For Rodney Crowell, A Godfather Of Americana, The Work Is Never Finished At age 67, Rodney Crowell has become the literarily inclined elder statesman of the Americana scene. His new album, Acoustic Classics, is a look back at the songs of his career's many seasons.
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For Rodney Crowell, A Godfather Of Americana, The Work Is Never Finished

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For Rodney Crowell, A Godfather Of Americana, The Work Is Never Finished

For Rodney Crowell, A Godfather Of Americana, The Work Is Never Finished

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Over the course of a nearly half-century career, Rodney Crowell has been an in-demand songwriter for others and a hip country star in his own right. Now, for his latest album, "Acoustic Classics," the 67-year-old is revisiting some of his songs, re-examining and even reworking them as Jewly Hight reports.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: I asked Rodney Crowell to point out musical mementos in his home 40 minutes south of Nashville. And he’ll hurry you past the plaques commemorating his professional success.

RODNEY CROWELL: I didn't put these up. My wife did. This is a piece of art that I like a lot.

HIGHT: An artist named Ray Martin was inspired by Crowell's song "Earthbound" to create the dream-like painting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARTHBOUND")

CROWELL: (Singing) I could shed my skin. And in the blink of an eye, I could fly, fly, fly.

HIGHT: It's one of the more recent songs Crowell has rerecorded on an album that spans the many seasons of his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARTHBOUND")

CROWELL: (Singing) I knew love once way back when. She had almond eyes and olive skin and long black hair. She was Irish-Spanish, mixed-breed. I was southeast Texas hayseed. We were almost there.

HIGHT: Crowell's fascination with vivid language dates back to a childhood in east Texas, where he followed his dad into playing rowdy beer joints and working on construction sites.

CROWELL: I knew the honky-tonk clientele through and through. I knew the construction workers through and through, you know, the east Houston truck drivers, carpenters and cement finishers and that culture. And there is a language in that culture.

HIGHT: When Crowell first moved to Nashville at 22, he encountered fellow Texas expats Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark - sophisticated country folk songwriters. Clark insisted that Crowell test drive his lyrics as poetry.

CROWELL: And he said, OK, you know, you've got a new song. Don't play it. Just say it to me and look me in the eye. And you'll be surprised how quickly you learn whether your language is really solid because if you got a really weak line in a narrative, you're going to want to avert your gaze when you're staring at a pair of eyes like that.

HIGHT: In the mid-1970s, Rodney Crowell met a young singer named Emmylou Harris who hired him for her band and snatched up his songs for her repertoire.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: Of course, I wanted them. I always wanted everything that he wrote. And I was lucky enough to kind of have him all to myself for a while before other people discovered what a great writer he was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING LOUISIANA IN THE BROAD DAYLIGHT")

HARRIS: (Singing) Oh, Mary took to running with a traveling man, left her momma crying with her head in her hands, such a sad case, so broken hearted. She say, Momma, I got to go. I got to get out of here. I got to get out of town. I'm tired of hanging around. I got to roll on between the ditches.

HIGHT: It wasn't long before Crowell launched a solo career, but it took five albums for him to really break through. In the late 1980s, he channeled Tom Waits, the Beatles and Buck Owens into a string of stylish hits. Ask him to queue up those tunes now, and he has to go looking on his computer.

CROWELL: OK. Here's...

HIGHT: Surely, you're in your own iTunes library.

CROWELL: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I'm in there. There we are. Oh, there. Right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODNEY CROWELL'S "I COULDN'T LEAVE YOU IF I TRIED")

HIGHT: Crank it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULDN'T LEAVE YOU IF I TRIED")

CROWELL: (Singing) The sun is coming up, and I'm just going down.

HIGHT: Crowell can listen to his old records now and appreciate their spirit, but a few years ago...

CROWELL: I'd say, that would be really good if I could go in and re-sing it. But now I just - you know, well, I'm a little flat early on and a little sharp as it goes. But you know what? I was giving it a go.

HIGHT: Crowell's actually made peace with his voice.

CROWELL: What I bring now is - dare I say - a little more gravitas to what I do, earned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULDN'T LEAVE YOU IF I TRIED")

CROWELL: (Singing) Sometimes I get lost out on this sad, old town. And every bridge I cross just turns me upside down. And every stumbling step I take back to your side, it hurts my pride. I couldn't leave you if I tried.

HIGHT: But when it comes to some of his early lyrics, Rodney Crowell can't resist revising, even those in the song that became a big hit for Bob Seger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAME ON THE MOON")

BOB SEGER: (Singing) Hey, watch where you're going. Step light on old toes. Because until you've been beside a man, you don't know who he knows. Oh, blame it on midnight.

CROWELL: I felt like I failed miserably in writing the last verse of that song. And over the years, I kept tinkering with rewriting, trying to come up with a last verse that I liked. I even talked to Bob about it. And he said, man, you're wrong. He said, you got it right. I begged to differ.

HIGHT: So Crowell salvaged only a couple of lines from the original and completely reimagined the rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAME ON THE MOON - REMASTERED VERSION")

CROWELL: (Singing) I was late in my 20s and hungry for praise and waxing like crazy when I wrote down that phrase.

HIGHT: These days, Crowell approaches his writing a bit more like prose. He's mined his Texas upbringing on concept albums, penned a memoir and convinced the best-selling author of "The Liars Club," Mary Karr, to collaborate on a song cycle.

MARY KARR: Rodney is a poet at heart. He is that kind of language drunk kind of poet. He's somebody who just has such an amazing ear and a sense of music and sound and everything, which is a lot of what I learned from him as a writer.

HIGHT: Karr and Crowell have taught memoir workshops together, and he's begun leading songwriting retreats. In fact, he'll gather with pupils in California next week.

CROWELL: You know, you can't really teach someone to be a writer, but you can encourage them to be a writer. And you can make them aware of the need to keep your skills with the craft finely honed by working at it every day.

HIGHT: Rodney Crowell lives by that advice. Even though he's piled up awards and accolades, he's always pursuing and polishing the next song.

For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING BUT TAME")

CROWELL: (Singing) And you said, I don't want to be tamed down. I just want to saddle...

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