20 Questions With Rodney Crowell

He Talks Spirituality, Songwriting and Why Vince Gill Is Full of Crap

Although Rodney Crowell titled his new album The Outsider, he’s willing to give you the inside scoop. Here, the famed songwriter openly answers questions from fans about his interest in religion, his eclectic choice of reading material and narrowing down the list of his favorite country singers of all time.

1. As your albums progress, I sense a spiritual as well as a musical awakening. What have been your spiritual interests lately?

My spiritual interests lately … let me put it this way: When you talk about spiritual interests, you can talk about the things that you’ve been reading or the things that you continue to try to allow to unfold. Basically, my spiritual life is a matter of my relationship to God as I understand it. I always try to be very careful not to project a definition of the God of my understanding on anyone else. But it is a source of joy, it’s a source of comfort, it’s a source of inner strength, it’s a source of beauty, it’s a source of creativity and it’s consolation when I despair. I do the things that I can do to cultivate it, and through the process of cultivating it, it just naturally shows up in the music in one way or the other, because I try to write first and foremost from my heart when I can.

2. I was surprised to see in a promo photo for your new CD, that it appears you are wearing a black and white Rangzen bracelet. Are you a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and/or are you aware of the plight of the Tibetan people?

I am very aware of the plight of the Tibetan people, and that’s why I wear it. It’s one of the great injustices of all time. It’s one of the longest-running injustices. I can’t call myself a devotee of the Dalai Lama, but I read everything published by the Dalai Lama. I guess I am Buddhist, in a way. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but there is so much joy in the spiritual foundation of what Buddhism is, as I understand it. My wife, having lived in Buddhist countries, tells me there are a lot of things that I don’t understand about it. She tells me that I’m pretty idealistic about it. But, still, the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama should be able to go home.

3. Thanks for another great CD with The Outsider. As a fellow Buddhist, I wondered how you stumbled upon it and how it influences your work as a writer and performer?

In terms of the Dalai Lama, the gentleness and the lack of judgment and the acceptance that, in everything, [there] is an opportunity to choose love and to choose joy. That’s what I’m drawn to spiritually, but I’m equally drawn to the beauty of the Jewish faith. It’s a beautiful, beautiful faith. A Bar Mitzvah is a beautiful ritual and rite of passage. I don’t know that anybody’s one-upped, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Judge not, less you be judged” or “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” I don’t know if anybody has one-upped that. I mean, Christianity, at its best, ranks with all the religions, but to me the relationship with God extends beyond the organized aspect of what religion is — you know, the control aspect of religion.

4. I am a huge fan. I think you are one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I am also a fan of your rhythm guitar playing. I was wondering what your favorite acoustic guitar is?

I play a Collings C-10, and I love playing it because once I get it in tune, it does not go out. That is very important. That sounds like a comment rather than a question, but I appreciate somebody realizing that my rhythm guitar playing is integral to my band and how it works. I’m sort of from the Chuck Berry-John Lennon school, but I think Bob Wills said it best when he said, “Give me 11 rhythm guitar players and a singer — and you’ve got a band.”

5. How did your wife respond when you wrote “Making Memories of Us” as a Valentine’s Day gift to her?

None of your business!

6. You wrote a couple of songs that appeared on Keith Urban’s Golden Road album, “What About Me” and “You Won.” What were the stories or inspirations behind those songs?

“What About Me” was written when Keith was going through a time when there was a lot of demand and pressure on him. He was probably thinking about, “I’ve got to find some time for me, just to have a life.” So we wrote that as we were talking about it. “You Won,” if you really look at that song. … we started talking about spirituality, and “You Won” is a spiritual song. It works on two levels. It could be a love interest having worn you down and finally getting you to come around, or it can be finally surrendering to the love and care of a benevolent God.

7. Do you ever write a song with a particular artist in mind other than yourself?

I do occasionally. And when I do, it doesn’t work. When I write a song with somebody else in mind, it’s putting the cart before the horse. The way I write best is when I allow the song to tell me what it wants to be. And the song will do that. If I’m writing it for somebody else, I’m trying to tell the song what I want it to be. Songs are better when they tell me what they want to be, and I just listen. I’m like a stenographer. I’m like a court reporter when I just listen to what they want to be, and I write them down. But the other way around, it’s never worked. It just doesn’t work for me. I can’t do it. There are people that can do it — and God bless them — but I can’t.

