Q&A: Rodney Crowell on Working With Emmylou and Nashville in the 1970s

Country music trailblazer talks new music and old friends in candid 'Rolling Stone' interview

Rodney Crowell performs
Erika Goldring/FilmMagic
Rodney Crowell performs in Austin, Texas.
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Rodney Crowell's eloquent and often elegiac new album, Tarpaper Sky, out this week, is his first solo effort since 2008's Sex and Gasoline. But the renowned and influential singer, songwriter, producer and author has hardly been idle. In 2011, his searing memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, about growing up poor in Houston, was published to enthusiastic reviews and whetted his appetite for writing more prose.

Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris Duet on 'Hanging Up My Heart'

Ten years in the making, the book continued the reflective mood of 2001's The Houston Kid, which triumphantly brought Crowell out of a creative slump, and led to a songwriting collaboration with another poet and memoirist from Southeast Texas. Kin: Songs By Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, a guest-studded collaboration (including Norah Jones, Vince Gill and Crowell's ex-wife Rosanne Cash), appeared in 2012. Then, right on its heels, came 2013's Old Yellow Moon, a duet album with Emmylou Harris, in whose near-legendary Hot Band Crowell once played rhythm guitar, that won a Grammy and captured the top honor at the Americana Music Awards.

Now 63, Crowell still has much in common with, as he puts it, "a loose group of creative souls," – Harris, Guy Clark, John Hiatt and Steve Earle, who came to Nashville in the Seventies and are still making memorable music. In this intimate interview with Rolling Stone, he mused about "that centrifugal force that sustained this batch of artists over this time period."

You’ve certainly been on a creative roll in recent years.
It feels like it. But somewhere along the way I just developed a good work ethic.

Brian Ahern produced Old Yellow Moon, and Joe Henry produced Kin. Now you’re back to producing yourself. Why?
Well, I am one of the producers on Tarpaper Sky. In truth, there are a lot of producers on that record, and no producers at the same time. I guess you could pull back from it with a really wide-angle lens and say I produced that record, but not in the way that I produced records before. Every performance on there is live in the studio, on the floor, and that’s what you get. I’m not interested in production at all anymore. I’m interested in documenting the performance. When I go back to seek inspiration – whether it be from Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, the Beatles, Hank Williams, Ray Charles or Bob Dylan – it's from the performance. Those artists are in the studio playing their instrument and singing. There's no going back and redoing the vocals. The more I get away from that, the more I feel like a real recording artist.

The title comes from a line in "God I'm Missing You." That song was also on Kin. Why did you reprise it?
I told Mary [Karr] from the beginning of our collaboration, "any chance we get to make the poet's choice we will, but sometimes the songwriter's choice is the one we're going to have to make." Because some things, when they're sung, don't work the way they do on a page. And that song was where that theory really came alive. It was a real fusion of songwriter and poet for me, and the experience I wanted to have. I said, "Oh, man, I’m gonna sing this on Kin." But in inviting our guest performers, we let them pick the song they wanted.

And Lucinda Williams snagged your song.
Oh, she snagged it! And gave it a beautiful reading. It's just Lucinda, you know, lipstick smeared, the way she rolls. It was a first take and probably a peak moment in making that record. But in the back of my mind I said, "I've got a version of this song. And I'll do it on my own record."

"Frankie, Please" is the kind of rootsy roadhouse rock you might have written in the Seventies.
One day I woke up on the bus and "You tore through my heart like a tornado looking for a trailer park" just fell out of my mouth. I wrote it down and stared at it, and I said, "Well, that’s gonna be a song." The prototype for it would be something like, "I Ain't Living Long Like This."

In a way, Tarpaper Sky seems like a Guy Clark album in its character study, and that it harkens to that earlier period.
That's a compliment to be compared to Guy. He was consistent and stayed true to his singularity from day one, whereas there were a few more aspects of my orientation toward music. I'd go here and there and bounce around a little bit.

