Rodney Crowell: Sitting at Fate’s Right Hand

Rodney Crowell doesn’t dismiss the significance of Diamonds and Dirt, his 1988 album that yielded five No. 1 country singles and a Grammy for best country song, but he does regard his new collection, Fate’s Right Hand, as much better and more artistically whole. And it is.

Wise, sometimes funny and luminously poetic, Fate’s Right Hand reports from the psychic battlefield of middle age without condescension or sentimentality. Now a sage 53, Crowell knows what he’s singing about. “When you’re in the middle of your life,” he observes, as he settles in for a leisurely conversation at his publicist’s office, “they’ve got you surrounded. You don’t know which way they’re going to shoot from. But you sure don’t get any sympathy vote.” He says he’s concluded that “life can be either of two things: What it makes of you or what you make of it.” The album opts for the latter.

Revealing though it is, Crowell doesn’t think Fate’s Right Hand is any more “confessional” than his equally autobiographical The Houston Kid of 2001. But he does point out a big difference between the two. “[The new album] is more me in that it’s me trying to make sense of right now. Memory is revisionist, you know. The Houston Kid was based on true things that happened. But I know — from writing a memoir that I’ve been working on for awhile — that reconstructing memory is revisionism. It is by nature, because if you’re any kind of poet when you start reconstructing the past, you’re going to add to it a little bit. This record is about finding poetry in the actual middle of the activity.”

Crowell found inspiration for his songs in events large, small and banal: dinner with a world-weary friend, encountering an archly independent homeless man on a snow-clogged New York street, the sudden onset of debilitating panic attacks, the death of a child, the Vanity Fair of pop culture, a glance in the mirror.

Of the 11 songs in this collection, Crowell had already written “The Man in Me” and “Still Learning How to Fly” before he formally started work on the album. The remaining nine were done over a period of about six months. “There wasn’t a lot of time [spent] writing these songs,” he says. “They just seemed to appear.” He wrote the title song by free-associating lines into a tape recorder for “about 45 minutes” and then editing them down to strobe flashes of images. Regardless of their inspiration or execution, these pieces are suffused with a sense of possibilities — of the notion that the turning calendar saps only our energy, not our sense of wonder.

The thoughts of aging have been with Crowell for a long time. He was 41 in 1992 when Columbia Records released his “Lovin’ All Night” (now a single for Patty Loveless). With its peacock strut and sexual muscle flexing, this song was clearly the cry of man who’s looking over his shoulder at the swordsman he used to be. Crowell admits that his having turned 40 and being newly divorced (from Rosanne Cash) served as inspirations. “I think that song was a lot of ‘Act as if,’” he reflects. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “It was a lie.”

For years, the worm in Crowell’s outwardly shiny artistic apple was his discontent with the way he sounded. “I’ve said very openly that the first aspect of my artistry to arrive was writing. It took me a good number of years to find my voice. I think I found [it] just a few years ago. I talked to people about this through the Diamonds and Dirt period who told me I was their favorite singer. I scratched my head about that. I was so [vocally] thin then. I hadn’t matured. … With The Houston Kid and this record, I didn’t fight with myself in the process of making them because I actually like the way I sound now. Before I didn’t.”

For a man who’s written such evergreens as “Til I Gain Control Again,” “Song for the Life,” “Ashes by Now,” “Please Remember Me,” “After All This Time,” “Shame on the Moon” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” Crowell is refreshingly self-effacing about his achievements. When he cites Picasso as an example of an artist’s ability to renew himself, he is quick to say that he’s not comparing himself to Picasso. Several times during the conversation, he refers to “trying” to do something with his music rather than asserting that he’s done it — and damn well.

Crowell has reached the point, however, that he’s almost at ease with his stature as a songwriter. But even here he hedges himself with qualifications. “I told somebody yesterday [that] I’m a world-class songwriter. And he kind of looked at me like, ‘How can you say that?’ It’s true. I am. But I think that my struggles to make the sound that I wanted kept me humble, kept me a little out of step with myself so that I never got satisfied. … As I worked really hard to find in myself how to become a fully realized artist — to me — I think my songwriting had the opportunity to grow at a natural pace. With Fate’s Right Hand, I think I reached a level of completeness in forming and articulating ideas at around the same time I reached a place where I could match it with my singing voice. It was a kind of coming together. I’ve been more interested in that aspect of becoming an artist than I have been in whether anybody knows my name out there.”

Fate’s Right Hand is such a masterful summing up of the truths Crowell has arrived at about himself that he thinks he may strike out in another musical direction. “Maybe now it’s time for me to experiment with how raw I can make music,” he says, “to see if I can approach something with that kind of raw, combustive thing that the Rolling Stones do. Not that I’d ever rock like the Rolling Stones, but there’s something unfinished about the way their best work was that appeals to me. … I don’t compare myself to Picasso, but I do look at artists that I admire and try to understand their creative processes. Picasso, at one point, broke his [technique] all to pieces and started doing stick figures. … And I think of Miles Davis, who played beautifully through the ‘50s and then later on just deconstructed his work to the point that he was just playing those single-line musical things. He and Picasso are very similar to me in that they reached some sort of incredible realization in what they did, and then they broke it apart. … I think the worst thing you can do is try to top yourself. You’ve got to find something new.”

Hailed as the next big thing when Diamonds and Dirt began blossoming hits, Crowell was never at ease with the image his manager and record company wanted for him. He says he understood his reservations better after watching an interview the great clarinetist Artie Shaw did for Ken Burns’ Jazz series on PBS. “When somebody asked him why he quit performing,” Crowell recalls, “he said it was because people really got fixated on what he was doing on his way to becoming better. When he said that, I said, ‘I understand. I know how that feels.’ At that time, I was being congratulated and given Grammys and everything for something that, in my heart of hearts, I felt was not the work that I was here to do, that I wanted to do. … If something like what happened in the late ‘80s were to happen again — and I don’t presume that it will — it would be a different story now. I wouldn’t be conflicted.”

Fame is for the young, and Crowell’s been through all that. Fate’s Right Hand celebrates wisdom’s more enduring gold. “Our culture aggrandizes youth ad nauseam,” he says. “I’m hoping that there’s a window in our culture where the truth about the middle of your life matters. And it ain’t easy. I can’t tell anybody anything, but I can show them what’s up for me and hope it rings true.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.