He’s written songs that reach in deep and massage the heart, songs that bring on tears, songs that bring on laughter, songs that bristle with electrically charged emotion, like he went to some dark, hidden place of energy just to find the switch and throw it. His songs are happy, catchy, friendly, playful, fearful, fretful, thoughtful, mindful, visionary and blind, and the records he’s put on the air, and on jukeboxes, have made the country music standard of living a little richer, made the lives of everyone who’s tapped into his talent a little more interesting.
As a writer of the highest standard, Rodney Crowell is a national treasure. The singer/songwriter has long been an important presence in country music, from Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Charlie Rich — and Rodney Crowell can stand up there proudly in line. They all started with naked truth on a scratch pad and went on, with varying degrees of success, from there. His contributions to the development of country music as a contemporary force can’t be measured. Gram Parsons is often described as the father of country/rock, as the guy who put the square peg in the round hole and came up with something that fit more or less comfortably. But Parsons died young, still trying to get it just right, and it took another generation — a generation that included Rodney Crowell — to realize and perfect his dream.
Rodney’s musical education consisted of as much rock, folk and rhythm ‘n’ blues as whole–cloth country. At his father’s knee, Crowell learned all the old country standards, how they were put together, what they meant and why they were great. He was a teen–ager when the Beatles and the Stones arrived on American shores, and even down in the Deep South, where Rodney and his family lived, their influence and their energy got in the bloodstream of every guitar–strumming teen–ager.
From Bob Dylan, he learned to put thoughts and music together. From Guy Clark, he learned to reach for poetry, not just words. Harmony, humility, perseverance and professionalism, he learned those from Emmylou Harris.
He joined Harris’ celebrated Hot Band in 1975, at the age of 24, and stayed less than three years. “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,” says Harris. “That were going to push the frontiers of country music, and infuse it with something very much current, and their own.
“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.”
Crowell met Clark at a time when Nashville was telling its scribes to keep it short, sweet and stupid. Rodney had already mastered that particular hat–trick — and when he connected with Clark, he learned about putting words on a page like the strokes of a paintbrush. The secret, he discovered, is to stay away from pretentiousness by remaining connected to your own heart and your own sense of irony. Care about what you write. Stay true and, by God, the picture will paint itself.
Over the 25 years of their friendship, Crowell and Clark have co–authored a dozen songs. A songwriting partner, explains Clark, “has to be somebody you can trust, because when you’re writing there’s a lot of experimentation, and off–the–wall stuff you have to verbalize. Which won’t always be used in the song, but it seems to be part of the process. That’s something you don’t have to worry about when you’re writing by yourself.
“There’s some very good friends of mine, we’ve tried to write together and, nothin.’ And sometimes I’ve written with strangers and it’s just come off wonderful. I’m not quite sure what the chemistry is, but for some reason Rodney and I have always been able to do it.”
MCA Records Nashville President Tony Brown, a longtime friend, believes Rodney was always destined for big things. “The first thing I noticed about Rodney was his eyes,” Brown says. “It was almost like you could see into his brain, they were just clear and amazing. It felt like I was meeting somebody really special. A very charismatic guy.”
Brown, who co–produced all five of Rodney’s No. 1 hit singles, hit further paydirt with other artists including Reba McEntire, Wynonna and George Strait. “People ask you what makes stars,” he says. “Some people have that, and most people don’t. And Rodney has it. He’s probably Gram Parsons reincarnated.”
Perhaps the quality that sets Rodney Crowell apart is his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve for the sake of his art. Very few writers use their vulnerability as a tool—as Crowell has done many, many times over the course of his songwriting career. The songs, he says, come to him — rarely does he go looking for them. So he writes from a deep and genuine place, even when it hurts.
“I never considered any other kind of work,” he says. “I did a lot of different kind of stuff before. I was a dishwasher and a busboy at a Friday’s restaurant in Nashville, and I quit in the middle of the day. I told my boss, ‘Look, I’m sorry to do this, but if I can’t make a living making music, then I’ll just starve.’ I was committed to that, and this is what I’ve done ever since. So I guess that kind of commitment is what you gotta have.”
His career has gone up and down more times than the Space Shuttle, but he’s learned to put it in perspective. Sensitive and self–aware, Rodney Crowell wasn’t too surprised to find that his greatest commercial success coincided with his most intense period of personal unhappiness. When all was said and done, however, he got a couple of good songs out of it.
Oh, yes … he knows how to have fun, too. “Rodney is able to put exuberance in a song without being perky,” enthuses Harris. “Without over–simplifying the positive.
“There’s still a quality to Rodney that no matter how old he gets, he’ll always be the Houston Kid. There’s always going to be a kid in there.”
The Houston Kid
He was born Aug. 7, 1950, the only child of James Walter and Cauzette Crowell. Rodney’s father, whom everyone knew as J.W., was from Arkansas and grew up in southwestern Kentucky farm country, in a town called Murray. He’d met Cauzette Willoughby (from Buchanan, Tenn., just “a mule ride away” across the border) at a Roy Acuff concert at the Buchanan High School gym. Many years later, Rodney introduced his mother to Acuff, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and was proud to say “Mr. Acuff, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.”
Both J.W. and Cauzette had left school in the 8th grade, to help out on their respective family farms, and after they got married they high–tailed it out of there. Times were hard and jobs were few for young people in those post–Depression years, and if you had a lick of sense, you went where the work was. First stop was Detroit, where J.W. took a position on an auto assembly line. It didn’t work out, and soon the Crowells were on the move again.
“They wound up in Houston, because Houston was a port and there was lots of menial labor,” Rodney explains. “He went to work there as a laborer.”
The Port of Houston was one of the busiest on the Gulf of Mexico, with nearly all of Texas’ oil products eventually shipping out via the city’s tremendous man–made channel. The Crowells’ tiny house was near the channel, on the “wrong side of town,” packed with refineries, warehouses and beer joints. J.W. did whatever work was at hand. “On my birth certificate, his occupation is listed as ‘truck driver,’” says Rodney. “What he was really doing was delivering ice.”
The senior Crowell, his son remembers, played the guitar and sang, and was pretty darn good. “He was, basically, an encyclopedia of songs from a certain period. His area of expertise was the Roy Acuff era, from Jimmy Rodgers, probably from 1930 to 1965. He just knew all of that country music.”
J.W. performed at home, in what spare time he could find. “I think it’s what he really wanted to do,” Rodney says, “however, he grew up the son of a sharecropper, and the Depression hit those people so hard that I think my dad was locked onto this thing that he had to have a job.
“And that’s what he did, but I think what he really wished he would’ve done is gone to Nashville and ‘made it.’”
J.W. gave his boy the gift of music without even realizing it. “Later on, when I found my own love for it, the foundation that had been laid, just through osmosis, all of those songs … one thing about my dad, he didn’t write ‘em, but he knew ‘em. I think I became a songwriter because I absorbed so many songs when I was little that eventually I had to just re–assemble them and turn them into something else. I had a body full of songs just from osmosis. He had those rabbit in the graveyard, trace her footprints in the snow, all of those dead baby songs, a real wealth of authenticity in his repertoire.”
Rodney Crowell remembers a musical household—”Hearts of Stone,” by the Fontaine Sisters, was a favorite record. “I remember hearing that record when I was like real little, I must’ve been 3 or 4. Or younger.
Mostly, there was country music. “I remember Hank Williams 78s. There was some sort of crude record player there, and we had these Hank Williams 78s, no dust cover or anything on ‘em. I just remember music.”
By the late ’50s Rodney’s dad had a band, J.W. Crowell and the Rhythm Boys, to play weekend dates at the local drinking establishments. “These were dives, with no barmaids, with that alcohol lunatic fringe,” Crowell recalls. “It’s sort of an under–culture of its own down there, a seaport town. There are a lot of those ice houses and beer joints that Merchant Marines hung around, in the part of Houston where the ship channel ended, where I grew up. “It was honky–tonk country music, from the Hank Williams era through to middle Merle Haggard.”
Years later, Rodney’s friend Guy Clark wrote a song about the Crowell family, “Black Diamond Strings,” proclaiming that J.W. played “two nights a week in a hillbilly band.”
Not the case. The Rhythm Boys gigged maybe five nights a month. And never, ever on school nights—because in 1961, the group took on a new drummer, 11–year–old Rodney.
“My dad came home one day with a pawn shop kit, set ‘em down and showed me how to do it,” he remembers. “I practiced for a little while and then went and started playing with him. I would say within a week’s time I was playing drums, a goofy 11–year–old kid.”
Although he never saw a serious fight, never experienced a real “barroom brawl,” Rodney didn’t like going to the beer joints. “I felt a little put–upon. I wasn’t entirely happy about it. I was kind of ‘made’ to do it. And like in Guy’s song, Cauzette didn’t like what J.W. was doing, taking the kid to a honky tonk. So she went to keep an eye on me. She thought the devil lived there.” Rodney often fell asleep in the back seat of the family car, on the drive home.
J.W. drew from his vast repertoire of country classics to keep the tempo going, Rodney says. “Watch me,” his dad would whisper, “I know how to keep the dance floor full.” Requests would be written on one–dollar bills dropped into a cigar box in front of the stage. “At the end of the night when they split up the dough, there wasn’t any coming my way,” Rodney chuckles. J.W. had deduced that by adding his little boy to the band, that was one less musician he’d be required to pay.
So when he was 14, Rodney quit the Rhythm Boys. The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion had reached Houston radio. “It was like plugging your finger into a light socket,” he says: “Ah … the guy out front gets the girls.” He was attracted, he says, to the energy.