You're at an age when a lot of people slow down. But you and Guy, Emmylou, John Hiatt and other of your contemporaries are still active and productive, making new albums and winning Grammys.
We're lucky in that we found what we love early. I first met John when a crew of us had stumbled into Nashville in the early Seventies. John was intense. He had a Midwestern reserve and kept to himself a lot, so he passed through Nashville more quietly than perhaps some of us. And the same for Lucinda, in a way. When she was around playing at the Exit/In and hanging out at the house on Acklen Avenue, she didn't stay around to study. She already had it. And we all knew there was a serious piece of work going on right there with John. He went to California before all of us and really exploded. When I first heard what he was doing out there, I started jumping on his songs, recording them with Rosanne [Cash]. Back then, the conversation was never about money.

Meaning you were all just eaten up with art?
No. It seemed like the money just came. Now when a young songwriter comes to town and somebody starts developing him, the first thing they do throw him into one of those office spaces with some other writer and tell him they need a song for Kenny Chesney. His payday depends on that, but God knows if there's going to be any inspiration there on Thursday at 10 o'clock. I think that thwarts creativity. I'm lucky that I came along in a time when I could take instruction from guys on the street.

Who else hung out at the Acklen Avenue house?
Richard Dobson and "Skinny" Dennis Sanchez lived there, but it was a clearing house of sorts. Johnny Rodriguez come through there, and Mayo Thompson [of Red Crayola] and Rocky Hill and every other guitar bum that was passing through town.

What year was this?
'72, '73.

I can imagine what that place was like.
It was cool. It was owned by this old Jewish woman named Rose Martin, who was the patron saint of starving songwriters. I was the only one that kept the rent paid on that house. I worked at TGI Friday's as a dishwasher, but we all played at Bishop's Pub and passed the hat. By the time I moved away to California, I probably owed Rose Martin $5,000 or $6,000. When I came back and had money, she said, "I bet on you, and I knew you'd make it. We're even."

Why do you think so many of you are able to make such high quality work in your fifties, sixties and even seventies, in Guy's case?
Well, we work at it, you know? I was given inspiration in my twenties. I had more of a play ethic than a work ethic then, but I managed to get things done. From about age 35 on, I've had to earn that inspiration. The more I'm dedicated to this work, the more I'm able to satisfy my deep need to create. And that's a pretty good thing. If you take half-decent care of yourself, that can propel you on into productive later years.

So you haven't slowed at all?
I haven't slowed a step. In a lot of ways, I've picked up speed. The bandwidth has become narrower. My sensibility was broader stroke when I was younger. My sensibility has certainly become more singular, which produces less green. But within that singularity, I've picked up speed.

You mean in pleasing yourself instead of trying to please a wider audience?
Well, it seems like collaborating with Emmy, I started thinking a little bit more broad stroke. Because those broad stroke love songs that earned a lot of money for me back in the day were from the culture at large. Then in writing Chinaberry Sidewalks, it came down to a culture of one. And for a long time, that's where I worked.

Why did you do Old Yellow Moon?
Because Emmy asked me. And because we vowed the first night we met in 1974 to make a record. Brian Ahern introduced us. We stayed up all night in Washington, D.C., and played every old country song that we could think of. That was very much the way Emmy and Gram [Parsons] had gotten on, and I think she really loved that I knew all of those songs. We'd go, "Wait, you haven't heard this one," and then it was, "God, we should get together for a duet record." We never let go of that notion. It took a long time. I think the process was waiting on me. I couldn't hold my own with Emmylou as a vocalist until about 2000. Even when I was making Diamonds and Dirt [the 1988 project which yielded five Number One hits], I don't think I could have done that. I finally grew into my voice and got comfortable with the sound of it, and when we made that record, I went in and said, "OK, I'm ready. I can deliver on my end of this duet partnership."

And now you're doing a sequel.
Yeah, we've committed to writing most of it ourselves this time. We have quite a few songs, and we're looking at July to start recording. Old Yellow Moon was a throwback toward what we both did with Brian [Ahern] in the Seventies. And this record should be what we're like now.

Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris Come Full Circle on 'Old Yellow Moon'

When you first met Emmy, she was like a deer, you've said.
Yeah! Like a fawn. She had her legs under her, but she was very, very sensitive. You could say Emmy was pure, but that would suggest she was innocent or maybe prudish, and that's not what I mean. She could cuss like a sailor. And she would go drink with us, and she'd have a smoke. But there was just something that … well, guys say to me, "Oh, Emmy, God, I love her! She's this glowing angel of an apparition." I say, "Yeah, she's a woman, you know? You want to meet her?" And they go, "Oh, uh." These guys crumple in the face of this thing that they've projected onto her, this heavenly aura. They don't trust themselves to know what to do with it. And too bad for Emmy. Because when a perfectly smart guy with a great sense of humor gets in her presence, he loses his sense of humor and becomes tongue-tied. It's not fair.

When you look at Emmy or Guy and remember the early days, how do you think of them? Like you’re survivors of some kind of war?
Survivors, certainly. Whatever wars we survived were the ones that were going on inside us. For me, it was unlocking what was keeping me from achieving something close to museum quality work. I hope that doesn’t sound pompous. But if you go back to those early days, the conversations that I had with Guy – and occasionally with Townes Van Zandt and everybody else who was trying to figure out how to make good art – went along these lines: "How do you achieve something like Dylan Thomas achieved? Or Bob Dylan? And how do you give yourself so totally over to the process of making art that the trappings of success, money, stardom and marriage are secondary to your dedication to the work?"

By "museum quality," you mean a striving for timelessness.
Yeah. The way "Sunday Morning Coming Down" is timeless. Or "Pancho & Lefty." Or "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." I wouldn't go as far to say that anything that I've done is timeless. But I can own that I've gotten better. I saw Steve Earle the other day. I've known Steve since he was 17. He came into town in a big black Stetson hat, skin and bones, already at that age writing songs like "Darling, Commit Me," and "Ben McCulloch." He was ahead of me in terms of writing something of any substance. I had to pay attention for a good while.

What were you like personally when you first came to Nashville?
I would describe myself as a very insecure young man, somewhat traumatized by my youth but not yet aware of it. A lonely boy who had a passion for music and no Plan B or back door. I would live or die by whatever I could make of music. I had very little confidence in anything other than the songs that I knew how to play.

I remember you as a compelling kid with a tall 'fro and bad teeth.
Yeah, bad teeth for sure! I don't know if I owned a toothbrush until I was 19, maybe. I didn't come from stock that placed any importance on the toothbrush. But a couple of girls I met changed that. And I would do anything to get a girl to pay attention to me long enough that I could feel good about myself. And of course, that leads to one failure after another.

You once told me that the first female friend you made as an adult was Susanna Clark, Guy's late wife.
Yeah. And shortly thereafter, Emmylou. I introduced Susanna and Emmylou, and they became really tight. They were cut from the cloth in a way. But Susanna was tougher in that she challenged you to try to step up to her level.

How so?
I used to talk about Guy being my audience of one. That's not exactly true. My audience of one was both Guy and Susanna. I know for a fact that Guy's and Townes's audience of one was Susanna. She really was the curator of poetry. Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Willie Nelson, just to name a few … we were all trying to get Susanna's attention.

What was so magnetic about her?
She was a goddess. Susanna is truly the one among us who had the key to the other side of the sky. She was ethereal. Otherworldly. And if you were up to scratch, she would knight you by acknowledging you as a poet.

She was a muse.
A muse and a siren. And she was the source. Guy got all the headlines, but Susanna was the one we all wanted to be like. She had the more exalted eyes and ears. I’ve written a song about her, "Life Without Susanna," that'll be on my next record. It reveals a lot.

Your songs have been recorded by a vast array of artists. Are there particular covers that you love?
There’s an Eric Clapton covering of "Ain’t No Money." And a Roger Daltrey covering of "Ashes By Now," which was absolutely stunning. I had a little cassette of it that I would play for my daughters, who were four or five at the time. When he'd sing that chorus, they would scream with delight. And then there's a charming version of "Till I Gain Control Again" that Willie did. I went down to a country studio in Bogalusa, Louisiana and did it with him, and God, it was a perfect reading of the song. All three of those lie in a vault somewhere unreleased.

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