From Texas to Nashville
and Back

by Jason MacNeil

VETERAN TEXAS WORDSMITH Rodney Crowell would easily be included in any list of the great American singer-songwriters still active today – with a long and acclaimed career which started out as a poor boy in smalltown Crosby, Texas and recently came full circle with the publishing of his childhood memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. The memoir is something Crowell approached with few limitations.

“I didn’t know the rules,” he told the Riverfront Times in a recent interview. “I didn’t bother to check. For me, it was ‘How do I learn to put the words in order, in order to get what I want across?”

“But being a student of writing, I don’t approach this any differently than writing songs,” he continues. “Though with songs, you can goof off a lot more. When writing a book, your dedication to the daily work habit is the single most important thing about it other than the sensibility to do it in the first place.”

It’s that sensibility which has made Crowell admired by so many dating back to his musical apprenticeship in his father’s band in Houston. After moving to Nashville in the early 1970s Crowell enhanced his craft by befriending songwriters like Guy Clark and other local lyricists.

“There was no suffering fools there,” Crowell told Bill DeYoung in another interview. “I was ignored. I think the talent was present, and my knowledge of music was present. I think Guy kind of locked in on that, he saw that I had real roots, and that kept me around.”

After having his song ‘Bluebird Wine’ covered by Emmylou Harris on her 1975 album Pieces Of The Sky, Crowell joined her star-studded backing group The Hot Band alongside guitarists who worked with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. He would also pen ‘Till I Gain Control Again’, which appeared on her Elite Hotel record.

Harris says about Crowell’s tenue with The Hot Band, “I wanted him very much to go out and sprout from that tree of artists and writers who came from that country place but who were infused with their own poetry of their own time, their own generation. He had the vision to do it, he had the songwriting talent, and he had the voice. I always thought Rodney was a great singer, a very underrated singer.”

After leaving The Hot Band Crowell established The Cherry Bombs (a group that including Vince Gill) before launching his solo career in 1978 with Ain’t Living Long Like This. Despite not reaching great commercial success, songs off the album would be covered by Harris, Waylon Jennings, Bob Seger, and Rosanne Cash, who Crowell would marry in 1979.

Crowell put his solo career on the backburner for a portion of the 1980s to focus on his wife’s solo career, producing her Seven Year Ache and Rhythm & Romance albums and “fusing Hank Williams with The Beatles.” However he would strike gold in 1988 with his own record Diamonds & Dirt, a breakthrough album that had five Number 1 singles including ‘After All This Time.’ But the success would later come at a price when his marriage to Cash ended a few years later in 1992. The two still remain good friends.

More albums followed yet none sold as many as Diamonds & Dirt. In 2001 Crowell returned with the critically acclaimed The Houston Kid, which featured a duet with his former father-in-law, the iconic Johnny Cash. The album rejuvenated Crowell’s creativity.

“I rededicated myself to the quality of what I was doing,” he told the Riverfront Times. “I became more committed to my singular sensibility – the broad-stroke love songs. I’ve written a few in recent years and they’ve helped pay the rent. But I became passionate about trying to express my singular sensibility.”

Since then Crowell has continued to make solid albums through to his latest, 2008’s Sex and Gasoline, one of hi sbest in years. In 2004 he and Vince Gill also briefly resurrected The Cherry Bombs for an album (which included the song, ‘It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long’).

Chinaberry Sidewalks (Knopf), which focuses on his parent’s turbulent marriage and his own early years (the book opens with 5-year-old Rodney firing his father’s rifle to calm a drunken New Years Eve party) has received high praise. The memoir has also forged a new working partnership with best-selling author Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club). The pair wrote all the songs for Kin, a new album due in June, which features performances by Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson and others. •

March-April 2012

Alive in the World Concert
April 14
Rodney Crowell and Beth Nielsen
Chapman headline the Alive in the
World Concert benefiting Eden Autism
Services Florida on April 14 at the
Philharmonic Center for the Arts’
Daniels Pavilion.
The event starts at 6pm with
cocktails and a silent auction.
The Community School – Naples’
all-star rock band performs
at 8pm, followed by a
live auction.
Crowell and Chapman perfom
afterwards. A silent auction
takes place before the
concert beginning at 6pm.
For more information,
call 919-0408.

“I always thought Rodney
was a great singer.”
Emmylou Harris