In August 1972, 22-year-old Houston-born songwriter Rodney Crowell first arrived in Nashville, a passenger in fellow songwriter Donivan Cowart’s 1965 baby blue Chevy Impala. Much as it is today, the city was experiencing a major growth spurt. Urban renewal, an interstate highway system and the changing face of the Music City skyline were among the factors contributing to Nashville’s growing pains. Music Row, which housed the country-music industry’s record labels and publishing companies, was cashing in on the “Nashville Sound,” the country-meets-pop production style perfected by producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. A short distance away was an old house on Acklen Avenue, where starving artist — and stoned T.G.I. Friday’s dishwasher — Crowell, and his roommates, poet Richard Dobson and bass player Skinny Dennis Sanchez, would play music on the front porch with fellow Texas expats including Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. In the six years that followed, Crowell honed his craft as a staff songwriter with Jerry Reed’s publishing company and landed a gig as rhythm guitar player in Emmylou Harris’ aptly named Hot Band.
In 1978, Rodney Crowell signed with Warner Bros., watching three of the songs on his debut album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, released 40 years ago this month, sell more than one million copies as singles — not for Crowell himself, but for other artists.
“My reputation as a songwriter is what got me there,” Crowell says. “I got a record deal because people were recording my songs early and covering them. Thank heavens, they kept me in business. I bow in earnest to those who kept me in business. I think that Warner Bros. signed me to a recording contract [thinking], ‘This guy’s producing material that’s making it to the top. He’s bound to hit sooner or later.”
Hit he did, although later rather than sooner. While three of the songs on the debut record were covers, including Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” later a pop-country smash for the Oak Ridge Boys, and “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I,” a hit for Hank Snow and many others, the Crowell originals included “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” which went to Number One for the Oak Ridge Boys in 1980, “Voilá, An American Dream,” a 1979 release by the (Nitty Gritty) Dirt Band featuring Linda Ronstadt, and “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” covered by Crowell’s then-wife, Rosanne Cash, as well as by Harris. “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” the barn-burning title cut of Crowell’s LP, gave Waylon Jennings his 11th Number One country hit and has been covered numerous times, with Harris including it on her 1978 Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town album. Crowell’s efforts in collecting such top-notch material for his critically lauded debut were, at the time, total sales of around 20,000 copies.
If there was any frustration for Crowell — and there was — it was not so much with the external journey to stardom or success, it was about the struggle he faced internally.
“I knew on a subconscious level that I became a fully developed songwriter before I became a fully developed recording artist, specifically, a fully developed vocalist,” he notes. “I don’t think that I really found my voice in such a way that I felt like I was ready to be received, until I made The Houston Kid.”
That album, which Crowell made in 2001, followed a period of mainstream success that hit a peak with the 1988 LP, Diamonds & Dirt, a record that placed five consecutive singles at Number One, something no other album in country music had achieved at the time.
“Diamonds & Dirt, I still hear that, and I go, oh no. I’m still struggling to understand that,” he says. “I mean, for the longest time I had heard Ray Charles, and I had heard Aretha Franklin sing, and I had heard John Lennon sing, and I had heard real vocalists kill it. Internally, I was, ‘Shit, I can’t seem to find it. I can’t seem to dredge up something that was that undeniable.’ Which, in fairness to everybody else, anybody evaluating the records I make — setting aside the songs — is like, ‘I don’t really hear it.’ With Diamonds & Dirt I still don’t think that I was really ready for the big-time as a vocalist at that particular moment. But the whole thing fell together in such a way that the radio people thought I was ready.”
What Ain’t Living Long Like This may have saddled Crowell with in regard to internal conflict nevertheless rewarded him with in one-of-a-kind memories. Produced by Brian Ahern on his famed mobile recording unit and aided by a host of extraordinary musicians, including Hot Band members James Burton, Hank DeVito, Glen D. Hardin, Emory Gordy Jr. and John Ware, the players also included guitarist Albert Lee and Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, drummers Jim Keltner and Hal Blaine, New Orleans legend Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), and singers Nicolette Larson and Willie Nelson, among others.
“I know I’m hard on myself, but on a particular night with Ry Cooder, Emory, Mac Rebennack, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Emmylou, Mickey Raphael and I are on the floor of the Enactron Truck and we do a live version of ‘Elvira.’ That record was exactly what happened on the floor, and listening back to that playback, Keltner is standing there and he turned and he gave me that look like, ‘Whoa, that’s all right there.’ We’re not just creating a safety net for you to come back later and figure out how to sing. It was smack on. If you look at the credits on that album, the people that were there, that’s pretty staggering — a great collection of people.”
In June, Crowell re-imagined 11 of his most familiar songs (and added a new tune, “Tennessee Wedding”) for a collection called Acoustic Classics, including “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Ain’t Living Long Like This” from his debut album. The LP also represents the newer generation of artists who have turned to the tunesmith for inspiration, with “Making Memories for Us” (Keith Urban) and “Please Remember Me” (Tim McGraw) featured.
Today, Crowell is considered one of the godfathers of the Americana music movement. Ain’t Living Long Like This is a vividly drawn blueprint of just how he got there.