J.W., predictably, said the Beatles were “bullshit,” but his harrumphing couldn’t keep a guitar out of Rodney’s hands. His first band was called the Arbitrators, and the played Beatles, Beach Boys, Animals, Yardbirds, whatever big–beat stuff happened to move them. And they were moving plenty. Rodney Crowell’s teen–age years were a combination of Arbitrators rock ‘n’ roll, baseball and bull–riding (which he wasn’t much good at, although that didn’t stop him from taking rein in hand). After a light bulb snapped on over his head, he realized he could put his dad’s influence to good use and started a second group, a rodeo dance combo, using a couple of the Arbitrators as sidemen. “That band was Merle and Buck,” he says. “I knew those songs. I’d get up there and slam those songs.” He played some rock ‘n’ roll, and some country music—foreshadowing the “supposed fence–straddling,” he points out, of his later years. “This is not schizophrenia; it’s real. I was doing that when I was a teen–ager, to make money.”
Rodney was one of Crosby High’s 46 graduating seniors in 1968. And although he had composed a tune at age 15, a “childish song in D minor,” his first big lunge at the pen came at graduation time.
One night the senior class was to vote on the class flower, the class this and the class that. It occurred to Rodney that they’d probably go for a class song. “That morning I got up and I threw a song together. I went and played it at this meeting, and they all voted that that was going to be our class song. And God, it was blood awful. It was very Beatles–derivative and it was … it was bad. It was really bad. And I got up there with a cap and damn gown, with a guitar on, and sang that stupid song.”
Now, let’s fast–forward … “I went to my 25th class reunion, and there was a woman who taught a little English and home economics, and was kind of the only cultural icon that we had around there. Her name was Miss Hansen. Her daughter was my age, so I saw here there.
“A lot of these classmates were saying ‘Sing the song, Rodney Crowell!’ and I said no, I’m not going to. And Miss Hansen was standing there, and she said ‘Wise choice, young man.’ I said ‘It really was bad, wasn’t it?’ She said, ‘Awful.’ And I said ‘Thank you for supporting me.’”
It was at Stephen F. Austin College in Nagadoches that Rodney met Donivan Cowart, his first in a series of soul mates. Donivan was a history major; Rodney was ostensibly studying political science and English. In reality, they spent their time “getting high, skipping class and writing songs.” Rodney got a job playing guitar in a Holiday Inn group; eventually he took over the six–nights–a–week gig, adding Donivan and a drummer. They called themselves the Greenville Three, only because Donivan had written a song called “Greenville, Tennessee.” It made enough sense to go by. “We got fired regularly because we played our own material,” Crowell says. “And the clientele that started to come see us was young hippies, and the young hippies had their inebriants before they got there. So they would just sit and listen to the music, and not buy drinks. They’d fire us and then hire us again.
“We would ditch the ‘Jeremiah was a Bullfrog’ crap and start playing our own songs. And the crowd would dig it. And we’d get fired, and literally re–hired the next day.”
Eventually Crowell and Cowart drifted east to Houston, in Donivan’s ’65 Impala to look for work, college having become a dead issue. And there they met Jim Duff, whose claim to fame was having engineered a 13th Floor Elevators record. This was as close to the music business as the young musicians had got, so when Jim Duff offered to manage them, they readily agreed. Signed on the dotted line. “We loaded up the car and drove to Crowley, La. to J.D. Miller’s studio, where he did all of those race records, those party records,” Crowell recalls. “And they did a whole lot of Cajun records over there. We did a record with Jim Duff.
“Well, as it turned out, Jim Duff was a real bad alcoholic — the poor man was an illalcoholic — we made this record and came back to Houston, and he said ‘OK, I’m going to go to Nashville with it.’ Donivan and I were working as a duo at Popeyes, a supper club in Houston, and making some pretty decent money — we were doing covers but could sneak in our original tunes.
“We got the call from Jim Duff: ‘Hey, I’m signing you to a 10–year recording contract with Columbia Records, and you’re going on the road with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Get up here.’ “Well, we quit Popeyes, jumped in the car and headed to Nashville, man. Slid in sideways, doors flew open, ‘Where’s Jim Duff?’
“We couldn’t find the guy anywhere. We were like ‘What the fuck?’ I had spent my last dime buying this really fine Martin guitar — hey, I gotta have a good guitar if I’m going to do this, right? — we slid in sideways to Nashville with 15 bucks. No Jim Duff.”
Both in their early 20s, Crowell and Cowart didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any prospects, and they sure as hell couldn’t find their mentor and his Columbia Records contract. They assumed Kenny Rogers was waiting somewhere for them, looking at his watch and impatiently tapping his foot.
Having no money, “We lived in the car out at Percy Priest Lake, Donivan in the front and me in the back, and came into town,” Rodney remembers. They took baths in the lake.
In time, they started picking up a little change by passing the hat at Bishop’s Pub, a legendary watering hole on the west end. Owner Tim Bishop liked their enthusiasm and gave them free hamburgers in the kitchen.
Soon a mutual friend — well known to be a speed freak — drove all night from Houston, just to tell them the truth about Jim Duff and their big–time opportunity.
“It was a lie. What he’d really done was, he came up and didn’t get nothin’ going, so he sold the publishing for $100, for a bus ticket back to Houston.
“We found out that the tapes and the songwriting contracts were on top of a drawer at Surefire Music, which was the Wilburn Brothers’ publishing company.
“We went in at lunchtime, and Donivan charmed the receptionist. And I slipped into that office, swiped the tape and the publishing agreement on the songs, and we scooted out of there with our tapes and our songs.”
The write stuff
Bishop’s Pub was a mecca for the new breed of songwriter then immigrating to Nashville and living the dirt–poor but artistically rich lifestyle. The pub was dark, and the beer was cold, and Tim Bishop would let any of them get onstage and play for the hat. A supportive group of like–minded individuals – many of them from Texas — began to orbit Bishop’s Pub. Central to the coterie were Guy Clark and his wife Susanna, herself a gifted songwriter and painter, and the Clarks’ compadre Townes Van Zandt, who’d already made a couple of albums on the tiny Poppy label. The three of them shared a small house on 34th Street, just around the corner from Bishop’s Pub, so they could just walk over whenever they felt like it. Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver and Richard Dobson were regulars, too.
“It started to get cold, and me, Skinny Dennis Sanchez and Richard Dobson got a house on Ashland Avenue together,” Crowell says. “And all of the songwriters started crashing out there.
“That’s when I started working at Friday’s. As a dishwasher, I’d get off at 2 in the morning, and from drinking all those half–empty drinks that came through I’d be smashed when I came home. I would be just perfectly oiled up for what was already going on at the house. We’d play music till dawn, sleep all day, and then I’d work at night.”
There was never a dull moment at Rodney’s place. “For a while, there was an acrobat and his assistant living in the front bedroom,” he remembers. “I think Richard Dobson went off on one of his literary trips, and sublet his front bedroom to these circus performers. I can’t remember their names, but they were just out, just perfect for the whole bizarre atmosphere that was going on around there at the time.”
Guy Clark had already written “L.A. Freeway,” which included a line about Skinny Dennis Sanchez — the Californian bass player who wound up sharing the house with Rodney — but his first album was still two years away.
Susanna Clark remembers the first time she and Guy ran into Rodney and Donivan, at the Ashland house. “Everybody was in the kitchen, doing what they did, and these two were in the walk–in front hall, looking kinda weird. I just sat down and said ‘Hi!’ I was young and in the way, too. Still innocent and friendly.
“I just thought Rodney was this twinkling, beautiful angel. And I said ‘I’ll play you a song, if you’ll play me one.’ I played him something, I don’t remember what, and he played ‘There’s Glue on My Stool.’ He only played that one for me — he wouldn’t dare play it for anybody else.
“We started talking, and he was bright and cheerful, and stars started poppin’ all around his head. And I said ‘I like you!’ And he said ‘I like you, too!’” In the Clarks, Rodney was to make the best of friends. “Susanna and I started talking,” he says, “and we hooked right up. I think Guy was passed out on my bed, face down with his boots hangin’ off the end. That’s how I met Guy.”
Clark’s disciplined, no–words–wasted songwriting had an immediate effect on Rodney, who eagerly joined in the all–night sing– and booze–alongs. “I would venture out a few of these twerpy songs, and there was Guy Clark songs, Mickey Newbury songs, and Townes Van Zandt songs. I was exposed. My shortcomings were exposed in a big way.
“There was no suffering fools there. I wasn’t tolerated at all — 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 — but the songs that I was writing were just an embarrassment. I was smart enough to realize it.”
“I thought he was very good when I first met him,” says Clark, who calls Rodney one of his “real, true” friends. “I can’t remember exactly where I met him—I remember he and Donivan came over to our house in East Nashville – but I always thought he was great. I always knew he was capable of it.”
According to Rodney, the late–night songwriters’ gatherings were friendly, but competitive. “It was intimidating. Townes was extremely competitive. Townes was more overtly competitive than Guy—those two were very competitive with each other. But I think I was just young enough, and guile–less enough, I took my beatings in the proper spirit of learning.”
He was, after all, only 22 years old, the runt of the litter. Eventually, however, things began to change.
“I remember quite clearly when I played this song called ‘Bluebird Wine.’ Which is not a great song, but it’s a good start. It was one of those nights, and I got Guy’s approval with that. And of course, Townes wasn’t giving any approval on it.
“And then the next time around, in some setting, Guy would go ‘Hey, Rodney, play Bluebird Wine.’ So then I was in. I had a song that Guy would say ‘Play that.’ I think that fanned the flame a little bit.”
In Clark’s view, Rodney blossomed quickly as a songwriter. And their friendship, a symbiotic affair, grew deeper as time went on. Rodney told interviewers later that he could very well have gone into business writing cheap, glittery, radio–friendly country songs at that point, but for connecting with Guy Clark and coming to understand that you could write about what was inside of you, reaching deeper with each pass until you found it. He learned about songcraft. From the beginning, Rodney described Guy as his mentor. “I never thought of it as a student–teacher thing, never wanted it to be,” Clark says. “I learned a lot from Rodney. He has a really good sense of music, and a great catalogue of knowledge from having played as a kid. He’s got a real energy.”
