In this modern world, most of us will have at least two major careers by the time we’re 40. Rodney Crowell is already starting on his third. He has been a hotshot sideman and songwriter for Emmylou Harris, a major label country music star who produced gold records and filled stadiums, and finally an independent singer/songwriter with a penchant for spinning tales about the darker side of life. Along the way, he picked up Johnny Cash as an ex-father-in-law (the man in black still likes him), and a passel of old friends like Stewart Smith and Donovan Cowart; all of whom were more than willing to play on his latest album, The Houston Kid.
VG caught up with Crowell while he was taking a short break from touring.
Vintage Guitar: You grew up in Houston, Texas?
Rodney Crowell: I lived in Houston. I didn’t really grow up there. I grew up away from there, actually.
When did you get your first guitar?
When I was 12. It was an Ayar five-pickup electric. Five pickups with big plastic switches almost the size of a stompbox. It had a big old whammy bar on it. It didn’t last long – it got ran over by a car! It was lying in the driveway. It survived pretty well, all things considered.
There’s that whole thing that you could drive over a Telecaster with a car and it would be fine. This one did, literally, get left in the driveway, it got rained on and ran over.
Anyway, father had this great old J-125E cutaway Gibson [sic] I played a lot. That’s when I started playing acoustic. That would be the first acoustic guitar that I was really playing around on. Then he got a sweet sunburst mid-’60s J-45 that I still have.
What kind of music were you playing when you started?
When I started, I was playing drums – country shuffles and swing stuff – with my dad. Honky tonk music.
So your dad was an amateur musician?
Yeah, he had a Thursday/Friday/Saturday band. I played drums… and then the Beatles hit. I was an adolescent at the right time, and I started learning Beatles songs.
I fell in with a band of kids my age, and we started doing the Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Bob Dylan. I was 13. I stayed in Houston until 1969 or ’70, and then I went to college in east Texas, in Nagadoces.
I went to Nashville in ’72, wanting to be a star. And I became a songwriter. I was lucky enough to run into Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Mickey Newbury. I saw first-hand what real songwriters did. So I threw away everything I’d written until then, and started over.
So did you write primarily by yourself at first?
Yes. And I still do for the most part.
Most of your songs are written solely by you, but some are co-credits. I remember on an early Emmylou Harris song, you had a co-writing credit with Donovan Cowart, which surprised me, because he’s primarily an engineer, right?
Yeah. But he’s a pretty good songwriter, too.
From ’72 to ’75 you were writing songs. Were you selling any?
Yeah, I started getting them recorded. That’s when I came up with “‘Til I Gain Control Again” and “Song For The Life” and “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”
They were all written before you hooked up with Emmylou?
Actually, “‘Til’ I Gain Control Again” was, and “Bluebird Wine” and I wrote “Song For The Life” during that period.
So how did that relationship develop?
By accident. A friend of mine was a bass player with Anne Murray. He heard some of my songs and gave them to Brian Ahearn, who had just been hired to produce Emmylou’s first record. They called and said, “We like your stuff.” So I went, and Emmy and I hit it off immediately. We became collaborators, and I joined her band.
Did you tour with her, as well?
For three years.
And during that time, you were also writing for other people?
I was writing for me. I’ve never written for other people… it don’t work. I have to write songs for myself, then other people seem to record them. But I can’t sit down and write a song for somebody. It becomes an exercise of the mind as opposed to an exercise of the heart. And the songs I write from my heart are much better than the ones I write mentally. So I stay away from writing songs for other people.
When you came to Nashville, what sort of guitar were you playing?
A ’72 Martin D-35 that I still have. And it’s a better guitar now than it was then. Not that it was a great vintage time for Martins, but I got hold of a good one. I bought it new before I came to Nashville with $10 in my pocket!
Well, you obviously had your priorities straight!
The guitar is sweet, and I still use it from time to time. I use it now and then for certain things. It has a sweet top-end, not a whole lot of bottom.
Sounds like you don’t sell many guitars once you buy them. You also still have your father’s J-45.
I have that because it was my father’s guitar. I once broke the headstock off it in an accident. So I had somebody rebuild it, and I don’t play it anymore. Its headstock is a bit precarious.
For work, I use three acoustics; a Martin [New York Folk Series] with medium-gauge silk-and-steel string. It’s a gorgeous guitar. I’ve had it for 28 years, and I didn’t put it in a case until this year. Now I’m taking it on the road. I got it from a guy in Kentucky who didn’t know what he had. He just gave it to me because he had it hanging on the wall, with barbed wire for strings.
I also have a Collings C-10 with medium-gauge strings. I play it rather hard, although it does respond really well to soft touch. And, finally, I have a Gibson J-45, mid-’50s, that I bought at a dress shop in Santa Fe for $350. I also have a ’49 D-18 I bought a long time ago.
For awhile, Gibson was giving me guitars right and left. I have a couple of J-100s and a J-180 in my locker. I have a J-200 I bought off Marty Stuart.
If you’re going to be a country western guy, you’ve got to have a J-200…
Hank Devito and Emmylou have the good ones… But for me, those three guitars are my main tools.
