By Barry Gilbert
Rodney Crowell, bluesman. That might sound like a contradiction coming from a veteran country music singer/songwriter, but he has said that a bluesman is inside him trying to get out – and that the bluesman hasn’t always been there.
However, Crowell, a perfectionist who’s most recent CD, “Tarpaper Sky,” continues to sit atop the American Music Association chart, is hesitant to talk too much about it.
“You have to be careful … when you’re trying to tap into and learn to create from an artistic place that comes to you later on,” he said recently from his home in Tennessee. “To talk about it is tricky. To hear you quote me that way, I was thinking, hmm, am I being wise to talk about it?”
Crowell, who tore up the country charts in 1988 with five No. 1 singles from his fifth album, “Diamonds & Dirt,” acknowledges that rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones drew from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and that Stevie Ray Vaughan drew from Lightin’ Hopkins.
“I certainly understood (the blues) from Day 1, from being 4 years old, I understood Hank Williams’ version of the blues, and it is an authentic version of the blues,” Crowell says. “I’ve certainly been trying to get instinctive about it and intuitive enough that I’m not manufacturing rehashed blues, but to intuitively find my own version of it. That’s the way I work. And to speak of it before you’ve actually achieved it is maybe not the smartest thing to do.”
I interviewed Crowell recently in advance of his show in St. Louis on June 5, 2014, when he will headline the second night of the 18th annual, four-night roots music series Twangfest. I found him to be extremely gracious and generous with his time and, as expected, very thoughtful.
He’s been on quite a run. “Tarpaper Sky” has earned him deservedly glowing reviews, and he won a Grammy last year for his duets album with Emmylou Harris, “Old Yellow Moon.” Before that, he was on the road behind “Kin,” a CD recorded with poet Mary Karr. And before that, he traveled the country on the bookstore circuit signing copies of and telling stories from his memoir, “Chinaberry Sidewalks.”
“I’ve been busy for five years,” Crowell laughs. “I need a vacation.”
Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Barry Gilbert: I was looking at the Americana chart recently. You were at No. 1, Rosanne (Cash, Crowell’s ex-wife), Carlene Carter (Rosanne’s step-sister) and Johnny Cash (his late former father-in-law) were all in the top seven.
Rodney Crowell: Cool, isn’t it? We’re still standing.
And that led me to think about the “Heartworn Highways” documentary, and how so many of you who are in that – Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were fairly well known at that time. You and Steve Earle, John Hiatt, not known very well at all. … Most of you are still having not only productive, but critically acclaimed careers. Could you look around the table at Guy’s house and know then that everybody was that good?
No, not at that time, no. I mean, boy … You know, I’ve never seen “Heartworn Highways,” mainly because of the amount or hallucinogens that were in my bloodstream at the time. I don’t care to see myself in that place. But that’s really subjective to me. But I will say that, you know, Lucinda (Williams) was around then. I would go outside of “Heartworn Highways,” and at that particular time in the early ’70s, that was when I first met John Hiatt. He was there, and certainly Steve (Earle) blew in out of Texas, 17 years old, just energized, his finger in a light socket.
Mickey Newbury was around then. You know, Guy Clark was the curator of all things good at the time, and he had in his pocket Newbury and Townes Van Zandt, two totally different characters but two extremely gifted characters, both of whom were so influential to Guy and to myself. I think probably Guy and I were more influenced by Mickey Newbury than anybody really knows.
It’s easy to put your finger on Townes’ poetic influence, but there’s something about Newbury that was really, really ethereal. He was a really realized artist. You couldn’t be around him without sensing it, trying to … how do I access my inner Mickey Newbury? As I said, Lucinda was around then. David Olney was around then. A lot of the artists who came through, who were on the streets – Johnny Rodriguez was around there then. I don’t know what it was, but that group of people have just stayed afloat.
Is there any parallel to what’s happening in East Nashville now with Todd Snider and Elizabeth Cook and Eric Brace and Peter Cooper and that group?
You know, when I first met Guy, he lived in East Nashville, back when East Nashville wasn’t a hipster den. But that crew, if anybody, is on it. Todd Snider for sure. Todd Snider’s a poet, you know? The one thing I would say about the “Heartworn” crew, I would say most of us that you have mentioned are, in one way or another, poets. It’s good for less money, but it’s got a longer shelf life. And when I look at Todd, I see a poet.
