Houston Kid Finds His Way Back Home

Rodney Crowell Revisits His Past on New Album

At one point in “I Wish It Would Rain,” a quiet, vivid
song-portrait of an AIDS-infected “cracker gigolo”
walking the streets of L.A., Rodney Crowell‘s voice
breaks audibly. Most Nashville artists and
producers would regard the moment as a blemish
requiring a second take.

“I heard that and I went, ‘Great,’” Crowell recalls
with a chuckle during a recent phone call from his
home. “I couldn’t do that on purpose.”

The song appears on The Houston Kid, a 12-track
song cycle just released on Sugar Hill, an
independent label specializing in acoustic and
bluegrass music. Though “I Wish It Would Rain” comes from his imagination,
several songs on the new album — his 10th as a solo artist — are a product of
Crowell’s years growing up in Houston. In the same way that the songs reveal a
lot about the writer, Crowell’s captured-live performances are honest and revealing
about the artist.

“Making records earlier, I’da resung that,” he says of the vocal glitch, “which
would have meant taking a really fine, emotional moment out of it. I’ve finally
figured out how to make a Rodney Crowell record, and that’s let it be, leave the
mistakes. I can’t make a perfect record. When I try to, I bleed all the feeling out
of it.”

If he hasn’t made a perfect record, Crowell certainly has made some darn good
ones since releasing his first, Ain’t Living Long Like This, in 1978. Sony Legacy
just re-released his most successful, Diamonds & Dirt, which appeared originally
in 1988 and was the first-ever country release to generate five No. 1 hits.

As a songwriter, his work has found favor with Emmylou Harris, Waylon
Jennings, Bob Seger, his former father-in-law Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and
Trisha Yearwood, among many, many others. Lee Ann Womack’s current hit,
“Ashes by Now,” is a Crowell song.

For all his skill as a writer, however, Crowell has never opened up the book of his
own life to the degree that he does on The Houston Kid. (The album title comes
from a Guy Clark song about fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt; the phrase pops
up in the first two songs on Crowell’s album.)

The album, he says, is “a biography of the environment I grew up in. Sometimes,
when I needed to up the stakes for drama’s sake, I would borrow from other kids’
experience.”

Two songs — “The Rock of My Soul” and “Topsy Turvy” — are based loosely on
Crowell’s own experience. Both allude to domestic violence; Crowell
acknowledges that there was violence in his home. “When I was writing the
songs and making the record, I started to get a little more insight into what I was
actually doing,” he explains. “I felt the need to document for myself exactly how I
felt about that situation that my parents were perpetuating at that particular
time.”

Crowell’s mother died in 1998. She heard some of his new work before she
passed away, and she was supportive, he says. “I played ‘The Rock of My Soul’
for her. She said, ‘Well this is not my favorite kind of thing you do, but I
appreciate what you’re doing.’”

Cash, father of Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash
and the grandfather of his kids, agreed to sing a
part on “I Walk the Line (Revisited),” a song
about the first time Crowell heard the classic
back in 1956. The two men remain good friends,
Crowell says.

When Cash came in to record his part, Crowell
talked with him about hearing the song the first
time at age 5. “It just kinda knocked the breath
out of me, for reasons I didn’t fully understand,”
he says. “These long years later, here we are.”

In his tribute song, Crowell changed Cash’s all-but-patented melody. “He said I
had a lotta damn nerve to change his melody,” Crowell recalls with a laugh.

While he was making The Houston Kid, Crowell read The Liars’ Club, Mary
Karr’s acclaimed memoir about growing up in Texas. He sent her a letter, inviting
her to write a song with him for the record. “She gently declined,” he says.

Inspired by her work, however, Crowell has begun working on a book of his own,
tentatively titled The House on Norvic Street. “With songs, you can paint the
broad brush stroke in fewer words,” he says. “But this memoir is detailed and
specific and focuses more on the humor. I don’t think I could have told the
absolute detail of what was going on were my mother alive.”

CMT will not be playing a Crowell video soon. He licensed the self-financed
recording project to Sugar Hill for release and distribution, and so far there is no
video clip to promote the project. Instead, a student film crew from Nashville’s
Watkins College of Art & Design followed Crowell to his old stomping grounds in
Houston, where, among other things, he reunited with his childhood sweetheart
(now a hardcore lesbian), revisited his fourth grade classroom and took over the
venerable West Alabama Icehouse for some musical hijinks. The film may get an
airing on public television, but nothing has been worked out yet.

Crowell is finding other ways to get the message out about The Houston Kid.
Late last year he debuted some of the songs in a moving acoustic performance
at the first meeting of the Americana Music Association in Nashville. On March
12, in the midst of a West Coast tour, he’ll appear on The Tonight Show With Jay
Leno
, and he is slated to perform just days later at the South By Southwest
music conference in Austin, Texas.

“I had my moment with the country thing,” Crowell reasons, “and when that was
over, it was time for me to move on into what I’m doing now, to move on into
being a storyteller and an artist and a singer-songwriter. … It just took me a little
while to have the courage to leave [mainstream country] alone and make music
that matters to me and to the people who care the most about what I do.”