8. When a lyric comes to you, do you find it’s a struggle to find the style and tempo to match it?

No, when a lyric comes to me I know what to do with it.

9. Do you have total control of the music on your albums?

Yes. I have pretty much had control. I think I came at a time, luckily, when nobody really told me what to do. I think in the middle of the ’90s, I made a couple of records where I tried to figure out what I thought the radio wanted from me. They weren’t my best records by any stretch of the imagination. It didn’t take me too long to figure out, “Whoa, back up, dude. Just go back to following your heart, and it will all be OK.” The old brain’s not a good guide in this creative world. Faulty bread crumbs!

10. You have often stated who your songwriting heroes are, like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others. I was wondering what kind of books and material you read to expand your knowledge and word selection. Also, what do you read for enjoyment?

I read Nabakov for style, Mary Karr for heart and resonance of where I come from. She’s from the same part of the world that I’m from. Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway, to read the masters. My enjoyment reading changes from time to time. For a while, Larry McMurtry — everything that he wrote was a sheer source of enjoyment. I just read a book by Wally Lamb that I couldn’t put down, I Know This Much Is True. Milan Kundera is one of the great writers. I really like memoirs. Tobias Wolff is someone I particularly enjoy. I have a library at home. I am a book collector. I have a pretty sizable library, and I do my writing inside my library. For some reason, it feels that’s where I should be searching for words, in a library. I probably have a 700-book library.

11. Is there an artist you would like the opportunity to work with that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet?

I don’t know that the work part would be as important to me as just the conversation. Would I like a series of conversations with Bono? Yeah. Would I like a series of conversations with Martin Scorcese? Yeah. To me, the conversation is the most exquisite thing, because I’ve got plenty of work to do on my own. … My dedication is to try to figure out how to express my singular sensibility. If there’s an artist whom I truly admire, like Bob Dylan, to have a conversation about expressing your singular sensibility, I don’t think there could be anything more valuable than that.

12. I am a songwriter, but it seems virtually impossible to get into the business nowadays with so many artists writing their own material and having particular writers they use. Or you have to know someone or at least know somebody who knows someone. Any advice on what the best way is to get songs heard?

Well, it’s tricky. I think the first thing you have to do is remove your own mental blocks — that you even acknowledge that it’s hard to get in there. You have your own blockage. Even believing it’s hard to get in is a prison of the mind. I think the first thing you have to do is figure out how to dismantle the thought behind that. The next thing you have to do is evaluate your work for what it really is. Is your work really up to a par that it is as deserving? Can it be used, and does it have a relevance that would work in the music entertainment field? And then after that, if you can really be honest with yourself about your own mental blocks and the quality of your work, I guarantee you that people who are running publishing houses and record companies are wide open to making money. They’re not going to turn down an opportunity to make money. So get rid of your own mental blocks and really make sure that your work is relevant in the world — in our culture, globally or even regionally — and then go do it.

13. Vince Gill was once quoted as saying that you wouldn’t write with him because he wasn’t critical enough during the writing process. I noticed that you and he had collaborated on a song or two on The Notorious Cherry Bombs album. Do you two now write together on occasion?

Vince Gill is full of crap. Vince said that I wouldn’t write with him because he wasn’t critical enough? He’s full of it. This isn’t something I wouldn’t say to him. I’ve known him since he was 20 years old. That’s his own [perspective]. I never said that. As a matter of fact, I even said to Vince after he had that hot streak and all those hit records, “Vince, look at this man. You just went through this incredible hot streak. You wrote with everybody in Nashville but me — and I’m one of your oldest friends. What’s up with that, dude?” And he kind of went pouty-faced and went, “Oh man, rrr-rrr-rrr.” I never said that to Vince. That was his own guilty conscience talking.