Voila, an American Dream
In the spring of ’73, Rodney was eking out a living playing clubs, after giving his notice at Friday’s. Somebody, he doesn’t recall who, asked him if he could yodel; he said yes, of course he could! He would’ve done anything by that point to make some cash.
He went to Opryland, which was just getting ready to start its first summer, and auditioned for their big summer revue, based on the life of Jimmie Rodgers. His yodeling carried the day, and he was awarded the part of the “Blue Yodeler” in the summer spectacular. A steady paycheck seemed assured, but … “But I happened to be playing Happy Hour at the Jolly Ox, and I was expressly forbidden to play my own songs,” Rodney recalls. “One night I clenched through my teeth ‘I’m gonna play one of my own songs.’ So I played this song called ‘You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee,’ and at the end of that set Jerry Reed’s manager came and said ‘We’d like to record that song tomorrow, and if you’re not signed, we’d like to sign you as a songwriter.’ I said ‘OK, yeah. Good timing.’ I think that was a crossroads.” He has often reflected on how his life would’ve turned out differently if he had become the “Blue Yodeler.”
True to his manager’s word, Reed cut Rodney’s song the very next afternoon. “I speculate they were sitting around at Happy Hour at the Jolly Ox going ‘God, we need a song for tomorrow…’”
Vector Music paid him $100 per week to turn out the tunes
Although he wrote several that would later prove pivotal, including “Song For the Life” and “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” none got recorded. Still, Vector was a learning experience, and he met Chet Atkins, Jim Croce and even Buford Pusser, and super–session drummer Larrie Londin (later a close professional and personal friend) during this period.
Skip Beckwith, who played bass with the Canadian country/pop diva Anne Murray, came through Nashville in ’74 and wound up crashing at Rodney’s house for a week. The two became fast friends, and when Beckwith flew home to Toronto, he was carrying a cassette demo of a couple of Crowell songs. His intention was to play them for Brian Ahern, Murray’s producer.
But Ahern was knee–deep in a new project. He had agreed to produce the first solo album for Emmylou Harris, the former harmony singer for country/rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who had died from bad living the previous fall.
It was a fateful meeting, and one Harris remembers well. “Brian popped the tape into the machine, and ‘Bluebird Wine’ came on,” she says. “There was something in Rodney’s voice that I really liked. There was something about the energy and the song that I really liked. So we listened then to ‘Song For the Life’ and I said ‘Now, here’s somebody that has obviously listened to George Jones.’”
Crowell was tracked down in Houston — he still has no idea how they found him there—and within hours of Ahern’s call he was on a plane to Toronto. He came face–to–face with Emmylou Harris for the first time at the rural Virginia home of guitarist John Starling, of the Seldom Scene.
“We sat up all night and played songs,” says Crowell, “‘Do you know this one?’ We both were into all those brothers — the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, John and Paul, all of those duet singing teams.”
Immediately, they both knew they had to sing together. It was too good.
Harris: “We would sit there and bang away on the guitars, and he would jump in with the harmony. In the way that Gram used to play me songs, and I would jump in on the harmony. Or then Rodney would sing the song and I would start harmonizing with him.”
During that first session at John Starling’s house, Rodney sang “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” and Harris was stunned. “At this point, I felt like I had probably found the mother lode. Because for somebody at his young age to be able to write a song like ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ … I always felt that Rodney was an old soul, that he was able to write songs that you can appreciate when you’re young, but they really age well because as you get older, and life gets harder, and you get more and more worn around the edges, the songs take on even more levels of soulfulness and poetry. He really has always had a phenomenal talent for the lyric and the melody.”
Susanna Clark remembers the first time she heard Emmylou Harris sing. “Rodney called us over to his little apartment, and he said ‘Sit there, Susanna. I’m gonna play you something. You have to be still.’ All of a sudden there was this piercing, beautiful, angelic voice, singing ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ And he said ‘See? They like me up in Canada.’ I knew how he wrote it, and why he wrote it, but I’d never heard it like that before, ever, ever.”
Eventually, Crowell was Choice No. 1 for the Hot Band, which Harris and Ahern were assembling to back her on her first album. He readily agreed to move to Los Angeles, where the sessions were to take place.
“Being a harmony singer was such an integral part of what my real musical education was about,” Harris points out. “So much of what we did was built around singing those harmonies. And having somebody to bounce songs off of, and bounce harmonies off of, having somebody to harmonize with … That whole duet thing was a real important part of my identity, the way I approached music, the way I thought of myself.
“I found myself center stage because of fate and circumstances, but I always felt that I was sharing the stage with Rodney. And the whole rest of the band. I always thought of myself as a member of that band.”
The Hot Band was aptly named, as it included several members of Elvis Presley’s touring group, guitarist James Burton, bassist Emory Gordy Jr., pedal steel player Hank DeVito, drummer Ron Tutt and pianist Glen D. Hardin. And Rodney Crowell.
All but Tutt agreed to tour with Harris — Burton and Hardin on the condition that they be allowed to work around Elvis’ schedule. Gordy, DeVito and Crowell, in particular, formed a bond that lasts to this day.
“It’s interesting that everybody focuses on the Hot Band, and the hot players, and rightly so,” Harris says. “Everybody in the band was so important. But Rodney brought something to the band — I think he became the spirit and the personality. He had such a wonderful, open, playful quality about him, and yet he was so talented as a songwriter. Everything just fell into place, and somehow it was real pivotal around Rodney.”
Harris recorded “BluebirdWine” for that first album, Pieces of the Sky, and “‘Til I Gain Control Again” for Elite Hotel in ’76. For the next decade, Rodney Crowell’s songs figured in nearly all of her records — Harris was the first to record “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and numerous others.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” she enthuses. “I had this great young writer that nobody else knew about, and I had first dibs on anything he wrote. In fact, sometimes I was the first person to hear the song.”
Rodney’s first recording sessions were as backing vocalist on Guy Clark’s RCA Records debut, Old No. 1. Clark had recorded the entire set, then decided he didn’t like it and cut the whole thing again. By the time of the re–make sessions, Crowell was living in Los Angeles with the Hot Band. He flew back and forth to Nashville to help with Old No. 1.
“He brought a lot of good, positive energy,” says Clark. “And he made the record better.”
Crowell also figured prominently in the recording of Clark’s historically underrated second album, Texas Cookin,’ in ’76.
Onstage, the Hot Band was re–papering the walls between country and popular music. Burton, DeVito, Gordy, Hardin and Crowell were more than mere backup players. The virtuosity onstage was astounding, and audiences from coast to coast to coast responded.
Crowell: “It was fun. It was heady. At that time, we were a country rock band opening for Elton John at Dodger Stadium. We were out with James Taylor. We played a lot of the rock venues. At that time, it wasn’t so segregated. And it was real cool.
“I was young and impressionable, and I learned a lot. I think that’s the period where I became a record producer, because working with Glen and James Burton and Emory and all of those guys, it was a group of arrangers.
“I could only claim that I was a songwriter and a little bit of a vocalist at that time. But being around those guys, I actually learned how to arrange. And combining my sense for songs and what I learned about arranging, being in that band, has really served me pretty well for a while.”
History has re–assigned the Rodney Crowell of that period the role of surrogate Gram Parsons; Harris, it’s suggested, needed a strong male vocal presence on the stage to make her comfortable, and Rodney filled the bill.
“That was a completely different deal,” Crowell says “Gram Parsons needed Emmy. He sang melody and she sang the third harmony part. It doesn’t work without the third. And with me and Emmy, Emmy sang the melody, and I sang usually the fifth beneath her. It’s a different kind of harmony configuration.
“Whenever I took the melody, and Emmy sang harmony with me, I think we had that particular sound. I think I was basically the same kind of singer as Gram Parsons, in that timbre.”
Crowell thinks of Parsons as a “James Dean character who died a flamboyant death,” and that’s about it, thank you. He never met the guy. “I wasn’t a surrogate Gram Parsons,” he says. “We were just working, making music.”
A brief marriage, in 1975, to his Nashville girlfriend Martha didn’t last long, but it resulted in the birth of Hannah Crowell, who was brought up by her father. “She left and I got the kid,” Rodney says proudly. “I raised her up solid.”
By any other name
The next year, he met Johnny Cash’s 21–year–old daughter Rosanne, an aspiring singer/songwriter herself. It happened at a party at Waylon Jennings’ house, where Rodney and Emmylou were the center of attention. “They trotted us out and we sang duets for them,” Crowell recalls. “While Rosanne and Willie Nelson sat under a pool table.”
He didn’t really notice her, he says, although she later told interviewers she took an instant liking to him. “There was too much going on to really dial it in,” Rodney says. “Me and Emmy were kind of performing for everybody, so I don’t think I was terribly receptive. We were performing for Willie and Waylon, really. And I don’t think John and June (Carter, Rosanne’s stepmother) were there.”
Brian Ahern sat in the producer’s chair for Rodney’s first solo album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, for Warner Brothers in the spring of ’78. The album featured many of the virtuoso players that made up the Hot Band. To pursue his own dream, Crowell left the touring band, to be replaced by young Ricky Skaggs, who found himself referred to by the press as a “surrogate Rodney Crowell.”
“Honestly, I dropped out thinking that I would just do what Emmy was doing,” remembers Crowell. “Get myself a great band and go out and play all those great places she was.
“That was not at all what happened. I put out that first record and it didn’t do anything for me, personally, but the songs were good and they all got covered.”
Within three years, “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Voila, An American Dream” would become huge hits for other artists. Harris herself cut “Leaving Louisiana” and “Ain’t Living Long” on her fourth album, 1978′s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. It went gold.
But Rodney Crowell’s album gathered dust on record store shelves across America.
