Rodney Crowell believes he lucked out with the music community he fell into when he first arrived in Nashville as a young songwriter in 1972.
He was 22 at the time, working a side job as a dishwasher at a T.G.I. Friday’s to cover rent. Back then, after he’d get off work at 2 a.m. following a shift of drinking for free by finishing watered down, leftover cocktails, he’d make the 15-minute walk to a house on Acklen Avenue where rising visionaries like Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt would be hanging out, passing around guitars and sharing their best work until dawn.
“The motivation was to come up with something that you knew was really good,” Crowell said during our CMT.com interview at his home in Thompson Station, Tennessee. “The chances of getting Townes to like it were very remote. When I wrote ‘Til I Gain Control Again,’ Townes Van Zandt sort of nodded. And I thought, ‘Yes!’
“It was competitive in the most innocent and constructive way. I don’t think the story was how good can you write, it was how true your own voice can be if you put the work into it.”
The songwriter and poet Crowell wanted to impress most back then was Clark’s wife Susanna. He honors her memory on “Life Without Susanna” on his newest album, Close Ties, to be released Friday (March 31).
“You know when I was 22 years old and I first got to Nashville, women or girls were objects,” Crowell admitted. “It was a conquest. My emptiness inside and the external manifestation of my ego was to some how conquer women. Susanna was the first woman who put a hand up and said, ‘Stop. Let me teach you something.’
“And she did. She sobered me. In a way it was like, ‘OK, let me listen to you. I’m not going to perform for you, I’m going to listen to you and see if I can understand what you’re showing me.’ It was an invaluable gift that she gave me and it lasted most of her lifetime.”
Before her passing in 2012 following a long illness, Susanna was part of a class of Nashville poets like Crowell, Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury whose perceptions were drawn from life, literature and exposure to other forms of music. A visual artist and former art teacher, she designed album covers for Willie Nelson‘s 1978 Stardust, Emmylou Harris‘ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Clark’s Old No. 1. With Carlene Carter, she co-wrote “Easy From Now On,” which Harris recorded for Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Carter re-recorded for 1990’s I Fell in Love. Miranda Lambert recorded a version for 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
To Crowell, Susanna was everyone’s muse.
“I know for a fact she was a muse for Townes Van Zandt,” Crowell said. “She was a muse for Guy. She was a muse for Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, myself and Willie Nelson. ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground’ was written about Susanna.
“She had a poet’s soul,” he added. “She made you work for the recognition that you had created a work of art that was worthy of, if not the Louvre, at least the living room wall. Guy was very accessible to me and to other young, upcoming songwriters. He shared his understanding of the process. Of course, you had to drink whiskey with him, and it was under his terms. I didn’t mind drinking whiskey with him for a good long while. It was a small price to pay to go well into the wee hours and into the break of the next day, chasing songs, ideas, poetry and phrases.”
Memories of those early Nashville days served as raw material for Close Ties.
“In some ways, it’s a continuation of my tendency to use memory as the building blocks for songs,” Crowell said of his latest album. “I’ve lived long enough now that a lot of my contemporaries are leaving this world and heading to places unknown, and there’s a lot of emotional gratitude that comes with it — that I knew these people for so long, and I loved them so well, and they loved me so well. Now they’re gone. And I think I feel gratitude more than grief when I visit memories of those that have gone.”
CMT.com: How does your relationships with these formidable women like Susanna, Emmylou and Rosanne Cash influence your art and bring out the best in you as a musician?
Crowell: As I was saying, Susanna was the first woman friend that I made who taught me the value of friendship over the idea of male dominance or conquest.
Shortly afterward, I met Emmylou Harris, and Emmylou was a very valuable friendship for me. We met in 1974 and it’s a friendship that lasts to this very day. And I thank heaven Susanna taught me how to value and revere an incredibly smart and creative woman.
Then I married Rosanne. Though younger, from the very beginning, Rosanne was very bright and incredibly intelligent and seeking her own internal power. I think the relationship that we had in marriage, it ended after 13 years, but I always say — and I’m hoping that she says — that was a successful marriage. It ended, but it was successful.