You’ve been quoted as saying you strive to create “museum quality art.”
I strive. I rarely do it, but strive for it, for sure.
Ray Charles. Howlin’ Wolf. Chuck Berry. Lennon-McCartney. Rolling Stones. Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash. Lightnin’ Hopkins. You know, Townes’ “Pancho and Left” is museum quality. Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” that’s museum quality art. Guy’s “Last Gunfighter Ballad” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” that’s museum quality art as far as I’m concerned.
Let’s talk about “Tarpaper Sky.” It’s a fine, fine record. It has a kind of intimate, front-row, small-club feel to it. Is that because of the way it was recorded, because you were all looking at each other and playing live?
Yeah, we were all sitting on the front row, for sure. We sat up in a circle, drums and electric guitars and all. That’s a performed record, it’s not a produced record. Everything there is what we played. We added some background vocals. But we also recorded a good bit of the background vocals live, on the floor as we were doing the rest. If you’re speaking of the intimacy, I think it might be how relaxed I was in that setting, which inspired me to perform in a more intimate way. And certainly the musicians were playing intimately with each other.
It also strikes me, not just in the playing but in the songwriting. This may be kind of a weird analogy, but they used to say about James Garner that you’d never catch him acting. That’s kind of how I feel when I listen to “Tarpaper Sky.” It just flows so easily.
Yeah, good, man, you don’t catch me writing. That’s good.
That’s exactly it!
That’s good. I mean that’s the timelessness, when I talk about museum quality? I think a refinement of that concept for myself is to achieve timelessness. And certainly when you can’t hear me or see me or catch me working, then I’m on to something. That’s good for me to hear, and for someone like yourself to point that out. I can’t go banging on the garbage can lids, going, hey, I’ve really found this kind of seamless way where my songs are true without being overwritten. That’s what we strive for.
Is “Tarpaper Sky” – the phrase, the title – autobiographical, as much of the record is, a reference to growing up in Houston?
Mary Karr and I were collaborating on “God I’m Missing You.” And when we were writing it, Mary said, “I have this image – you, the moon, when it’s been sanded down, like a sanded-down moon.” I said, “Yeah, and a tarpaper sky.” That’s the way we work together. And then we talked about, that’s the way, with all the oil refineries we grew up around, with as much crap as was in the air down there, you didn’t get that really deep, blue-black night. What you got was sort of a matted, tarpaper sky.
One of my favorite lines from the record is “you tore through my heart like a tornado looking for a trailer park.” That sounds like it was a eureka moment when you wrote that down.
It was. I woke up one morning, and that line fell out of me and I wrote it down. I said, opening line to a song – where are we going? Funny, the last time I was in St. Louis, if I have this correct, it was my “Chinaberry Sidewalks” book tour. I believe it was down there at Chuck Berry’s place (Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, a restaurant/venue owned by Berry’s friend Joe Edwards and where Berry still performs once a month). We were traveling around, just me and my road manager and my assistant, in a motor home, and we were out in an RV park, and it was still kind of wintry, but there were tornadoes all over St. Louis that night.
(Crowell’s book appearance was on the evening of Feb. 28, 2011. The National Weather Service reported 22 confirmed tornadoes in the St Louis area on Feb. 27 and 28. No one was killed; storm damage totaled $12.8 million.)
We were huddled up in a cinder-block bathroom with some folks who lived that way year-round. And I was on my iPhone talking to my wife, and we were following the tornadoes by the Internet, and these other folks who were huddled up on the other side looking at us like we were from another planet. They had a transistor radio, and I was thinking, man, here we are hiding from tornadoes – and that’s my childhood, man. We had hurricanes coming through East Houston, and we were all huddled up listening to the transistor radio. And here we are following it on the Internet, and these people are looking at us like, “Who are you?” … (W)hen I got the line for the song, it was one morning, I woke up on the bus, made a cup of coffee and sat down and that line came to me. I said, well, I know who this narrator is, I’ll find these words. You know, (tornadoes) do go looking for trailer parks.
I know. It’s like instant target. When you’re here (June 5, 2014), that’s still kind of prime tornado season.
Bring ’em on. I know where there’s a good bathroom to huddle up in if we need to get there.
Tell me a little bit about the song “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” a wonderful tune.
