels. On the one hand there are lines in there that are heartfelt serious—"Stuff you feel, stuff that's real." But then we were coming up with things like, "I've got a new used car that runs just like a top," and we were laughing over that.
I imagine that a good collaborator can act as "editor" as the storyline evolves.
And that was really the case with that particular song. After we'd started it, Guy went home and I began putting together this whole laundry list of "stuff that works," just hundreds of things. And the next day Guy comes back and he starts going through this massive list of items, and he's like, "Nope… nope… not that one… I don't think so… forget it…" And he was able to whittle it down to the essentials.
A lot of songwriters, particularly in Nashville, tailor their subject matter to a specific individual.
I could work like that if I had to, but I really don't write that way. A lot of people write from the point of view of another person. Their mindset is to simply provide material for a recording artist. Whereas I just don't think of myself as being outside of the song. The thing I've found is that when I successfully write for myself, it works for anybody.
Do words or ideas pop into your head spontaneously, or do you have to be in "writing mode"?
You never know when a great idea is going to hit. This one particular time I was coming into L.A. from the airport, and I was in the back of a cab on the freeway, just me and my guitar. At one point this car bolts right by and cuts off our cab. And the cabby, who's pretty irate, just looks at the guy and blurts out, "Man, you give me the blues in the daytime!" And I'm like, "Um, you wouldn't happen to have a pen on you?" [laughs] There I am on this highway, and I start scribbling down the words to "Blues in the Daytime"—right onto the back of that guitar! I practically had the song finished by the time I got to the studio. When I got out, the cab driver looks over at me, smiles and says, "You will send me the check now, won't you?"