Rodney Crowell could have spent a lifetime writing an album about Texas. In a way, he has. Though the Grammy-winning Americana storyteller left the Lone Star State for Music City in 1972, he’s returned to it time and again for inspiration in the decades since, from his 2001 LP The Houston Kid to his 2011 memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks. But Crowell owes his latest album, Texas, to a song called “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” and a conversation it started between him and Steve Earle.
“I wrote that back in the Seventies and Steve learned it. On his first tour he was doing it, so off and on we had the intention of recording it together. I never recorded it. That was about a 20-year conversation,” Crowell says. “Maybe, in a magical thinking way, it was just waiting for the rest of the songs to get written around it, for the album it finally fit on to start taking shape.”
Out this month on Crowell’s RC1 Records, Texas not only turned into a tribute to his home state but a rip-roaring album of duets. Besides Earle, fellow Texans Willie Nelson, Billy F. Gibbons, Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Dunn, Randy Rogers, and Lee Ann Womack all make appearances, as does Crowell’s former Cherry Bombs band mate Vince Gill and even a former Beatle, Ringo Starr. Its 11 songs are suitably raucous, cut through with a dry wit and hard-earned homespun sensibility.
“Texas has a reputation across the country for being particularly conservative and Republican. I’m pretty leftist, but that doesn’t dilute my appreciation for the topography, or the audacity of the spirit of a state that was once a country,” Crowell says, his warm, thoughtful drawl rising with a touch of good-humored reverence. “Somewhere in the water source it could very easily go back to being a country and everybody would be happy. I’m sure of it.”
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Crowell sees each of the state’s four major geographical quadrants represented in their own ways on Texas, from the greenery of the east on “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” to the barrenness of the panhandle on “Caw Caw Blues.” “It’s not like I haven’t mined that well before,” Crowell acknowledges. “It grew organically, but I became aware that it was a landscape. The songs were not particularly my experience, but for lack of a better metaphor, the landscape became illustrative of what it’s like [there].”
Starting off with the grizzled spoken-word incantation of Steve Earle, “Brown & Root, Brown & Root” is the album’s oil-stained backbone, a spare, string-snapping ballad colored with flourishes of mandolin and accordion. Yet it may not have spawned the rest of what followed had Crowell not had a concurrent dialogue going to that of Earle, with Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top.
“Billy Gibbons is from Houston the same as me. We grew up on opposite sides of town around the same time. Off and on we’d have conversations around similar lines,” Crowell recalls. That led to the crunchy blues-rock riffing of “56 Fury,” written for Crowell’s hot-rodding father-in-law, but their talks also helped give the album its name. “We were talking about how a lot of the songs are Texas-centric, and he said, ‘That’s a good word, man.’ I thought about it and for a minute that’s what I was going to call [the album].”
Ever the storyteller, Crowell has an anecdote for just about every song on Texas. “Flatland Hillbillies,” the freewheeling opening track that represents his own corner of the state, the southeast Gulf region, was co-written with The Liars’ Club author Mary Karr. The pair previously collaborated on the album Kin in 2012. “In some ways, that was autobiographical,” Crowell recalls. “We were talking about her Irish blood and my Scotch-Irish blood, and how the people we come from are these wage slaves working menial jobs. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s like we’re flatland hillbillies,’ and it just spilled out.”
Others developed over a much longer period of time. Like “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” — named for a dot on the map in East Texas — was written after a fishing trip with a roadie in the Seventies. It was recorded a few years later by Guy Clark, whose name pops up in a song credit on “Caw Caw Blues,” the last song he and Crowell wrote together before Clark’s death in 2016. That song reunites Crowell with his old bandmate Vince Gill (whose new album, Okie, also nods to the state where he grew up).
Having written hit songs for everyone from Waylon Jennings to Bob Seger, it’s no surprise that Crowell’s collaborations, more than sounding like tacked-on cameos, take on the characters of his duet partners. One of the more notable examples is “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable,” featuring Ringo Starr, who’d reached out to Crowell himself through a mutual friend. “It had another flavor altogether when I wrote it. It was more of a two-beat, more like JJ Cale. But Ringo and I got together, I played it for him, and that was one take. So it was entirely Ringo’s interpretation of the song I put out there,” Crowell says.
Crowell takes center stage on “The Border,” an eerie mid-tempo dirge that’s the emotional apex of Texas. Co-written with Allen Shamblin, the song is sung from the standpoint of a United States border guard. Dating back 10 years, it has an out-of-time feel, more humanist than political, but no less tragic because of it. “We were writing the song to be sympathetic to the actual border guards, and I’m still sympathetic to them. They’re trying to do a job down there. It’s not their policy,” Crowell says. “I think if we were writing that song today it would be more about the atrocities. [But] I’m glad we wrote it when we did. To me it has a more epic quality now.”
It may have been unintentional that all these decades of songs came together at once, but it’s no coincidence that now would be the time for Crowell to sustain such a long-form concept. “That started to crystallize with me when I wrote my memoir. When you’re sustaining a narrative and sustaining focus for 300 pages of prose, you really become conscious of sustaining a tone and sense of place that’s going to last for more than three and a half minutes of a song,” Crowell says. “That’ll probably stick with me. You don’t spend 10 years writing prose and drift away from what you learned doing that.”
Yet, while Texas ends teasingly with “Texas Drought, Part 1,” for which Crowell says there is indeed a “Part 2” that he plans to release, he sees this album as the closing of a chapter. “Perhaps this Texas record is the culmination of a study I’ve been doing more consciously since I started writing Chinaberry Sidewalks back in 1999. I dredged all that up and that all came out on the table. [But] I think I’ve really done the work I need to do on where I come from,” Crowell says. “There’s the old adage, write what you know. I’ve done that. I really need to know something new. This is my own personal process, and I think I’ve done it well.”