Now, having [mentioned] all that, I love Vince. He’s one of my oldest friends, and it’s always a joy to work with him. But I really was pissed off at him. I never said I wouldn’t write with him. He didn’t come to me. I was pissed off at him for a long time. It’s like, what am I going to do? Pick up the phone and say, “Hey Vince, you’re having all of these hits. Come on, I’ll write something with you. We can do it.” I’m not going to do that. I’m a proud man. He should have called me. I never said that. He said that.

14. Alan Jackson recorded a song of yours back in 1994 titled “Song for the Life.” I think it is one of the best songs he has ever recorded and one of the best you have ever written. How did the idea for this song come about?

That’s the oldest song in my legacy, I guess. I wrote that song when I was 21. It’s just about growing up. The whole song is about growing into some sort of self-awareness that would come later. I sort of sensed the life. It is a very soulful song. Craft-wise, it’s really lacking, you know? Man, if I had that inspiration now, I’m pretty sure I could write that song better. But there is something about the spirit of it, and the spirit of a 21-year-old kid somehow believing that he was going to grow into a fully realized, fully conscious man in the world. I guess you have to think that’s a pretty good road sign for an artist. I made my own road sign: “Follow This Way.”

I still play it. I changed the first line now to “I don’t drink as much as I want to.” I’m always tinkering around. But “ought to” is a better word, because it really suggests, “Ooh, there’s a lot going on.”

15. I absolutely loved the music you shared with Rosanne Cash in the 1980s. Even though the marriage didn’t work, are you still on friendly terms?

Oh, yeah. We have three daughters together. We are definitely on friendly terms. We talk. She’s a great woman, mother and artist. I admire her. We get along well.

16. Years ago, you sent all your fan club members a cassette of you and your daughters singing a couple of Christmas songs. I still have mine somewhere. I was wondering if any of your girls have pursued a career in music?

One of my daughters is a record executive at a record label in Los Angeles. She is a go-getter. One of my other daughters is a songwriter, and I suspect a very good one. She made the old boy cry. Beautiful stuff.

17. Why do you generally overlook much of your material from the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s when you perform in concert? I’ve seen you in concert twice in recent years, and I have only heard you perform “She’s Crazy for Leaving” from that era.

Maybe it’s stubbornness, but I really feel that if I cannot achieve relevancy with work that I’m doing now, then I should go home and not do it. I think it really stems around that I have an absolute horror to being an oldies act. It’s because I’m an artist, and the most important thing to me, as an artist, is what I am creating now. What I’ve done is done. It’s always been that way. People say, “What is your favorite song you’ve ever written?” and I say, “The one I’m working on now.” Maybe there will come a time when I want to consolidate the whole of what I’ve written. I certainly stand behind the songs I wrote a long time ago. It’s a matter of relevancy for me. The work that I’m doing now is the most relevant to me, because if it is irrelevant out in the world and I don’t have an audience, truthfully I should quit. I should write books.

18. What was it like having Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash as in-laws?

Rarified. It’s not every day that you have access to people like that. Great artists and great people. My life will forever be the richer for it. I loved them both, and I believe they both loved me. They were great grandparents. John spoiled my kids. He fed them candy and did what a grandpa should do. June was just always delightfully engaging and lovely to me. She treated me wonderfully. They impacted my life, and it was a gift that will affect me forever.

19. I love your recent duets with Emmylou Harris on “My Baby’s Gone” and “Shelter From the Storm.” Several years back, there was a rumor that the two of you might put out a full album of duets together. Is there any truth to that rumor? Do you have any plans to record with her again anytime soon?

We spoke about it the other day, but it seems like every time we’ve spoken about it, either she was up to something that kept her from being able to get focused on it, or I was focused on something else that I was doing. We’ve said back and forth to each other all along that we should do it because there is some kind of sibling sound when we sing together. It’s pretty cool. We’ve always said that we should do it, and we’ve always said we’re going to do it, but we just haven’t done it.

20. Who is your favorite country singer of all time?

Favorite country singer of all time … Hank Williams. … Well, then there’s Willie Nelson. Can I have three? I can’t do one. Then if I have three, I’ll need five. Hank Williams for sure. Willie Nelson. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. (laughs) It’s impossible to answer. I’d have to go with Hank Williams. I don’t think I could pick a No. 1. Those questions are always hard. It’s like, “How can you do that?”