A prolific recording artist and deserving member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Rodney Crowell’s literate, inward-looking songs have become the gold standard for other country lyricists from the 1970s onward.
His voluminous catalog of hits includes modern classics such as Keith Urban’s “Making Memories of Us” and Tim McGraw’s “Please Remember Me,” as well as landmark compositions like “Til I Gain Control Again,” “Shame on the Moon,” “Song for the Life,” “Voila, An American Dream,” “Ashes By Now,” “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” and the Grammy-winning “After All This Time.”
As he recounted in his 2010 autobiography, Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell was born Aug. 7, 1950, in Houston, Texas, to a hard-drinking, country music-singing father and an epileptic mother who sought solace in fundamentalist Christianity. Although his parents could charitably be described as “dysfunctional,” they did encourage their only child’s musical interests.
Crowell was only two years old when his father took him to see Hank Williams in what would prove to be William’s next-to-last performance. He was only 11 when he began playing drums in his father’s band.
Crowell moved to Nashville in 1972, at the age of 22, and soon joined a mutually encouraging community of songwriters that included Guy and Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Clark would later co-star in Crowell’s 1989 video for “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway.”
Jerry Reed signed Crowell to his first publishing contract and recorded his first cut, “You Can’t Keep Me Here In Tennessee.” True to its title, Crowell then relocated to California and worked from 1975 to 1977 as a guitarist, harmony singer and arranger in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. She recorded Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” for her 1975 breakout album, Pieces of the Sky. Crowell also sang it in the 1976 documentary, Heartworn Highways.
In 1978, he signed as a solo artist to Warner Bros. and that same year charted his first single, Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” which peaked at No. 95. He would chart four more singles for Warner, none reaching higher than No. 30, before joining Columbia Records in 1986.
In 1979, Crowell married Rosanne Cash. The marriage would last until 1992, during which time Crowell served as Cash’s producer and occasional co-writer and singing partner. Their co-written “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” was a No. 1 for Cash (who also recorded for Columbia) in 1985 and won her a best female vocalist Grammy.
It was at Columbia that Crowell achieved his greatest success as a recording artist. His 1988 album, Diamonds & Dirt, yielded five consecutive No. 1 singles: “It’s Such a Small World” (a duet with Cash), “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leavin’,” “After All This Time” and “Above And Beyond.” Except for “Above and Beyond,” which was written by Harlan Howard, all the other hits were Crowell’s own compositions.
Looking back on his Columbia successes and the toll it took on him to promote them, Crowell told CMT.com in 2017, “I don’t think I was 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.”
Crowell’s stature as a recording act paled considerably during the 1990s, after a move to MCA Nashville. Even so, he boasted such Top 10 singles as “If Looks Could Kill” and “Lovin’ All Night,” while “What Kind Of Love” (written with Will Jennings around a Roy Orbison melody) reached the Top 10 of the adult contemporary chart.
And he continued to turn out critically praised albums, including the highly autobiographical The Houston Kid (2001) and Fate’s Right Hand (2003). In addition he shared two 2004 Grammy nominations as a member of Notorious Cherry Bombs for their amusing single, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” which he co-wrote with bandmate Vince Gill.
Other notable albums in Crowell’s catalog include Sex & Gasoline (2008), Kin: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell (2012), and Old Yellow Moon (2013), a collaboration with Emmylou Harris that won a Grammy as best Americana album. Crowell became a cornerstone of the Americana movement from the start and accepted a 2006 Lifetime Achievement award in songwriting from the Americana Music Association.
Crowell and Harris also share multiple trophies from the Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremonies. The longtime friends reunited for 2015’s The Traveling Kind. Crowell released a Christmas album and acoustic retrospective in 2018, followed by Texas in 2019.
Over the years, innumerable country artists have recorded Crowell’s songs, including: Bobby Bare, John Denver, Crystal Gayle, Highway 101, Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Willie Nelson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Oak Ridge Boys, George Strait, Steve Wariner, Lee Ann Womack, and Wynonna. Bob Seger’s cover of “Shame on the Moon” was a No. 2 pop hit in 1983.
In 1998, Crowell married singer Claudia Church. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, received the ASCAP Founders Award in 2017, and accepted the 2019 ACM Poets Award in recognition of his songwriting.