Rodney Crowell’s friends and admirers risked the wrath of a predicted ice storm Wednesday night (Dec. 15) to join the fabled singer-songwriter in celebrating the publication of his new memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks.
The ice never materialized, but a steady drizzle of rain made for a cozy gathering inside photographer Jim McGuire’s barn-size studio just a few blocks from Nashville’s Music Row.
Still slim and handsome at 60, Crowell arrived early to circulate among a wall-to-wall crowd that included Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, novelist-songwriter Alice Randall, producer Tony Brown, Newseum and Freedom Forum chief Ken Paulson, BookPage review publisher Michael A. Zibart, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, songwriters Gretchen Peters, Verlon Thompson, Gary Nicholson, Paul Kennerley and Jim Rooney, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Jay Orr and legendary road manager — aka “road mangler” — Phil Kaufman.
Also on hand were many of Crowell’s world-class musician buddies, among them Michael Rhodes, Eddy Bayers, Hank DeVito, Will Kimbrough and Kenny Vaughan (the latter of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives).
A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 2003, Crowell is revered for penning such classics as “Ashes by Now,” “’Til I Gain Control Again,” “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “An American Dream,” “Stars on the Water,” “After All This Time,” “She’s Crazy for Leavin'” and “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream).”
But it isn’t his own career he focuses on in Chinaberry Sidewalks. Rather, it’s the sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious account of growing up poor but resourceful in Houston with a mom and dad who loved each other but fought constantly. Basically it’s their love story.
Crowell told CMT.com the writing project took him about 10 years from conception to finished manuscript. He said he has a second memoir in mind — again not about himself but about the musical scene he’s been a part of.
After an hour or so of cocktails and conversation, Crowell took the stage with his guitar and a marked galley of his book to read from. His oldest daughter, Hannah, introduced him. She said her 4-year-old daughter had once remarked to her out of the blue, “You’ve got to love me. I came from you.”
Using that observation as a jumping-off point, Hannah continued, “I just love where I came from. I’m so blessed, and I’m so proud of my father. So [here’s] my dad.”
Crowell began by singing “Bull Rider,” his song made famous by his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, and which contains the marvelous image “like a hurricane dancing with a kite.”
He continued with “Stuff That Works” and “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” stopping along the way to reminisce about his snappily-dressed grandfather who used to take him to bars, using the excuse that he was taking him out to get his hair cut.
Donning glasses, Crowell then read a passage from the book about his father taking him to see Hank Williams perform just days before the great singer and songwriter died.
Crowell summoned Will Kimbrough to the stage to accompany him on “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Wandering Boy” and “Telephone Road,” the last of which, he explained, was about his boyhood reaction to an outbreak of encephalitis in Houston in 1961.
After singing “Closer to Heaven,” his catalog of likes and dislikes, Crowell read his recollection about his epileptic mother being exorcised by a “coven” of evangelical church ladies and his part in the ritual to drive out the devil.
He followed with two songs he said he had co-written with fellow memoirist and poet, Mary Karr — “Anything but Tame” and “Sisters.”
That done, he called up Vince Gill to sing with him. Gill told the crowd he has often been asked when he is going to write a book, to which he replies, “You must read a book before you write a book.” He added, “I’m good at reading menus, and that’s about it.”
Then the two longtime friends described the process of co-writing “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” the song they recorded together as members of the Notorious Cherry Bombs. They wrote the song at Crowell’s house and were still glowing with pride when Crowell’s wife, Claudia, came home. When they sang the song to her, Crowell admitted, her reaction was less than euphoric. However, when he later heard her singing it in the shower, he knew he’d achieved something.
Not so for Gill, who reminded the crowd that his wife, Amy Grant, was “perhaps the most famous Christian singer in the world.” When, at her urging, he sang the song, a distinct chill enveloped the room. Hastily, he assured her that the song wasn’t about her, that it came from an idea his father had given him.
“We thought it was funny,” he told her.
“You just keep thinking that,” she replied.
Funny or not, Crowell and Gill had to stop repeatedly to remember how the song went as voices from the crowd shouted out lyrics.
Gill said he sang the song to Johnny Paycheck, who observed, “Son, that’s pretty good, but I don’t think you could get away with saying ’chew’ on country radio.”
Crowell said they had visited a radio station to promote the song and dared the disc jockey to play it. He did — and was promptly fired.
The two ended their set with “’Til I Gain Control Again.” Crowell said Gill was singing that very song 34 years ago when he first met him.
Spotting Harris in the audience, Crowell brought her forward to join him on a couple of Louvin Brothers songs, “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” and “You’re Running Wild.” Gill accompanied them on guitar.
Crowell read one more excerpt, an account of taking his mother backstage at the Grand Ole Opry to meet Roy Acuff. It had been at an Acuff concert in 1941 that Crowell’s parents met. Acuff was attentive, gracious and endearing to his mother, Crowell recalled.
“My mother floated out of Mr. Acuff’s dressing room, an 18-year-old girl again,” he writes. “’Why, Rodney, he was just like I always knew he’d be,’ she said, as dreamily as any girl of her era would’ve had she chanced to meet her favorite matinee idol. ’And didn’t his hair remind you of your daddy’s?'”
Crowell wrapped up the evening with “I Know That Love Is All I Need.”