You’re primarily a fingerstyle player, aren’t you? You mentioned the New Yorker, which is definitely a fingerstyle instrument.
With the New Yorker, I have to play soft. The minute I start hitting it hard, it shuts down. It’s what play at home, and it’s what I write on a lot, because it’s very soft, and it just sings. And I’ve taught myself to play it gently onstage, and that’s why I’m taking it on the road.
I use it when I play fingerstyle, for the most part. The Collings is kind of the middle… I can play the Collings finger-style, but it’s best for being strummed middle-hard. The J-45 I have is just a tank, it’s good at getting pounded. It loves being pounded. Actually, it got smashed on a runway tarmac when it was in a softshell case. My sound engineer accidentally stepped on it and smashed it to pieces. I took it to Joe Glazer, and it came back sounding better.
I have my J-45 for Everly Brothers-style hard playing. The Collings is a really good single-note guitar, and I tend to want to play it at a medium intensity. And the New Yorker is for playing softly.
So I’d guess you now keep your guitars in Calton or Leaf cases?
Yep, I do. The New Yorker is in a case for the first time. I carried it in my hands for years on airplanes. It had a 28-year open-air season, so now I have it in a Calton.
You spent several years touring with Emmylou, and after ’78 started your solo career?
Yes. In ’75 I moved to Los Angeles and started touring and working with Emmylou. In ’78 I put out my first album on CBS/Columbia. I was with them until the early ’90s. They released a greatest hits album, and that was my swansong. Then I made a couple of records with Tony Brown at MCA. After that, I made a record with Warner Brothers with my touring band, The Cicadas.
That brings us up to your newest, The Houston Kid. How did that project come about?
I had a lifelong desire to make a record that was really me. I wanted to showcase myself as a singer/songwriter, as opposed to a country hitmaker.
Were the Columbia albums more in that mold?
Yes, I was a hitmaker. And it was good at the time. I think I did it with integrity and class. But I still wanted to do some work that framed me as a singer/songwriter/artist. And that’s what I’ve done with The Houston Kid.
I started one record for Warner Brothers, and Jim Ed Norman was very kind and allowed me to cash in my chips and go on my own.
I just felt like I was making something that I had already made, and he was supportive of my decision of wanting to go on and do something else. So he blessed me and sent me on my way, which was very nice of him. We put the tapes in the trash can, and I went home and started over, in my house, in my studio, with my stuff. It’s actually quite comfortable working in the home.
One thing I wanted to ask about was the Larry Willoughby album you produced. How did that come about?
Larry is my cousin, and we grew up together. He’s now the vice president of A&R at Capitol Records.
So was that his only album?
Too bad. It’s great.
Yeah, he’s a talented boy.
Have you done any other producing?
A lot! There’s a Hal Ketchum record, material for Beth Nielsen Chapman, and some Brady Seals records.
When you put on a producer’s hat, what do you do?
Oh, make two dollars an hour! When I put on a producer’s hat, I pretend I’m a movie director.
Peckinpah or Fellini?
I’d have to go with Bertolucci!
Okay, so you set the mood and then let them go?
Yeah. Just try to keep everybody in the same mood, and then kind of nurture everybody to arrive at the same time. I’m like a loading platform. I never made a record that didn’t have very difficult moments. And there are very breezy moments, too. And I welcome both. Sometimes, when you run into difficulty it’s actually what’s leading you to a final resolution.
What are you doing in the next couple of months?
I’m finishing a documentary/video that kind of goes with The Houston Kid. I’m selling my house in Nashville, since I’m living in Los Angles now.
So who’s touring in your band?
Stewart Smith and Randall Waller.
Whoa! Good company! It’s just a trio?
Yeah. Stewart can pretty much do it all. He’s playing keyboards and guitar. He’s also playing a baritone Music Man guitar. Randall Waller is playing acoustic and electric guitar. If you’re a guitar junkie, you need to come see us, because those two boys cover a lot of guitar ground. I’m the rhythm section, and it’s very fun. It’s an intimate listener situation.
I’m more interested in that now than I’m jumping around.
You’ve yoyo-ed between Nashville and L.A. at different periods in your life.
Yeah, it would seem. This move to L.A. is my wife’s idea. I’m following her around. She’s studying acting, and she wants to go there and do it, so I said “Okay, I’ll go there with you.” I’m not really involved with the Nashville country music scene anymore.
There is no country music. It’s pop music with the right dressing. I sort of bristle a bit now when people call my music “country.”
There’s a group of songwriters and musicians who are doing something that is certainly not of Top 40 or radio country, but certainly has country roots. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, or Steve Earle… so many guys come to mind who are doing roots country.
Yeah, Americana. I think you’ve got to call it Americana, because when you call it “country,” it has a connotation I don’t want to be associated with.
But in some ways, your Columbia albums were the archetype for what country sound is today.
Well, maybe. But that was then. We’re talking about now. Everybody has the right to do exactly what they do, and to make a living and be happy with who they are. I’m just a bit more of a purist these days.
Photo copyright by Steven Stone.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.