Perhaps it just swung too wide—along with the sharply–etched originals, Crowell included covers of Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” Porter Wagoner’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” and Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such As I,” all of which he’d learned at his father’s knee.
“‘Elvira,’ and ‘Candy Man,’ which I did years later, were songs that I learned off my Aunt Mary’s stereo down in Houston,” says Crowell. “She had a collection of R’n’B singles, back there in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that was uncanny for the kind of woman she was. These R’n’B records from New Orleans. She had Frogman Henry and those things.” Aunt Mary’s son, Larry Willoughby, followed Rodney into the music business.
Everyone involved was stunned at the failure of Ain’t Living Long Like This, which never sold more than 50,000 copies. “It was a great record,” believes Emmylou Harris. “And just about every song was lifted by somebody else and made a hit.
“But for some reason, that door that had opened for me when I kind of surprised everybody, including myself, and there was an audience for this new kind of country —the door kind of closed somehow. And I don’t think the record company knew exactly how to promote that record of Rodney’s. I don’t know what happened, because certainly it was a good record.”
To add insult to injury, the Oak Ridge Boys took their revival of “Elvira,” using Rodney Crowell’s arrangement, to No. 1 in 1981, earning “Single of the Year” honors from the Country Music Association.
Success somehow eluded Rodney Crowell. “I think I just sort of assumed it would come,” he laughs. “Maybe I was presumptuous about that.”
In retrospect, Crowell believes he doomed Ain’t Living Long Like This because he didn’t promote it; rather than hitting the road, he flew to Munich, Germany, where Rosanne Cash was making an album for the Ariola label. As a favor, he had produced her demo recordings. When a friend in Munich played the tape for someone she knew at Ariola, Rosanne was offered a record deal. Crowell always believed they were trying to cash in on the fact that she was Johnny Cash’s daughter.
The first sessions went badly, and soon Rosanne called Rodney and begged him to come to Germany and help her finish the record. He did, and during their stay in Munich romance blossomed.
Rosanne’s self–titled album was issued worldwide, and died a worldwide death. That, they figured, was that. They both hated it, anyway.
Back in California, Crowell had formed a bond with Albert Lee, the English guitarist who’d taken over for James Burton in the Hot Band, when Burton opted to keep his calendar open only for Elvis. “There were mixed feelings when I joined the Hot Band, because I was replacing James Burton,” Lee says. “James wanted to do both gigs, really, and they forced him into a decision. So I was fortunate enough to get the gig with Emmylou, which was perfect for me. It was the kind of music I’d always wanted to play.
“But I had to replace one of my all–time favorite guitar players, and play a lot of his licks. Which was fine up to a point. But there were certain people in the band — I won’t name names — who were putting pressure on me. But Rodney was certainly on my side, and a big fan. And we became fast friends right from the word go.” Rodney and Albert weren’t together in the Hot Band for very long. But they enjoyed singing together; they dubbed their weekend act “Rodney & Albert.”
“In Emmy’s down time, we started playing down in Redondo Beach, at the Sweetwater,” Crowell recalls. “It was me and Albert, (drummer) John Ware, Emory Gordy and Hank DeVito. Rosanne sang harmony and played guitar with us. That was what eventually became the Cherry Bombs.”
Some nights, Rosanne was so nervous she turned her guitar amplifier off and only pretended to play.
Tony Brown, another former Elvis sideman, had replaced Glen D. Hardin as the Hot Band’s pianist. When Emmylou cut down on touring because of her pregnancy, Brown took a desk job with RCA Records in Los Angeles, joining the Hot Band for their infrequent gigs, most of them in California. He hooked up with “Rodney & Albert,” too, and by simple virtue of his presence became a charter Cherry Bomb.
Between 1979 and ’81, the Cherry Bombs barnstormed the California club circuit, played some big shows, and re–organized with a slightly altered lineup each time. “We would play for anything from a dollar a night to whatever our fee was, just to be in that group, with Larrie Londin on drums,” says Brown.
“The Cherry Bombs didn’t become the Cherry Bombs until we brought Larrie Londin out from Nashville to the Record Plant in Sausalito,” Crowell adds. “That’s when I got on the idea to call the band the Cherry Bombs: ‘We’ll tour the whole world!’” Vince Gill, who was just then starting to sing with Pure Prairie League (his explosively successful solo career was still a decade away), often played lead guitar with the Cherry Bombs.
“I first met Vince at the Troubadour in ’76,” recalls Crowell. “I went down to see Byron Berline, and Vince was on the stage. I walked in and got me a place in the balcony up there, and Vince started singing ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ And I went ‘Wow, that was good.’ He sang it REAL good. Vince must’ve been 20 or 21 at the time.
“When they came off, I went and introduced myself. He was, I think, just starting to date Janis from Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and I knew them from the Long Beach Bluegrass Festival days. When I was a judge, and I voted for ‘em. They were the Sweethearts back in ’75.”
In early ’79 Rick Blackburn, then the head of Columbia Records, was at Johnny Cash’s house in Nashville. Proud papa pulled out the Ariola album, Rosanne Cash, and put it on the turntable. Blackburn didn’t care for the record’s trendy pop sounds, but he liked Rosanne’s voice, and he was particularly drawn to one song, “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” written by Rosanne’s new boyfriend, Rodney Crowell.
Rosanne was signed to Columbia Records, and it took some persuading, but Blackburn eventually allowed Crowell to produce her debut, Right or Wrong.
He tackled his first major production in the Enactron Truck studio, the very facility where the newly–married Ahern and Harris made their masterpieces (it was indeed a truck, parked in the driveway of the house they leased on Lania Lane in Beverly Hills).
Right or Wrong was a punchy, heads–up concoction merging country/pop ballads and uptempo ravers. Rosanne covered her father (“Big River”), used one of her own songs (“This Has Happened Before”) and hit a blue streak of great Rodney Crowell songs (“Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” “Anybody’s Darlin,’” “Seeing’s Believing” and “No Memories Hangin’ Round”).
A duet with Bobby Bare, “No Memories Hangin’ Round” was Rosanne’s first hit single, reaching No. 17 in September ’79, two months after she and Rodney tied the knot in Los Angeles. Rodney’s daughter Hannah moved in with them, and daughter Caitlin was born later in the year.
The Cherry Bombs backed Rosanne on her record, too. “He had an idea what he wanted, but obviously he put a lot of trust into the players,” recalls Albert Lee. “He knew what he could get from the players. He relied on us.”
Lee’s chicken–pickin’ electric guitar — as well as his piano work and vocal harmonies —were used on every Crowell record, as an artist or producer, during this period. “All the times I worked with him in the studio, he never really grilled me at all,” says Lee. “It’s always been very easy. He knows what I do, and he always seems happy with what I deliver.”
Rodney’s focus once again became his solo career. In ’79, he was besotted with Elvis Costello. “It was songwriting far beyond all those punk guys,” he says. “By that time, I’d been to England a few times and hung out with Dave Edmunds and the Rockpile boys, and got introduced to pub rock sensibilities. I went back to California thinking we were too soft.” On a trip to London, “Hank and I went down to Dingwall’s, and they had ‘Pump it Up’ blasting, and it was like ‘Man, this is the hippest stuff I’ve heard.’ And of course, we started going ‘Well, now we’ve got to upgrade our shit, here.’”
So Rodney Crowell and his Cherry Bombs moved into a rented house in Sausalito, armed with a handful of freshly–minted compositions, and “started bashing away.” The result was But What Will the Neighbors Think, a punchy, poppy record that bears little resemblance to the lighthearted and decidedly country Ain’t Living Long Like This.
Rodney’s vocals had something new, a compressed, filtered quality. “That’s me trying to get tough with it,” he says. “I think that’s me being influenced by Elvis Costello and those guys.”
The album was produced — virtually live in the studio — by Craig Leon, who’d made records with the Ramones. Rodney liked what he’d done on one of Moon Martin’s albums and sought him out.
“This artist travels outside the borders of country music, a move that jingoistic outlawism would consider an implicit betrayal,” read the rave Rolling Stone review ofBut What Will the Neighbors Think. “Yet rock ‘n’ roll and even English folk balladry are of a piece with Crowell’s concerns.”
The music was heads–up different–sounding, but Rodney Crowell the songwriter was right there where he should’ve been, dead center. “On a Real Good Night” ached with beautiful desperation, “Here Come the ’80s” looked forward with skewed optimism and humor. The covers were great, too, especially Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke” and Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts.”
But Juice Newton soon had a huge pop hit with “Queen of Hearts,” and Ricky Skaggs made “Heartbroke” his third consecutive No. 1 record.
Rodney managed to get to No. 78 on the pop chart with “Ashes By Now,” the first of two singles from But What Will the Neighbors Think. Even that had been left over from the first album; in fact, the original recording was the B–side of “Elvira” back in ’78. Brian Ahern later replaced Rodney’s lead vocal s with Emmylou Harris’ and released “her version” of “Ashes By Now” as part of her Evangeline album.
In the meantime, two more singles from Rosanne’s Right or Wrong were Top 20 records.
Crowell: “I was certainly frustrated, and disappointed and hurt, but you know what? Every time I did something that the public or the writers perceived as such a devastating thing, to make me such a negative, nasty person, it just wasn’t true. Because I would just get over it and get on to the next thing I was working on. I was producing something else or I was touring with the Cherry Bombs. I was always optimistic.
“I was certainly disappointed, and I was going through the trials and tribulations that you do in marriage, when you’re young and getting too screwed up, but I think there’s this general stamp to put on me in that time.
“And it’s not fair, because I was always optimistic and always writing more songs, and onto the next thing.”
He wore his producer’s hat for two new projects, Guy Clark’s The South Coast of Texas album, and Rosanne’s Seven Year Ache. Early in the year, Clark had made an album, Burnin’ Daylight, with Craig Leon, but it wasn’t a hit with anyone who heard it (especially the nit–picky Clark) so it went back in the can, and Crowell was enlisted to re–make it. And that was The South Coast of Texas, issued by Warner Brothers in the summer of ’81.
