Rodney Crowell Talks Poetry and the Evolution of Nashville

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"Poet" is an elusive term that, arguably, any songwriter would eagerly aspire to. However, ironically for such a creative pool, very few musicians actually can claim – or even merely accept – this title. 

Although Rodney Crowell, who despite four critically acclaimed decades in the music business exudes a remarkably down-to-earth personality, may not trumpet the claim that he is in this coveted category, fans of his work certainly are quick to affirm that he is. That's no exception for the 63-year-old singer-songwriter's latest solo work, Tarpaper Sky, which follows two storied collaborations: The album Kin which he created with his literary confidant, author Mary Karr; and the Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon with fellow legend Emmylou Harris. He also managed to write a book during this collaborative period, the 2011 memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, which details his Texas upbringing.

"I cannot say I’m a poet," Crowell admits, with a pleasant shrug. "That's for someone when they take in consideration where they can bestow 'poet' on. I can’t do it. But I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that my intention is poetry.

"Poets, I think, are born," he adds. "You can’t teach it. It's genetic – the circumstances of how you were raised... and there’s probably some Irish in your blood lines," he smiles.

Whether personally owning the term or not, Crowell's brand of poetry on the new record had been brewing for some time before he found space in his schedule to bring it to fruition. "I started recording it back in 2010," he explains. "And I fell into collaboration with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr. We wrote  songs very quickly and made a record...it jumped to the front of the line because the songs were coming so quickly. And in the middle of that Emmylou Harris called me and asked me if I wanted to make a duet record – and I did, which resulted in a Grammy. So, it was a good thing that I did that, but I’d already had Tarpaper Sky started."

Crowell decided to multitask. While still giving attention to the duets project ("it's a matter of ladies first," he jokes), he managed to gain traction on the new music. "In the middle of Emmylou and I touring in 2013, I jumped back in the studio on days off, and finished the record."

The singer notes that having some time to let the songs percolate was beneficial for the work overall. "I started it in January 2010, and it would have been finished by April or May and ready to go [that year]," he says. However, "I don’t think it would have been as good of a record. What a blessing to have some to elbow out some things that weren’t so good...write a couple of songs and re-record a couple songs and flesh the album.

"The time that I had between sessions I used wisely – made a better record," he admits. "It wouldn’t have been this good a record had I finished it then. The record did not stay in my mind while I was working with Mary Karr and Emmylou ... I didn’t think about it at all. After Emmylou and I finished Old Yellow Moon I was sitting at my computer and I was listening to some of the mixes that did wind up on Tarpaper Sky and I was thinking, God, this is really good.

"You know, it's good to get away. Usually I make records and I’m listening to them until they’re going out the door, and by the time they go out the door I hate ‘em. Go away and leave me alone," he jokes. "Actually the time off from it allowed me to fall in love with the music again. So the romance was back on the second round of sessions that we did."

Coincidentally enough, Crowell's visit to the Ram Country studios was precedented just a few weeks by a visit from his former wife, (and yet another fellow legend) Rosanne Cash, who also put out a solo record after a period away from solo work recently. "I get along so good with my..." he pauses. "I can’t call Rosanne my ex-wife, she’s my friend. We have a really good friendship."

He makes light of the fact that he and Cash seem to be on a similar creative tread of sorts: "Funny, Rosanne and I have this thing where she wrote a book and published it...You know, three months later, my book’s out. And she makes a solo record and I make a solo record. (You know we’re on the same work cycle now," he smiles. "We have very similar sensibilities."

Crowell married Cash in 1979, several years following his initial trek to Nashville and subsequent career launch as a songwriter and collaborator with illustrious names such as Harris, Guy Clark, Vince Gill and others. He explains the town has gone through a considerable evolution since those fascinating early days: "Nashville in 1972 when I arrived; you wouldn’t recognize it. TBack in that day when I arrived um, Kris Kristofferson had recently changed the dynamic of creativity in Nashville, and it was very poetic. The sidewalk was just so close, and most everybody was kind of living on the sidewalk. in fact – I was living in my car with some other songwriters that I knew," he adds.

"There were a couple of clubs you could go to would, would run a tab – spot you some hamburgers and a pitcher of beer to eat and write some songs and get some place to play. It's not that way now ; there’s no free hamburgers that I know anymore," he smiles. "And, you know, you get one or two shots nowadays when you come in. When I made my first album in 1978, Warner Brothers records actually said to me, 'well, you know, we’ll put your record out and pay for you to go on the road, and we’ll figure out who your audience is and maybe we’ll put out a single.' Nowadays, you’ll arrive there, they give you one shot at maybe a single, and if it doesn’t catch on they move onto the next person," he observes. 

"Songwriting in 1972 was less about making money and more about finding your voice – finding the poetry – finding a way to do it that may come to a level of a Van Zant or a Guy Clark or a Mickey Newberry or a Kris Kristofferson," Crowell continues. "No thought to what the earning power of any given song was – we all assumed if we wrote a good song, the money would come in the mail – and it did. Whereas now it whatever you write has gotta earn that money pretty quickly. If it doesn’t, the shelf life of songwriting is very short.

"Because of my methodology and my sensibilities to write songs I’m not very comfortable with the notion to rush in any creative endeavor," he admits. "But there are those who are very good at it, and my hat's off to them."

When asked what advice he has for younger artists hoping for a career as enduring and successful as his own, Crowell is again understated and humble. "Someone once said to me when I was a young man said, 'Look. you’re talented – you can pursue stardom. It’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with stardom. Or you could pursue artistry.  Stardom is fleeting --- the shelf life could be short it could be long.

"It just so happened the person that was telling me that, at that time, was an artist," he notes. "Somebody I admired very much. And I said, I want to be an artist...I’m going to dedicate myself to the process of realizing I want to be an artist.

"And I think I’ve done that," he concludes. "I think my 15 minutes of stardom happened 20 years ago – and, to be honest, was not as fulfilling as the notion right now that I’m getting better at what I do. Certainly better at what I do now than I was in that 15 minutes in the spotlight. So the artist path was the right one for me"