Rodney Crowell Peels Back Layers in Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell‘s elegant Tarpaper Sky spotlights a sharp songwriter in absolutely peak form. The longtime Nashville resident supported his energetic roots-rock collection several times last month at South by Southwest in Austin.

“We did 11 shows in four days, and I really quite enjoyed it,” Crowell says. “Also, I have a couple of friends who have a restaurant called Chez Nous, and I had a couple of great meals while I was there. I came away with energy to spare.”

CMT Edge spoke with the Texas native about designing Tarpaper Sky as a classic country record, the way hanging around novelists inspires his songwriting and how creating his own Cajun patois finally finished a song two decades old.

CMT Edge: Describe how the new record took shape.

Crowell: I was having conversations with my friend Steuart Smith, who was the main collaborator on an album I made called Diamonds and Dirt and another record called The Houston Kid. We were talking about making a record together, a form of country music from days gone by, not so much retro but certainly a form of country music that is out of vogue now, for sure. The more we talked, the more excited we got. So we called some friends who had collaborated with us in the late ’80s and got in the studio.

Explain how you approach the actual recording process.

Conversation is a really good way to get things done. We discussed recording techniques from the late ’50s and even into the early ’60s — records we really liked how they sound.

We decided to record without headphones. And when you do that, everything has to count. It’s no longer about production. It’s about performance. You can’t go back and fix things or run them through the tuners or processors of modern recording. It’s an old form of recording. So we committed ourselves to that and enjoyed the process completely. Voila, we got a record.

Which records did you draw from for the recording techniques?

Oh, you know, any of your Patsy Cline records and some of those Jim Reeves records. If you go into the ’60s, Ray CharlesModern Sounds in Country and Western Music is all live performance. Everything Johnny Cash did in the late ’50s and early ’60s is all performance.

Explain where the phrase “tarpaper sky” comes from.

It’s from a line from a song called “God I’m Missing You.” The image is, “There’s a sanded-down moon in a tarpaper sky.” You know, I grew up poor in East Houston. I used to be ashamed of it, but I’m not any more. It’s kind of a badge of courage now.

So our roof leaked. There were big holes in the roof, and you could see the sky. Down there in that climate, there was no real insulation. It was just tarpaper. When you would look up through the hole in the ceiling, there’d be crinkling pieces of tarpaper that would cover the plywood that was the roof. That’s where my portion of that image comes from.

How did “The Long Journey Home” come to you?

I was in Livingston, Mont., a literary community where I spend a lot of time. It’s a very small town, but 40 of the citizenry are published authors, and I like to be around authors. There’s something legendary about conversations, you know, legends of the people who had been there., like when Sam Peckinpah holed up in the Murray Hotel. Jim Harrison was there writing his great stuff and Tom McGuane, and there were films made there.

It’s just a great creative stop under that big old sky in Montana. Anyway, I was making the trip back driving from Livingston to Salt Lake City to get on a plane to fly back to Nashville, and on that road, I composed the lyric based on making the long journey home.

Are you up there working on any other prose projects, maybe a follow-up to your Chinaberry Sidewalks memoir?

Well, what I want to write about is surfacing more and more, but I do seem to be really engaged in creating music and songs right now. I will settle down and write another book, but music is in the driver’s seat right now.

Do you find book-writing more challenging than songwriting?

Certainly, writing a book was challenging. It took me a long time to learn how to do it. It took me seven years to get a sense of how to wean myself off the process and trickery of songwriting. You realize that giant metaphors work in songs because you have so few words. Standing alone on a page, they threaten to be overblown in a hurry. That was more challenging, but what I learned having been edited by a top-flight editor has made songwriting more challenging for me because I challenge myself to make it better.

Tell the story behind writing “Fever on the Bayou.”

Twenty years plus. Will Jennings and I wrote that. Will’s a famous songwriter who wrote all those classic movies songs like ["My Heart Will Go On"] for Titanic and “Up Where We Belong” and Steve Winwood‘s Arc of a Diver. Anyway, he’s a Texas boy, and we hit on that a long time ago. We had a conversation about the Cajun characters we worked with in our separate youths. We had those first two verses and a chorus and a melody 20-something years ago, but we tried and tried, and everything we came up with was trite and went nowhere.

I never completely abandoned it. Just a year and a-half ago, I was having a conversation with a man in the airport, and one word tripped the wire. I said, “Ah, I need to write that last verse in Cajun patois. That’s the only way we’re gonna get out of this.” I went home and figured out my own version of broken English-slash-Cajun patois and, there you are, a song was born. It just took that long to track it down.