“I played him what we’d done, and explained how much I didn’t like it, and he said he thought he could do it,” Clark recalls. Craig Leon’s wafer–thin vocal sound didn’t suit Clark’s bare–bones songs.
Ultimately, Rodney would produce two albums for his friend — and today, Clark doesn’t care for either one of them. “There’s just too much stuff,” he says. “I never did like that kind of thing, just trying to do what too many different people wanted. (And) he was trying to learn to be a producer on me; it wasn’t totally a labor of love. He had an agenda.”
Clark, who now records with a primarily acoustic sound, says he and Crowell agree today that the big–production thing — drums, electric guitar and pedal steel — was a well–intentioned mistake.
A breakthrough was on the horizon, though. Under Rodney’s careful production,Seven Year Ache was a slick, masterful updating of the rockin’ country sound Harris and Ahern had developed for Harris’ early records. But Rosanne’s style was more urban, her choice of songs and her delivery less rooted in the traditional. The emotions were simple and on the surface, like the best country music; the music was more sophisticated.
The album had saxophones instead of pedal steel guitar, but the players were, as always, the best — members of the Hot Band and the Cherry Bombs. With Seven Year Ache, Rosanne Cash became the poster girl for contemporary country in the 1980s.
Three No. 1 singles emerged, including the feisty title song (inspired by Rodney after one of the couple’s many arguments), a cover of Asleep at the Wheel’s “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” and another Rosanne original, “Blue Moon With Heartache.” Rodney and Hank DeVito contributed the lovely “I Can’t Resist,” later covered by Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
Rodney issued his third album that year, too. Containing some of his best songs yet, including “Shame on the Moon,” “Victim or a Fool” and “Stars on the Water,” Rodney Crowell appeared with little fanfare from Warner Brothers, virtually no publicity, and zero radio play. Its two singles scraped into the lower reaches of the Top 30.
The Cherry Bombs continued to plug away. “I think about then Albert might have started playing with Eric Clapton,” says Crowell. “Actually, there were three guitar players in that band that kind of rotated: Richard Bennett, Vince and Albert. Probably the one who did the most work was Richard Bennett, because Albert got real busy and Vince was in and out. There were nights that they were all three onstage.”
Recalls Tony Brown: “I felt like I was barely hanging by a thread to be able to play with those guys. I had that whole Hot Band bunch way up on a pedestal, and I was just hanging by my fingernails.”
Always the bridesmaid
Waylon Jennings took “Ain’t Living Long Like This” to the top of the country charts, and the Oak Ridge Boys did the same with “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Then Crystal Gayle’s version of “‘Til I Gain Control Again” went to No. 1.
Rosanne’s success was the capper. The party line, in the press, was that Rodney Crowell had the magic touch — at least when it came to other recording artists. As a performer himself, he couldn’t get arrested.
Having the touch wasn’t entirely what he craved. “There were always times when I remember evaluating: To be a producer is to actually get into the art of helping someone else realize what they’re trying to do,” he says. “I always thought that was a pretty noble undertaking, and I still do. It’s a part of me that’s always been there—I like collaborating with other people, kind of a midwifery. And I always kind of viewed it like film directing, producing records. I always really enjoyed it artistically. Still do.”
He was to reach the brass ring, but not for a while yet. “I got perspective on this,” he says now. “Having big hit records myself later on didn’t satisfy, so there you are.”
As Rosanne’s star ascended, his stayed on the ground. It made good copy, and the public could buy it — hell, it made sense on the surface — but Crowell insists that household envy just wasn’t the case.
“It was my success, too, because I in the early part, I was a real driving force in those records,” he explains. “She later on matured and started taking on a little more … she eventually became her own producer.
“But in the beginning, I enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing them succeed.”
Recently, Laurence Leamer’s book on country music, Three Chords and the Truth,reiterated the old story about Rodney’s “bitterness” in those early years, watching Rosanne score hit after hit. The book steamed him like a clam.
“I wasn’t jealous of that,” he says. “I was frustrated with myself. It was ‘How come I can get this to work so easily, but when I put the spotlight on myself, why do I trip up?’ I couldn’t figure that out, and it took my five more years to solve that.”
After he produced albums for Bobby Bare (As Is) and for actress Sissy Spacek (Hangin’ Up My Heart), Rodney, Rosanne, Hannah and Caitlin loaded up the truck and moved to … Tennessee, on the Fourth of July, 1981. “We started having children, and L.A. just didn’t seem like the place to be to do that,” he explains. “A little too sprawling. A little too much time in the car. Not very big yards.” The couple’s second daughter, Chelsea, was born in Nashville.
Renewing his friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark, Rodney then set about making himself known in Nashville. He produced an album for his cousin, Larry Willoughby, and one for Albert Lee (both were eponymously titled). He did Somewhere in the Stars for Rosanne, and Better Days for Guy.
Then Bob Seger’s smoky cover version of “Shame on the Moon” became a huge pop hit, at the end of ’82. Not long afterwards, the Dirt Band hit No. 1, country, with Rodney’s “Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream).”
He and Rosanne were addicted to cocaine by then. It wasn’t fun around their crib.
“So much of my frustration was self–induced, and the self–induced frustration was also fueled by drugs,” Crowell reports. “It became pretty much of a black hole situation for me. In the late ’60s, in the beginning, I started writing because of it. It was a fuel for that.
“But by then, it really became a real negative thing. I was allergic to cocaine, yet I kept on doing it. I made the decision that I don’t care if I never write again, I gotta quit doing this.”
The world turned on New Year’s Eve, 1984. “When she went off to treatment, that’s when I stopped using cocaine myself,” he says. “And I haven’t used it since.”
How did he kick such a destructive habit? “I stayed home with the kids,” he chuckles. “She took the high road, and I took the low. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with sweat and thinking ‘Ah, I’m withdrawing here.’ And I actually started writing better. Got more focused. I could actually finish a block of thought.”
Cash emerged from the detox center clean and sober. Crowell maintains that even though their drug daze fogged some of their records (listen to the lacklusterSomewhere in the Stars, for example), they still created a good percentage of solid material in that period.
“I think I managed to do some good work as a producer,” he offers. “Where I think it held me back was personally. It was my own stumbling block, my own inner conflict that kept me from being able to create for myself what I wanted.
“Truth is, I know that what was going on for me at that time was not about her, it was about what was going on with me. I was self–inducing some real serious blocks. That’s why I don’t go with the old tried–and–true story that her records took off and I was jealous. That just wasn’t true.”
He threw himself back into his work in 1984, proclaiming, hand on the Bible, that he wasn’t going to “be a producer” any more. He wanted that solo career, and with a new clarity of vision, he went after it.
The album he and co–producer David Malloy came up with, Street Language, was delivered to Warner Brothers at the end of the year. Label president Jim Ed Norman promptly handed it back.
“There was a little cheese factor in what we did,” Crowell reflects, chuckling. “It was pop in a way that wasn’t whole. Sorta inorganic.
“I don’t think David and I really hit on it, you know. We took it to L.A., and their reaction was ‘We can’t really do much with this.’ Jim Ed was very gentlemanly then — I’ve kept him in the highest regard — and he said ‘We can’t put this record out, but we’ll give you a budget to make another record. Make us a record that we can work in Nashville.’”
Instead, Rodney negotiated a release from his Warners contract, and a deal was struck with Columbia Records, Rosanne’s label. “That record went on the shelf, which I’ve always been grateful for,” he says. One track from the rejected Street Languagealbum, “I Don’t Have to Crawl,” was released in 1989 on the Warners compilation The Rodney Crowell Collection.
The first order of business was re–making Street Language. Booker T. Jones, who’d played organ on the Rodney Crowell album, agreed to co–produce. Crowell had met him during the sessions for Willie Nelson’s Stardust back in ’77 (Jones produced that seminal marriage of pop and country, the album that made Willie a crossover star).
The re–made Street Language leaned heavily on rock ‘n’ roll and big, electric arrangements. Columbia wasn’t sure how to market the thing.
“I was still kind of headstrong that I didn’t want to make a country record, per se,” Crowell says. “I wanted to make my own record, right? So when we finished it, we took it to New York, and it was kind of a “co–” between Nashville and New York. And that never works, on any huge level.”
Neither the New York or Nashville brain trusts could get Street Language off the ground, despite a huge promotional campaign that included countless interviews on “hip” college radio stations, and a tour (in the summer and fall of 1986) with the Hooters and the BoDeans.
It’s not a bad album. As eclectic in its own way as But What Will the Neighbors Think,Street Language betrays very little country influence — most of the songs, from the rollicking, horn–driven “Ballad of Fast Eddie” to the Beatle–esque “Stay (Don’t Be Cruel)” owe their souls to rock ‘n’ roll. “Oh King Richard,” re–recorded from the first version of the album, was a “modern folk tale” about race driver Richard Petty.
Crowell: “One of my favorite things I ever did was ‘Oh King Richard.’ To me, that was folk/rock at that time, and I loved that. And I really liked ‘Ballad of Fast Eddie.’ I look back on ‘Let Freedom Ring,’ and I think (co–writer) Keith Sykes and I had seduced ourselves. We were in New York and it was Springsteen fever. When I hear that record, I want to cringe.
“‘When the Blue Hour Comes,’ that wasn’t Booker’s fault, that was my fault. That thing was totally overdone. Because I did a demo of it recently, with this girl singing, and I discovered it to be a real sweet song. But to me, the way it was all dressed up on that record, we killed a perfectly good song.”
“When the Blue Hour Comes” was a three–way composition with Will Jennings and Roy Orbison. “Will Jennings was mine and Orbison’s friend, and he kept saying ‘You guys are so much alike. I gotta get you together.’ He saw us as Texas boys, so he instigated that.