That’s based on my grandmother on my mother’s side. My grandfather was kind of a role model for me, he was rascal. He was a failed sharecrop farmer who traded bib overalls for brogan shoes and a gray wool suit and moved to Houston and became a night watchman, and fancied himself a gambler. He was a drunk, a ne’er-do-well, just a (laughs) a despicable guy, and I loved him. And my grandmother did, too. Damn, I don’t know why. He dipped tobacco, he rolled his own cigarettes, he was a beer drinker, chased whiskey with beer. He really believed those fake wrestling shows on TV were for real, and would argue to the death that they were real. Just a rascal. I loved him.
Sounds like a bigger-than-life character, especially to a little kid.
He used to take me to the bars when I was a kid. It was a good ruse for a guy to sit at 11 o’clock in the morning and to start slamming beer, he’s got his grandson with him. It’s sort of like a license to corrupt.
“Diamonds & Dirt” (Crowell’s huge, multihit breakthrough album in 1988) was your fifth record, but you’d had some songs covered before that.
Well, my first album produced, what, four No. 1 songs? (including “Voilá, An American Dream” for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” for Waylon Jennings).
When the chart success of your own versions didn’t pan out those first few years, did you ever consider, well, I can be a songwriter and not a performer? Or was the push always there to do both?
The reason I write songs is to make records. All of those songs were covered off my records.
You weren’t shopping songs, other musicians just heard the records.
They just heard the records. That’s always been the way it worked with me. I’m not one of those guys … pitching songs. … I work alone, and I collaborate with the musicians. I don’t really have that knack for commercializing myself. It’s always been that way. I didn’t see any reason to change what I was doing. I was earning good money from the way it was working out. Then I started producing Rosanne Cash records, and they started going to the top, and we got married. So it was all working pretty good.
Then later on I got my own hits, then the trouble started. I look back at the time when I was making those records, man, the money was coming in, I worked when I wanted to, and it was cool. I worked all the time, but in my own way.
You’ve written that “Diamonds & Dirt” (five No. 1 singles) was a blessing and curse – because you tried too hard to duplicate it?
Yeah, I succumbed to the pressure. (Columbia Records) made a lot of money off that record, and they wanted me to do another one. It doesn’t work that way with me. It’s a matter of what I create. And my best work is not designed to do anything other than be the best song that I can write. So the cart got before the horse there with me. Hey, I grew up poor in East Houston, you give me some money and I think I owe you something. My marriage fell apart, a lot of stuff happened. That kind of success wasn’t necessarily what I needed.
And it wasn’t a case of you being young, at that point, it wasn’t overnight success, you weren’t a kid then.
No, I wasn’t a kid. But the thing about it – I did sense something. I was on the top of the charts, and I noticed when I would go into a room – you know, I wore the silver-tipped boots and all of the trappings, the hair and stuff at the time, I was young enough to still be vain. I’d walk into a room, and people would look at you in a way, and they project this thing onto you. And I caught myself manufacturing my character. Whoa, this is who I am.
And I remember sensing, man, if you do this, your time is done as an artist. You just become a parody of who you think you are. And I know that I sort of psychologically and privately started to dismantle that at the time. And I can tell you honestly, and you can believe me on this, had I not sensed that, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing now. I’d have had a run for a little while, then I’d be lost for what to do. For some reason, I was blessed with a sense that if I stay on this road, my career as an artist is going to be short.
How did you withdraw from that mind-set?
I would show up on a country radio show, they would sense my attitude. They don’t want to be dealing with some guy who’s thinking, “I can do better than this.” Not better than country music, that’s not the thing. I just got more to say. And I don’t want to go on the radio and pretend I’m this personality, this kind of disingenuous, false bravado that’s required.
I call it the Elvis Syndrome. You get caught up in that and you lose it. Inspiration only finds you when you’re working on the craft and the tools that it takes to create. To become a personality is a different thing altogether. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not very good in terms of the manufactured personality. I’m miserable at it.
You’re planning another duets record with Emmylou Harris. Will this be another covers record?
No, we’re writing it. When we decided we’d give it another go, we decided we’d pretty much covered songs there, what songs we did of mine were mostly old ones. So we said, let’s sit down together and write some songs. And we’ve done that. It’ll be mostly originals that we’ve written.
I’m also pleased, as a fan, that you’re traveling with Shannon McNally. She’s one of those people who inexplicably isn’t bigger than she is.
We’ve had a conversation going about that, she and I. I’m trying to help her make a record and find that narrative that people can hang on to, because she’s got a gift.