Fifteen of Rodney Crowell’s songs have hit Number One on the country music chart, from a wide spectrum of recording artists who knew a good tune when they heard it.
Just five of those were Crowell’s own recordings, but they all came from a single album, 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt. That’s still a Nashville record worthy of the boys from Guinness.
That was then, this is now. The Houston-born scribe, at 71, is now considered an elder statesman among Americana songwriters. And while he’s justifiably proud of his earlier accomplishments, Crowell believes his career really began a quarter-century ago, when he gave up trying to be a people-pleasing hitmaker.
“They gave me a lot of money,” Crowell reflects, “so I became indebted to the man. I’m best when I just function instinctively. I think everybody is. That longing about being recognized, to be a star quote-unquote, and then to hit the jackpot and then to find out how disillusioning it was for me … I actually shut down. I turned off the jets for four or five years.”
Starting with 2001’s The Houston Kid album, his music became more introspective, less commercial. He made a conscious decision to create when he felt inspired, rather than to meet some arbitrary commercial deadline. “And that’s what I’ve done since then, with some good results and some medium results,” he reports.
These days, he says, he’s making a “good, honest living.”
Crowell’s most recent set of songs, Triage, finds him a contemplative mood. Songs like the title track, “Don’t Leave Me Now” and the darkly introspective “Transient Global Amnesia Blues” pose questions about mortality, fate and consequence.
“The farther I go into this, the more singular my narrative becomes,” he says. “Which is as it should be. The people that I admire, Leonard Cohen, if you look at the end of his career he was singularly leaving breadcrumbs for us all how to die, y’know? Those songs aren’t ‘Hallelujah,’ those songs are like songs to die by.
“And that meant a lot to me. So I was more interested in his singular point of view than I was his broadstroke point of view.”
So where does that leave the young, scrappy, starry-eyed messenger of “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leaving” and the other chart-burners from Diamonds and Dirt? Clearly Rodney Crowell, as the elder statesman, is no longer happy-go-lucky. Right?
“Oh, but I am,” he laughs. “You can ask my wife and children, and they’ll say I’m still the same guy. And I would just say, hey, I’ve done this a long time, and there are times when I need to explore certain aspects of myself that aren’t happy-go-lucky. But I’m still having fun.”
One of the costs of his Faustian deal for early stardom was his marriage to singer Rosanne Cash. They were Nashville’s “it couple” of the ‘80s, but went their separate ways in the ‘90s.
His marriage to singer Claudia Church in 1998 – they’d met on the set of the video for his No. 1 song “Lovin’ All Night” – began the next chapter. He didn’t say goodbye, exactly, to the audience that knew him from his hit records, or from his earlier stint as sideman, songwriter and stage partner for Emmylou Harris – he just sort of asked them if they’d be willing to take the bumpier road along with him.
“I made a commitment to myself that I wasn’t going to try to win ‘em back with what I’d already done,” Crowell explains. “And I really said, out loud, time and again, if I can’t hold the audience with what I’m doing now, I should fold the tent. So I stuck with that … and the audience has grown with it.”
So absolute honesty – the poet’s manifesto – is his guiding light. He is working on another album, the followup to the critically-acclaimed Triage. “And I’ve got something else that I’m cooking up to do that will probably ring happy-go-lucky.”
Not long ago, Crowell heard singer Torres’ version of “Making Memories of Us,” a song of his that Keith Urban had taken to the top of the charts.
“I listened to it and I thought ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ I really swelled up inside, because that song is something I wrote from the bottom of my heart for Claudia. Torres did it in her way, and I thought it was gorgeous.”
His longtime pal Willie Nelson recently covered “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die,” which Crowell co-wrote with Chris Stapleton. “That song was something I had in the back of my mind for 30 years,” he says.
“If that’s elder statesman … shoot yeah, baby. I’m your man!”