“Roy was black and white, Roy was. Working with him one day, it was like ‘God, this guy! I can’t wait to get out of here. He don’t like me, Will. What made you think that we would get on?’
“And then the next day, he was like the funniest guy in the world. I was so relieved. Every joke he told, I’d laugh til I cried.”
“Ballad of Fast Eddie,” which remains in the live Crowell repertoire to this day, was inspired by Peter Sheridan, a hulking, Harley–riding “character” who found his way onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus — “a cowboy bus in the New York zoo” — in the late ’70s (“Fast Eddie” was the crew’s code name for Willie). On his east coast swings, Rodney and Rosanne spent a lot of time with Willie, who recorded the Crowell composition “Angel Eyes (Angel Eyes)” for his Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack album in ’79.
Sheridan was killed on his motorcycle in 1982, and Rodney’s song became a tribute to his intimidating, hipster–cliche–spouting presence in their lives.
Around the time of Street Language, Rodney was enlisted to “produce” an album recorded in Europe by Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Class of ’55 was nothing to write home about. It had probably looked good on paper.
“Somebody recorded it in Germany, and they brought the tapes to me and said ‘Make a record out of this,’” Crowell recalls. “And then Jerry Lee Lewis comes in with his entourage, puts a pistol on the console and says ‘I’m gonna be on Side One.’
“But he came in late in the show, so the biggest job was cutting Jerry Lee Lewis onto Side One of the old 33 1/3. And then we spent a week working on matching the audience sounds, so that it sounded like he came out for the fourth song of the set.”
All three singles from Street Language tanked, and Rodney’s career didn’t advance a millimeter. Meanwhile, Rosanne hit No. 1 four additional times, and was being treated like royalty, as Nashville’s hip young queen.
Oh, they’d say, and her husband is a great writer and producer. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
Sometimes it’s diamonds
The Columbia Records office was across the parking lot from MCA Records, where Tony Brown was staff–producing one great, and successful, album after another. One afternoon in late 1987, Rodney Crowell tapped on his old buddy’s window.
Brown: “He asked me ‘Hey, why don’t you produce one on me? Let’s cut some hits.’ And when he came and started playing me things, he was so fired up. He was in a good space at that point. I was so excited, I was levitating. Which I guess, probably, inspired him.”
Practically overnight, Crowell had experienced an epiphany. “Harlan Howard and I had written a song called ‘Somewhere Tonight,’ that that group Highway 101 recorded,” he says. “It was the kinda Bakersfield–sounding thing, and I really liked it. I’m talking to myself: ‘I have a natural feel for that stuff. I really like that stuff.’
“And about that time, Steve Earle came along and made Guitar Town, and I liked the kind of directness. I wrote ‘I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried’ and ‘After All This Time,’ and Guy and I had that old song ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving,’ and at that time the songs, and where I was, and what was grabbin’ my attention and holding up a mirror, that’s the music I wanted to make.
“I don’t think I made that music to grab the brass ring, but it did. I think my motivation for doing it was artistic, as opposed to material.”
Tony Brown had produced Guitar Town, and he was a musical compadre, so why the hell not? Together, they recorded, mixed and mastered Diamonds & Dirt in four weeks.
“We went in the studio, and I guess it was the only record he ever made that fast and didn’t second–guess it,” Brown remembers. “He did the vocals quick. He just flew through it.
“Because Rodney will sit and second–guess. He’s the kind of guy that when the record has been out a year, he wants to re–cut Side Two one more time.”
There was no master plan, nobody saw it coming, but Diamonds & Dirt proved to be the record that broke Rodney Crowell. Broke him wide open. “Tony Brown and I got on the same page,” he recalls, “and I said ‘I want to make a real cool country–sounding record.’ And it worked.”
He had steadfastly refused to make a straight–ahead country record for so long, when he finally did it, it was as if the country music audience had been waiting for him all along. The hunger had built up and reached a fever pitch. He was an overnight sensation, in gestation for 10 years.
With its shuffling honky–tonk sound, Diamonds & Dirt was a natural for the period, when artists like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis were putting more traditional sounds back on the radio. And Rodney knew that kind of music inside, out and all kinds of ways backwards.
For some fans, however, the album was a disappointment. After the passionate eclecticism of Crowell’s earlier records, it sounded like an overtly commercial appeal to the radio.
“But it didn’t sound contrived,” says Brown. “I think it just sounded like real accessible Rodney Crowell. Everybody had sort of made him a left–of–center act for sure. When I played it for people who knew Rodney, their first response wasn’t ‘What a commercial record,’ their first response was ‘God, Rodney sounds great.’”
Brown has nothing but compliments for Crowell’s abilities. “I really hadn’t come into my own,” says the man who would later become Nashville’s most successful producer. “For Rodney to ask me … he was one of my mentors. A lot of my production things I copied from him and (Jimmy) Bowen. I took Bowen’s ability to organize himself, and to say there’s no one you shouldn’t hire. Fly ‘em in.
“And I took Rodney’s way of looking at the creative process. I studied that. So they were my mentors.”
Between January and October 1988, Rodney Crowell had five consecutive chart–topping singles. First out of the chute was “It’s Such a Small World,” a duet with Rosanne Cash.
They’d avoided recording a duet for years, mostly because that was what everyone in country music, conservative or contemporary, did eventually. “I remember saying ‘Nah, we’re not going to try to capitalize on that,’” says Crowell. “Whatever made the change happen, I don’t know. But as I look back on it, it was natural casting. I coulda got Emmy to do it, maybe. But we were both on the same label.” “It’s Such a Small World,” ironically, was the most pop–sounding track on Diamonds & Dirt; still, the duet with his famous spouse served as a proper introduction to country radio, which didn’t know Rodney’s voice at all.
Afterwards, in rapid succession, came “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leavin’” (the original, produced by Rodney, was on Clark’s The South Coast of Texas), “After All This Time” (eventual winner of the Best Country Song Grammy) and a cover of Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond” (a honky–tonkin’ hit for Buck Owens in 1960).
Suddenly, it was Rodney Crowell this, and Rodney Crowell that. He was in print, he was on TV, he was on the radio every time you punched a button.
Success should have been sweet. Predictably, perhaps, it wasn’t.
“I was too busy trying to keep up, to do what was coming as a result of it,” Crowell says. “It really brought in a tough time for me, actually. That was when that marriage started to go down the drain.”
Says Susanna Clark: “When he got hot, he was physically unavailable, but it seemed like psychologically he needed you more.”
The fall of ’89 brought Keys to the Highway, which should have been a blockbuster followup. “Well, I got a little more miserable,” Crowell reflects. “After I did Diamonds & Dirt, I really wanted to break out. I kind of like what I tried to do with Keys to theHighway, but that to me was just a little too much a following … I think that record was more trying to stay in the marketplace than Diamonds & Dirt was. I thinkDiamonds & Dirt was just making a record because I felt like it. And then after I made it, I kind of had to do a followup. And I’m not too good at followups. And I wasn’t too happy about where I was.”
Again, Tony Brown co–produced. “With Keys to the Highway, he and Rosanne had just started going through some problems,” he remembers. “And face it, if you go through any artist’s career, in any genre, and you see a little cycle of where there’s a dip, nine times out of 10 there’s something in their lives that’s personal that’s interfering.
“His father passed away. A lot of things happened. I remember when we were in the studio and had just finished recording ‘Things I Wished I’d Said,’ he just broke down in front of the entire band. It was a really emotional moment.”
“Things I Wish I’d Said,” written as a tribute to J.W., barely charted at all. “Many a Long & Lonesome Highway,” with poignant lyrics about his father’s passing, went to No. 3. The sprightly “If Looks Could Kill” reached No. 6.
Even the album cover was downbeat; unlike the happy–go–lucky Rodney Crowell who strolled toward the camera on Diamonds & Dirt, the guy on the front of Keys to theHighway looked grim. There wasn’t a single picture of his million–dollar smile anywhere on the package.
Things carried on, for all intents and purposes, like nothing had changed. Daughter Carrie was born in 1989; Rosanne, who preferred not to tour, stayed home in Nashville while Rodney worked the road with his Dixie Pearls Band, virtually for two years straight, massaging his newfound celebrity. “That just didn’t sit well at home,” says Rodney. “It wasn’t a good time.
“I had all those No. 1 records in a row, and two of them from Keys to the Highwaywere Top Five, and boy, it just didn’t do anything for me. I was actually more miserable. That was the most miserable time in my life.
“Rosanne’s perspective on this would be her own, and I wouldn’t project … I always felt that I was more supportive of her than she was of me. If you ask her, in fairness, she might say ‘No, I was more supportive of him.’ But I stayed.”
Rosanne moved out of the Nashville house in 1990. She went to Connecticut, and then to New York City, where she’s lived since her divorce from Rodney became official in mid–1991.
From Rosanne’s 1990 album Interiors: “Maybe our lives will never be the same/But we can face tomorrow if we can just get through today/I’m holding back the tears while you’re pushing me away/But on the surface everything’s OK.”
Rodney wrote this: “I feel the same as you/I don’t know what we’re gonna do/We have got to be who we are/So we can’t let it go too far … Maybe next time out we’ll be ourselves …”
When Roseanne wrote: “I wonder where you are/Do I exist for you?/If that pain that never quits/Ever gets you too?” her husband finished the song: “I see my past just like a mask I wore/I hardly know how to be myself anymore.”
“The thing about Rosanne and I, we just kinda wrote about our experience,” says Crowell. “I was writing about my experience—it wasn’t all about her, or answering to her, it certainly had a lot to do with her because she’d been a big part of my life.
“I’ll say this: Her impact on my life was very positive. I see it as very positive and not negative. She’s the mother of my children, and I don’t have anything bad to say about her.”