We raised four really grand women who are following in the footsteps of these great women who I’ve known over the years. My wife Claudia, who in her way, has impacted my life ultimately. I don’t think I was ever more comfortable with myself, her language being, “I like you just the way you are. Be who you are with all your might.” And that’s a gift. I aspire to give that gift back to her. And because of these people that I had known, I aspire to try and give that back to everybody I meet, if I can.
I wanted to ask about “It Ain’t Over Yet” and working with Rosanne on that song. How long did it take to get comfortable to work together again in the studio?
I’m never uncomfortable working with Rosanne. The only discomfort we’ve had was her living in New York City and me living in Nashville and us figuring out how to co-parent four she-wolves. We had to negotiate how to parent that way, and luckily John Leventhal, who’s married to Rosanne, is a really great stepfather to the girls and Claudia is a great stepmother to the girls. We managed.
But “It Ain’t Over Yet” is a song that I wrote over the course of six months. I knew Guy was passing from this world and it took a while to complete. I knew what the narrative was and I knew that the part that Rosanne performs is truly the voice of Susanna in the conversation.
John Paul White is sort of the voice of me and I’m sort of the voice of Guy in that song. That was my concept of the three people involved. But working with Rosanne, I produced her early records and so we had a working relationship in the bank. To collaborate, we just turn on the mic. And she sang beautifully. John Paul surprised me. I knew John Paul’s work with the Civil Wars, but when we turned the microphone on and he went out there to sing the chorus, I was stunned by how beautiful his voice is. It’s like Roy Orbison’s.
Is there a particular line or a song that anchors the entire collection?
I would say that “It Ain’t Over Yet” probably is the centerpiece of the album in its way that the narrative is really about time passing and energies that you had when you were younger — foolish notions that you protected and thought you would defend down to the bloody end. And it turns out it wasn’t what was important.
What was important was the love, respect, care and kindness. So in a lot of ways, that’s what I hope is at the centerpiece of the record, without being sentimental or maudlin. God forbid. There is an edge to all of this.
Tell me about the nature of writing “I Don’t Care Anymore.”
I made this record in the late ’80s called Diamonds and Dirt and it was a big hit. It had five No. 1’s and it was my commercial peak really. I happened to be looking through my vinyl, and I pulled that record out and I saw the cover. There I am with silver-toed tips, a white tank shirt, a jean jacket with a bolo tie hanging and my mullet hair. And I looked at it, and I said, “You poser.” I guess I’m just as much a poser today as I was then, but it seemed more obvious to me. I was thinking I can make fun of myself with more legitimacy than I could somebody else. So I started writing “I Don’t Care Anymore.” But that’s what happens. I’ve been around long enough to see myself half a lifetime ago and think, “If I’d only known then what I know now.”
When did you feel comfortable in your own skin to do things your own way and was there a moment that you second guessed that ever in your career?
In my 15 minutes of fame around Diamonds and Dirt, it was not a healthy time for me because of my insecurity. When you’re on the radio and you’re starting to get some notoriety, when you walk into a room, people project their image on you — whatever they think it is. And I found myself in my silver-toe tip boots, my bolo tie … walking in and adapting this persona of what somebody perceived me to be. Deep down inside of me, this little bell went off that said, “This is the enemy of art.”
You start to believe this stuff and you start to manufacture this persona that connection to the art and to the truth, where the good songs come from. And so I was very uncomfortable with that, and I think it showed to radio people. I would go to early morning radio shows and they’d be chuckling away — the way they’re supposed to be — and I’d be grumpy. They could tell I didn’t want to be there. And I think the message was, “He’s not one of us.”
And that’s a fair assessment because I started deconstructing that persona that I was projecting. And in a few years, I was down to deconstructed. But then I made a couple of records. One record company gave me a lot of money to go back and try to recapture what happened. And I just couldn’t do it and I failed. I mean, the records I made then were the nadir of my career. They were far from the best work that I could do. But from then on, I took almost five years off, during which I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. I came back and I made The Houston Kid. And from the year 2000 on, I think the work that I have done, for better or for worse, has been very true to who I am and what my best intentions are.
I think the secret is never giving up.
I don’t think I could have ever given up. I think I had to let go of some things. I don’t think I wasn’t destined for sustaining stardom. That’s not my destiny. But I think I am destined for sustained creativity. I think I’m doing the best work of my career. Although I had some really cool spikes early on, I’m more consistent now.