Rodney Crowell has been Guy Clark’s buddy, Emmylou Harris’ bandmate and one of country music’s biggest hitmakers, and this week he’s Chris Shiflett’s guest on the latest episode of the Walking the Floor podcast. Crowell’s interview is sprinkled not only with anecdotes about his upcoming album, Close Ties, but of memories from Nashville’s golden years.
“It had a lot more street cred back then,” he says of the Tennessee capital, where he moved in 1972. As a songwriter and sideman, Crowell spent the next decade landing hits for other artists and rubbing shoulders with up-and-comers like Steve Earle and Vince Gill. Later, he struck gold with his own Diamonds & Dirt, the late-Eighties album that spun off five Number One hits. During the years since, he’s charted his own course, becoming an Americana icon along the way.
Here’s five things we learned from Crowell’s chat with the Foo Fighters guitarist and California-country singer. (Listen to the full interview below.)
During the Seventies, Crowell’s home was a late-night destination for songwriters looking to swap tunes.
“We would group in this house that I had with Skinny Dennis Sanchez and Richard Dobson,” he remembers, “and it became sort of a center for songwriters to come, stay up all night and drink cheap wine and smoke dirt weed and trade songs, and try to figure out what the [songwriting] process was. It was really about the process. It was a very generous culture. It was about shop talk.” Still in his early twenties, Crowell looked to the older members of his songwriting circle for advice. “Guy Clark was kind of the curator of that culture.”
The prolific Crowell never suffers from writer’s block.
“I never allowed writer’s block to be a reality,” explains the songwriter. “I framed it up for myself early on. I said, ‘Ok, if I’m not writing, the well is just filling up. I’m going to be patient with this.’ I’m a writer, and I’ll continue to write, so I kind of tricked myself into not fretting about the times I wasn’t writing.”
Nothing ruins good music like money.
“Where I would fail as an artist – the blocks that I experienced in myself – was when I made records because [labels] gave me a lot of money and thought I was going to continue to make consecutive albums with five Number Ones on them,” says Crowell, who received a major pay upgrade during the late Eighties. “The way I made Diamonds and Dirt, which had all those hits in a row, was that I was just making a record. It was just the one that rolled up in my natural process, and it happened to be commercial. Give me a lot of money, [though,] and suddenly I’m out of my heart and up in my head, and what I’m creating is not what’s coming from the middle of me. It’s what coming from outside of me.”
Crowell doesn’t consider himself a star, because it’s bad for business.
When Diamonds & Dirt became one of the most popular country records of the Eighties, Crowell had to convince himself to stay grounded. “When I would walk into a room and people would go, ‘There’s that guy,’ I caught myself constructing a persona based upon what they were seeing,” he admits. “I started building this version of myself that was being projected at them. I was smart enough – or intuitive – to realize that’s a trap you can fall into, because you can sacrifice the artistic process in a heartbeat. You start creating art through the people that are looking at you, trying to route it through their sensibilities or their eyes, and then it’s not you anymore.”
Crowell attended a Hank Williams. show in late 1952, less than a month before the country legend died.
“My father took me to see Hank Williams on December 14th, 1952,” he says proudly. “I was two years and four months of age. And I remember a little cool eddy of hair hitting my cheek and I remember the smell of his hair oil, and I remember the mingling tonality of the small talk before the show started. Those are my memories.”