His marital postscript was 1992′s Life is Messy.
A sometimes brilliant, sometimes painfully honest collection of songs, it brought to mind John Lennon’s classic Plastic Ono Band album: Maybe it was a little too personal in places, but there’s a lot to be said for the naked emotion in the grooves.
Life is Messy quickly became known as Rodney’s “divorce” album. And even though it sent the single “Lovin’ All Night” into the Top Ten, it was not a critical or commercial success. This was just three years after the career–making juggernaut that wasDiamonds & Dirt.
“Here’s what I think about Life is Messy, having the benefit of hindsight,” he says. “If I could take parts of Street Language, and parts of Life is Messy, I could make one really good record. For me. To me, I have some of the same feelings about them both: There’s some really high moments for me, as a recording artist, and some parts that just fall really flat for me.
“I hedged the bet a little bit by putting in ‘Lovin’ All Night,’ ‘It Don’t Get Better Than This’ and ‘The Answer is Yes.’ I could have made a whole album of darkness. Looking back on it now, I should’ve made a completely dark record. Who would care? It would sell a lot of records and I could look back and say ‘Boy, I made 10 songs that were just committed to that pathos.’”
Despite Crowell’s commitment to promoting Life is Messy with more TV appearances than usual, and with another concert tour (which found him mixing his ultra–personalLife is Messy songs with such cheery and familiar fare as “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” and “She’s Crazy For Leaving”), the album marked the end of his brief but productive relationship with Columbia Records.
He gave it his all, but quickly found he needed his all back.
“Everything was taking a downturn, it looked like then,” he remembers. “I look at it now and I go, ‘ah, you just hit a rough patch. Toughen up, dude.’”
Rosanne’s departure had left a hole in his life, and a hole in the way he got things done. Upheaval was the order of the day.
“I made Life is Messy, and Donny Ienner at Sony, up in New York, said ‘Come up here and be our Don Henley.’ Those were his exact words. And I went ‘Awwww … I don’t want to be somebody’s somebody,’ and I just quit: Fuck it, I’m going home.”
He spent about two years (between 1992 and ’94) looking after daughters Caitlin and Chelsea. “I went home and became a single parent, and I spent two years single parenting. Eventually came back out with Let the Picture Paint Itself, but there was a period there where my kids needed me more than music did. I was a little overwhelmed at that time, because I had some responsibilities that were outside of chasing fame and fortune.”
He’d always considered himself a good father, despite his frequent absenteeism. During the Diamonds & Dirt days, the glory days, he sometimes chartered a tour bus just for him and the girls, while the Dixie Pearls band traveled separately.
But now, with the career in a ditch, he went home to Nashville, actually telling a group of journalists — only half in jest — that he was retiring from the music business. “I had to improve my skills in other areas,” he says. “I had to get tougher. It was easy for me to be a good–time dad, but I had a teen–age daughter I had to start getting tough with.”
In ’92 Rodney received a call from film director Peter Bogdonovich, who was putting together The Thing Called Love, a fictional movie set in the very real Bluebird Cafe, Nashville’s plain–jane listening room, where singing/songwriting stars are made overnight.
“He called me to retain me as a consultant,” Crowell says. “That didn’t take much of my life. I kept telling him to make the River Phoenix character a cross between Dylan in Don’t Look Back, and Waylon. I took River over to my house and showed him Don’t Look Back. He’d never seen it, and it blew him away.”
Instead, the Phoenix character, James Wright, comes across as a surly and only marginally talented performer — more a testament to Phoenix’s own palpable arrogance and increased drug intake (The Thing Called Love was the last movie to be released during his lifetime) than to Rodney’s songs–for–hire. Altogether, three Crowell originals were included in the film, performed by Phoenix: “Standing on a Rock,” “Until Now” and “Lost Highway.” The latter was Rodney’s favorite, and the only one he didn’t record and release himself, with his own vocal track.
Crowell’s versions of “Until Now” and “Standing on a Rock” were included on Giant Records’ The Thing Called Love soundtrack album; he re–recorded “Standing on a Rock” for his Columbia Greatest Hits package, because he felt the movie version “just didn’t get it.”
River Phoenix, then 21 years old, had been writing music of his own for half a decade; he had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, in the Florida town where he spent his non–movie time. As a writer and singer, he was heavily influenced by bands such as XTC, R.E.M., and Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
The actor offered to create songs especially for The Thing Called Love.
“They couldn’t use the songs River was writing,” Crowell recalls. “But I really liked ‘em. They were out there. I couldn’t sing you a note of ‘em, but it was like, ‘Wow. That’s coming from another planet.’
“I guess if he would’ve organized it, put it together, he would have had himself a real out–there alternative thing.”
Phoenix checked into the Gram Parsons Heavenly Hall of Fame in October 1993. By then The Thing Called Love had crashed and burned in movie theaters, and Rodney Crowell was looking at the other side of his serious, stay–at–home single dad period.
He cut several new songs for Greatest Hits, including his 15–year–old “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and a new song, “Talking to a Stranger,” that recalled the Everly Brothers (Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Mary–Chapin Carpenter helped out with harmony vocals on the new material). He took a month in ’92 to produce the debut album for Lari White, who’d been a Dixie Pearls backup singer.
When 1994 dawned, Tony Brown was president of MCA Nashville, and his production had given Reba McEntire, George Strait, Wynonna, Vince Gill and just about every other MCA artist that golden touch. He was the hottest thing going, and he was quite naturally permitted to sign whoever he damned well pleased.
So Tony Brown added Rodney Crowell to the MCA Records roster. “I think he’s such an important artist in this town,” Brown says. “I really think he’s been responsible for a lot of things that happen in this town, the way people write songs, the way they cut records … and I felt like if we did Diamonds & Dirt once, we could do it again at MCA.”
Let the Picture Paint Itself (1994) repeated the Diamonds & Dirt formula: A lot of uptempo, bouncy, hook–laden honky–tonk songs balanced by a couple of pensive ballads (“Stuff That Works,” a killer lyric co–written with Guy Clark, was the song that got him started after his “retirement”) slicked over with Brown’s sharp, shoe–black production, radio–ready and good on the jukebox, too.
But Garth Brooks and his generic Wal–Mart country music was well into its trail ride to the national consciousness. “Young country” had become the pop music of the ’90s, and literate, smart, musicianly guys like Rodney Crowell had no place in that rodeo ring. Let the Picture Paint Itself was stillborn. With all the Marks, Tys and Tracys out there, the public — which had turned over several times since the Diamonds & Dirtdays — said ‘Rodney Who?’
“Hindsight on MCA: It looked really good on paper,” Crowell says, “with my old friend Tony there, and my cousin Larry in the A&R Department, but it was going backwards in a lot of ways.
“Some of it was a step forwards, and some was a step backwards. Truthfully, MCA gave me a lot of money — basically, the deal was to go back and do Diamonds & Dirt. A contemporary version of that. “I tried to be a good guy, and honor the deal, but it just wasn’t right. I don’t blame that on Tony, or even on myself.”
With the title song, “Let the Picture Paint Itself,” released as a single, “I was trying to make a hit record for country radio, and that’s the only time I ever did that.”
When the album tanked, says Tony Brown, “I wasn’t disappointed, I was pissed off. Once again, they had painted him like a left–of–center. I was pissed off at our label, and at myself for not having the ability to make it happen. “I think in Rodney’s mind, and in a lot of people’s minds, they think because I sit in this chair that I have a magic wand. And I don’t.”
By that point, Brown says, “I started to feel intimidated by Rodney the producer. It’s easy to feel like a second–class person around certain producers to this day, when I’m around a Don Was, or a Hugh Padgham, or Rodney. I’ll probably never get over it, but it’s probably the thing that drives me to make better records.”
The second MCA album, 1995′s Jewel of the South, jumped stylistically all over the map (although Crowell believes “Please Remember Me,” the set’s big ballad, was a “bona fide hit single” that MCA simply couldn’t make happen).
With Jewel, Tony Brown’s heart wasn’t in it any more. “I told him hey, just do what you want,” Brown says. “He had artistic freedom. And then he basically just went underground again.”
The life I have found
Whether he “went underground” by design or because his diminishing returns made it necessary, Crowell won’t say. But after the failure of Jewel of the South (which is, ironically, a stronger record than Let the Picture Paint Itself) he asked for, and was given, a release from his MCA contract, which had called for three albums.
He’d finally climbed the hill, only to find he was over it. “Success is determined by a lot of different things, in my mind,” Brown says. “You can have a record that’s a piece of shit, but it makes a lot of money and you’re successful, or you have a record that has critical acclaim but doesn’t sell that much.
“If it’s got serious critical acclaim, you can make a living. People will come out and see you. There are a lot of artists in our business who don’t really sell a lot of records who make a real good living playing live.”
And that, in a way, is where Rodney Crowell went in 1996. After producing an album for his good friend Beth Nielsen Chapman (Sand and Water), he called together three of his closest musician friends — bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Vince Santoro and guitarist Steuart Smith — and recorded an album under the name The Cicadas (that’s a locust–like insect, one variety of which gestates in the ground for something like 13 years before coming out to croak from the treetops).
Warner Brothers Records released The Cicadas in the early weeks of 1997. Although Crowell wrote or co–wrote all the songs, and co–produced the album with guitarist Smith, it’s actually drummer Santoro who takes most of the lead vocals.
The album is very eclectic, mixing Beatle–esque pop sounds with Everly Brothers harmonies and the infrequent country–sounding guitar lick or vocalization. It swings and it bounces, but there ain’t no twang.
The Rodney Crowell of Diamonds & Dirt is, literally, nowhere to be found on The Cicadas. “It was the way to re–invent,” Crowell explains, “and the way to use that glaring self–consciousness that comes with ‘solo singer/songwriter.’ I wanted to re–invent what I was doing in a way where I could eliminate all that ‘You should’ business.
