In 2017, after Rodney Crowell was diagnosed with dysautonomia, a condition affecting the nervous system, he found himself sidelined for five months, unable to tour. As he came to grips with the limitations caused by his condition, the singer-songwriter plotted his next project, with his manager suggesting an acoustic album of previously recorded material. On July 13th, Crowell released Acoustic Classics, featuring 11 reworked versions of hits and favorites, plus a new song, “Tennessee Wedding,” written when his youngest daughter got married.
Because of the relatively unvarnished approach Crowell has maintained with his recording through the past four decades, none of the material represents any sort of radical departure, save for one track.
“I was late in my 20s and hungry for praise and waxing like crazy when I wrote down that phrase,” Crowell speak-sings in “Shame on the Moon Redux,” which represents not only a self-examination but a significant rewrite of the song Bob Seger had a Number Two pop hit with in early 1983. The original line to which he’s referring – and one of the few retained in this update – is “Once inside a woman’s heart a man must keep his head/ Heaven opens up the door where angels fear to tread.” But it’s the song’s original third verse that had dogged Crowell, who wrote it in 1979 and recorded it on his self-titled third LP in 1981.
“We just recorded a track in the studio and the guys played it so well,” Crowell told Rolling Stone Country during a recent conversation at a bagel shop on Nashville’s west side. “With [drummer] Larrie Londin and Richard Bennett [on guitar], the track of the recording of it was far superior to the language as I had it at the time. The last verse I always thought was rubbish, but the recording was good.”
Hindsight may be 20-20, but one man’s “rubbish” can also be another man’s double-platinum treasure, as Seger and the Silver Bullet Band sold nearly two million copies of The Distance, the album on which the tune appeared. The song just missed the top spot, spending three of its four weeks at Number Two – held off by Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
“I let it get out and Bob Seger got it and had a big hit on it, and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that last verse is awful.’ Even Mac Davis, [who also recorded the song in 1982], said to me, ‘Man… I wish I had been there to help you with your last verse!” Crowell says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Thank you, you’re the only one who’s really shot me straight with that.’ So for years and years and years, I’ve been working on re-writing the last verse.”
Having avoided performing the song live for years because of the prickly final verse, Crowell decided it would be better to just re-write the entire thing. “Bob Seger owns that,” he says of the hit single. “That performance far outdistanced mine by light years. So, I sort of took the Leonard Cohen approach to it, and said, ‘OK, I’m going to document this. This is an opportunity for me to document this. I fully assume that there are going to be those that prefer the original, and they may be right. The new one is, for better or worse, a better-written set of verses, technically, in terms of real couplets, and in terms of really delivering on what the narrative is.
“In fairness to myself,” he adds, “I wrote a song called ‘Stars on the Water’ at the same time. It was at a point when I was really, really looking and thinking and pondering Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings… Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh. ‘Stars on the Water’ was a vision where the stars and lights on the coast become one, which is typical of Impressionistic painting.”
Just as striking differences exist, for example, between Impressionist art, Realism and Cubism, Crowell’s own artistry has evolved, veering from the brilliantly commercial but thoroughly engaging approach of Diamonds & Dirt, the LP which set a record with five consecutive Number One country singles, to the autobiographical, expertly detailed The Houston Kid in 2001. Today, when pressed, Crowell connects his own works to art’s evolution, noting the Baroque period realism of Caravaggio as a visual representation of what he strives for lyrically.
“He really attempted to depict what he saw as beautifully as possible,” he says. “And Rembrandt did that in a way. He didn’t strive for those beautiful strokes that Caravaggio strove for. He painted more of a snapshot of what he saw. Or maybe even Picasso in his Blue Period, when he was the famous Guitar Player. Where it’s more realistic and the images… I work harder now to deliver as solid an image as I can, to varying degrees of success.”
In addition to revisiting familiar songs in his 40-plus-year catalog, including “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “After All This Time” and “She’s Crazy for Leaving,” Number One hits from Diamonds & Dirt, Crowell offers stripped-down takes on his songs that were hits for Keith Urban (“Making Memories of Us”), Tim McGraw (“Please Remember Me”) and the Oak Ridge Boys, who topped with the charts with “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” The tune from Crowell’s 1978 debut sizzles here with Cajun-rock ferocity in spite of the unplugged approach. With glistening production by Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, the Rails), the LP also includes more recent songs such as “Earthbound,” from Crowell’s 2003 gem, Fate’s Right Hand, and “Anything But Tame,” from 2012’s Kin, a collaboration with poet and memoirist Mary Karr.
“[That’s] a song I’ve performed since Mary and I wrote it,” Crowell says. “I’ve performed it to where I have the nuance of it; it’s second nature. When I recorded it for Kin, I didn’t know it yet, and my performance of it is guesswork. I thought, ‘Ah, look what I’m doing now.’ I have a chance to define my original intention. This was a perfect opportunity for that.”
Crowell’s Keith Urban hit, also cut by Tracy Byrd in 2003, had its roots with the Notorious Cherry Bombs, the assemblage of top-flight musicians, including Vince Gill, who served as Crowell’s backing band, the Cherry Bombs, in the Eighties, after Crowell’s stint in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. Crowell notes that the Notorious Cherry Bombs’ version of “Making Memories of Us,” was “pretty incredible… but it still felt lush. That was a perfect song for Keith Urban because he made it so romantic. I wrote it for my wife Claudia, so with that performance [on Acoustic Classics] I was thinking in my mind, ‘OK, this is a singular statement to the person that I wrote this song to.’ Which I feel like that I accomplished.”
Crowell is headed to the U.K. and Ireland for a series of tour dates next week and on the weekend of August 4th he’ll join Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and more at the TrouBeliever Fest at Utah’s Snowbasin Resort, northeast of Salt Lake City.