“Joining a band, making a record as a band and collaborating on that level really removed that stuff. I enjoyed it in the best kind of way. It wasn’t like I was making a Rodney Crowell record, and I had to go get a haircut, or go get my shirts cleaned. I didn’t have to do all that shit.
Besides, he laughs, “It’s like Michael Rhodes said, it’s cooler being in a gang than being by yourself.”
For a single, Warner Brothers released to radio “We Want Everything,” which Rodney wrote—all in one sitting—as a reaction to the suicide of an old friend, New Orleans folksinger Harlan White. He and Santoro sing the song’s verses in unison, an octave apart, in the style of Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.
The Cicadas also covered the classic “Tobacco Road,” Rodney’s “Nobody’s Gonna Tear My Playhouse Down” (which had originally been cut as the B–side to one of the Life is Messy singles), the Crowell/Clark collaboration “Our Little Town,” and a song Rodney co–wrote with former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, “Through With the Past.”
Indeed, Crowell seemed to be saying he was through with it, once and for all. “The re–invention is not so much for image as it is for creativity,” he explains. “I haven’t done much to re–invent an image, I’m just trying to re–invent the work techniques and the message, so that I don’t go into the studio trying to make ‘Young Country’ records. That’s not where I am. I’m more mature than that.”
He says he’s committed to the Cicadas for as long as it takes — but, one thing’s for sure, nothing will be heard from Rodney Crowell, solo artist, for a good while. “It doesn’t concern me at all,” he says. “I don’t have any desire for that.”
As for The Cicadas, “Warner Brothers is very supportive in that they realize it would be easier to market the record as ‘Rodney Crowell,’ but then it’d just be the same old shit, you know? I want to move on.” He’s producing albums for his cousin, singer Brady Seals, and for vocalist Claudia Church, his girlfriend of five years, whom he met on the set of the “Lovin’ All Night” video.
The blonde and blue–eyed Church, a former model, is also a writer and a painter, “a real Renaissance woman,” Crowell gushes.
“I love Claudia. Claudia’s great. We’re gonna get married. She’s the coolest woman that’s ever come into my life.”
He says producing records for other artists, and singing on still more (including the Hackberry Ramblers and Chip Taylor), is all the “career chasing” he needs right now. “I’m helping other people to realize that goal for themselves. It just ain’t mine any more.”
He contributed a fine rendition of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” to the charity album Blue Suede Sneakers in 1994, and the recent Jim Croce: Nashville Tribute included a Crowell interpretation of the Croce classic “Operator.” For the Stone Countrycompilation, he turned in a sizzling “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
He figures he’s finally got a handle on things. “Where I sit today, I’m a happy man, with the way everything has happened, good and bad. Most of the mistakes, failures or flops or whatever, they were all learning experiences. Equally as valuable as the success stories.
“So with all of that taken into account, I’m blessed. Like I can make a cup of tea and go ‘God, I’m going into the studio,’ or ‘I’m going to write,’ and I love it. I love my work. That’s the only thing that I have to judge it by. I actually love my work more than ever.”
Love Hurts: A conversation with Rosanne Cash
In their 12 stormy years together, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash managed to produce, among other things, a handful of albums that came with their own set of road rules — country, folk, rockabilly, straight pop, they all rode together, front seat shotgun, with little regard for what lay ahead, or what grew smaller in the rear view mirror.
The daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, Rosanne grew up in Southern California, and when she met Rodney Crowell they were both in their ’20s and hot to get going on something good. With her wonderfully pliant voice and his ear for a good song, they started making records that married every style that felt right.
In 1979, they married each other because it felt right. Gut feeling counted for a lot in those days.
Starting with Seven Year Ache, her third Crowell-produced album, Rosanne found her audience, and between 1981 and ’89 she scored 11 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s country chart, all but one of them produced by her husband (that was 1985′s “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” which they wrote together).
After their 1992 divorce, Rosanne moved to New York City, where she lives today with her second husband, writer/producer John Leventhal, and daughters Caitlin and Carrie —both, like her great recordings, collaborations with Rodney Crowell.
We all know there’s a wonderful synergistic thing that can happen with one artist and one producer, where everything clicks. Was it that way with you and Rodney?
Rosanne Cash: From the first record. I think in retrospect we got in less conflict than would have been assumed. We were really young, we didn’t know that much about making records, and we kind of learned together. And we had our personal relationship; it would’ve been really easy for it to just detonate.
But it didn’t. I think the work we did together was a kind of stored energy in our relationship, and it was always good, even when everything else was shit. I always knew work was a safe place for us to be, even if we were struggling or having conflicts. It never got polluted.
Is it true that (CBS Records president) Rick Blackburn had to be talked into letting Rodney produce Right or Wrong, your first album?
Rosanne Cash: Oh yeah. Not only that, on the second album, we had to talk them into releasing ‘Seven Year Ache’ as a single. We were swimming upstream in a lot of ways. We didn’t have a lot of conscious knowledge. We were still just letting whatever came out, come out. Except for the song ‘Seven Year Ache,’ I remember we worked a very, very long time on that. We recorded the entire thing and ended up stripping it back down to the bass—not the drums, the bass. And we re-recorded the whole song from the bass up.
‘Seven Year Ache’ was your first No. 1. How did you write that song?
Rosanne Cash: There is a famous story where we got in this fight, and he left me outside of a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. But the real inspiration came for me because Rickie Lee Jones’ first album came out, and I was so moved by it, and so inspired, I thought ‘There’s never been a country song about street life, about life on the streets.’ So I started writing it, a very long poem, four pages, and then I turned it into a song.
How did you choose the cover material for those first albums?
Rosanne Cash: We were both songwriters, and both passionate about great songwriters. And that’s what we drew from. We were pretty snobbish about material, so we’d go to our own wells, like Keith Sykes songs.
I assume you got first dibs on Rodney’s songs.
Yeah, it was great. I didn’t realize how great it was at the time. It was a blessing.
Wasn’t it awkward to be married to the producer?
Rosanne Cash: We fought in the studio, definitely, but it was always a really positive arena. Rodney really loved my voice, and he took great pains to get it recorded correctly. It just made me feel so good about myself that he cared that much about my voice, and it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. He loved me as an artist, and of course I revered him as a writer. It’s just something really, really positive we gave to each other.
I would sulk sometimes, or we would go into separate rooms. I remember throwing the headphones down.
Those early singles scaled the country charts, but they were very much pop records. Did you consider yourself a country artist, or were you just making the best records you could make?
Rosanne Cash: I was just making the best records I could make. Because Nashville signed me, it didn’t make me a country artist, as far as I was concerned. Because, you know, I got my definition of country music really, really young. And I didn’t fit it. Out of respect, I wouldn’t have called myself a country artist! I loved Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, but I knew that’s not what I was doing.
People think that we really pushed the boundaries, and we opened doors for people, and we started this thing. In a way we did, but it wasn’t conscious that that’s what we were doing. We were just bringing our hybrid influences to record-making.
It was purely collaborative. So much of that was due to Rodney. There were things I would’ve never chosen to do on my own that Rodney, with his very eclectic passions, wanted to work out through me. I would have never done ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box,’ or ‘My Baby Thinks He’s a Train.’ Or ‘I Wonder.’ But I was happy to do it. Truthfully, a lot of my energy was caught up in mothering, and Rodney felt stronger about things than I did at certain times.
There’s a book out now, Three Chords and the Truth, that talks about Rodney’s bitterness and jealousy when your records were successful, and his weren’t.
Rosanne Cash: But he was producing Number One records! He was pretty damn successful.
He was really frustrated, and he said ‘I want a chance to do what you’ve done as an artist.’ And it kind of scared me, because I thought ‘Well, that means he’s going to go out on the road … and that’s my big alarm bell.’
Rosanne Cash: Well, put two and two together. My dad was on the road for my entire life. It was pretty scary.
But Three Chords and the Truth paints Rodney as a bitter man, an unpleasant guy at that time.
Rosanne Cash: No. He had his frustrations, and resentments came up at certain times, but no, he wasn’t bitter. I would never use bitter to describe Rodney under any terms.
Rodney hit in 1988, and suddenly he was The Thing. Was that pretty much the beginning of the end?
Rosanne Cash: Yep. It was. I can’t say how much of it was like your fears coming true, that if we spent that much time apart that it was gonna break us up. That had something to do with it, I’m sure, but the main reason I think Rodney and I completed our work together, both personally and professionally, is that it was done. It was done. We couldn’t do anything more with each other.
We had reached a point of diminishing returns; we had done such great work together, on both levels, that we both had the grace to know when to quit. That’s how I look at it.
Were the Interiors songs about your relationship?
Rosanne Cash: The nature of writing, I think, is when you lose any sense of time and place, and all parts of your present. Part of it was about me and Rodney, but I was so shocked when everybody started saying ‘Oh, it’s a divorce record.’ I couldn’t believe it, because I wasn’t there in my life yet. It was really appalling to me.
The story about ‘I Hardly Know How to Be Myself’ is that you’d left the first verse on a desk, and Rodney came home, worried about what you’d written, and then finished it off. Did you leave it there for him to see?
Rosanne Cash: Not consciously. We both worked up in the same room, and I was really in a lot of pain about him being gone so much. So I started writing this thing. And I thought it was beautiful that he finished it. I love that song.
Isn’t the great irony that Rodney wanted success as an artist, but when he finally got it, the cost was enormous?
Rosanne Cash: I wouldn’t frame it like that, because it makes me seem like a martyr, in a way. And besides, it’s not that simple. It’s far more complex. Like I said before, we had completed with each other.
There’s nothing left undone with Rodney. I talk to Rodney every other day, and there’s nothing left undone. Mostly we talk about the kids. I value what he gave to me so, so much. I would never be the artist that I am if it hadn’t been for Rodney.