Rodney Crowell Looks Backward to Move Forward on New ‘Acoustic Classics’ Album
Rodney Crowell had a long, hard path to his new album, Acoustic Classics — but it took him exactly where he wanted to go.
The legendary singer-songwriter has been through a series of personal and professional changes since the release of his last album, Close Ties, in 2017. He's been through an illness that could have derailed his career and his life, canceled tour dates and started his own label, recording his new album — which consists of new acoustic arrangements of his own past catalog — while still moving forward with writing new songs for a future project.
That illustrates Crowell's essence; while an icon in the eyes of many, the Grammy-winning songwriter and author still sees himself as a working musician, always aiming to improve the quality of his craft and not particularly concerned with fitting into any trends.
Crowell displays a fierce pride at the quality of his aspirations, if not always his actual output; quick to point out what he sees as flaws in his past efforts, he also takes evident pleasure in celebrating his best work. He's just as quick to downplay his own commercial success. Despite a roster of hits for other artists that includes "Shame on the Moon," "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," "I Ain't Living Long Like This," "Please Remember Me" and "Making Memories of Us," as well as a string of five consecutive No. 1 hits from his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, he tells Taste of Country his career success is "middle-class, at best."
What gave you the initial idea to re-arrange some of your own songs acoustically?
Well, for the past couple of years, I've been performing with an acoustic trio, a couple of guitarists who play off of each other. For the recording, they were both on the sessions, so we were actually a quartet for the sessions, and we added a few voices and an accordion for one or two tunes. That was basically it.
We were starting my own imprint label. Ken Levitan, my manager, said, "I have an idea for you to start this. Why don't you do an acoustic version of your some of your better-known songs?" I took it and ran with it.
Which of these songs posed the biggest challenges in terms of rendering them in these kinds of stripped-down arrangements?
That was not difficult at all. One thing that I've done over the years, as I've gone out and performed live with the bands that I've had, and now with the acoustic trio that I have, I've never stuck to the original recordings, even the hits. In that sense, some of the songs I've been performing for years and knew them like the back of my hand, and the arrangement has just evolved over the years from having performed these songs with countless musicians. So that part was easy.
Probably the biggest job I had — and it was voluntary — I was never happy with my original writing I did on really, ironically, probably my biggest song of all time, "Shame on the Moon." I was never happy with it, especially the last verse. So with an opportunity to revisit some of these songs, I just took it upon myself to re-write the whole song.
When we spoke in support of your last album, you mentioned you had been trying to re-write it for 40 years. [Laughs].
Yeah, I've been trying to re-write the last verse for about 40 years. And it finally dawned on me, "Well, no; I'll just keep the chorus" — that's the most memorable part of the song — and I just re-wrote all the verses [Laughs]. And what I couldn't figure out in 40 years, then I came in and re-wrote those verses in a couple of days.
Having re-worked the entire piece, do you consider the matter closed now, or are you still going to be trying to write a new final verse to the original song?
I learned something interesting in the process. First of all, Bob Seger, who covered that song from one of my early albums, defined it. I didn't perform it for years, because he far outdistanced me in the performance he brought to that song. So in the end, by re-writing it, I satisfied a technical longing I had, which is to always try to do the best work I can. I never felt that I had done the best work that I could on that song. So I put that to bed. To answer your question, yes, it's put to bed once and for all. I won't be re-writing that song again.
Do you have others of your songs that you still look at and feel, 'If only I'd done something different ...' ?
Oh yeah. And some of them, I've made peace with. There's a song I wrote called "Song for the Life," which is the first real keeper song I ever wrote. 28 years after I wrote it, Alan Jackson made it a hit. I perform it now and again, and I perform it with the knowledge that I was 22 years old when I wrote it, and I didn't have the experience at that particular time that I have now. I could have only written it the way that I wrote it back then, and even though I see the holes in it now, I'm not gonna tinker with it, because that's the way it was then.
Quite a few songwriters have an uneasy relationship with their own past work, it seems.
Well, you're a writer. [Laughs]. I'm sure you understand. You look at pieces you've written. I know, having done a book tour and read a lot from my memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, at times I would want to read a passage and I would cringe. But that's the nature of it. You work, and you give it your best, and then you get away from it and you can see it for what it really is, and that's when it glares at you. But I would imagine that if I wrote a book now — which I want to do and I plan to do — if I live long enough to get 20 years away from it, it'll glare at me then, for sure [Laughs]. I just think that's the way it is.
What's the nature of the next book you'd like to write?
Well, it would be memoir, and autobiographical only in the sense of describing personal relationships and doing character studies of people that I've known well. Which is to say, I don't give myself any kind of permission to write about the quote-unquote career I've had. But I think it's worthwhile to write about relationships that I've had, and scenes that have gone on, and the tone and the culture of Nashville in the early '70s when I got here. It's very rich and vivid in my memory, so that's probably where I would focus.
Nashville has changed quite a bit since then; it's always been a little bit of a factory town, but it's maybe a bit more of a factory town now.
Oh, that it is. It is. But it's also, I think, the greatest artistic community anywhere, from a playing and songwriting and creating perspective. As far as being a factory town, I made my peace with the machine a long time ago. Some of my friends from Austin disdain Nashville, and I try to explain to them, "Look, what you don't understand is that the big corporate machine spits out checks for people like Bela Fleck or John Jorgenson, or Michael Rhodes." Take your pick of these brilliant musicians who get to play on people's records, earn a living, raise a family, have a home, and at the same time, pursue artistry.
These people are not gonna be the next pop idol coming out of the machine, but the prospect of collaboration in Nashville, musically speaking, is so rich and so ripe and so deep. That's the reason I won't leave Nashville. I've lived here long enough now that my feet are in the soil, but it is the creative community that's the number one draw for me.
There's a song on Acoustic Classics titled "Tennessee Wedding." This is a new song — is it an all-new song, or simply a song that's been unreleased previously?
It's new in the sense that, my daughter was married three years ago. I wrote the song for my youngest daughter's wedding. I just thought it was a really good piece of writing. The wedding was set far enough in advance that I had time to actually ponder and spend the time to cultivate the language that I wanted to cultivate for it. Instead of just being a song that Dad wrote for a wedding, I thought it was a really fine piece of writing, and that's why I included it. For one thing, I wanted to put one thing that was totally new. And the other is, "Hey, I'm proud of this. I want you all to hear it."
I assume you have a lot of other unreleased songs. Do they remain unreleased because you're dissatisfied with them, or are they unreleased because they simply haven't surfaced yet?
I'm working on an album right now and, really since I spent a lot of time writing a book, and gave a lot of thought and put a lot of work into sustaining a narrative, the one thing that did for me is, I approach these records differently. So these songs that are pretty good, that I think are songs worth putting out there, now my work methodology is to understand which songs belong in a group together. For instance, on Close Ties, there's a song on it that was 20 years in the making, a duet that Sheryl Crow and I did called "I'm Tied to Ya." It took me 20 years to get the right chorus. I had to step up, because she was gonna sing it, and I had to give her something good to say.
As I go back to Tarpaper Sky, there's a song called "Fever on the Bayou" that Will Jennings and I started 30 years before it finally got released, and that was due to the last verse not coming up to snuff. That's just an example of how a really good song can take years and years and years and years to find its place with me.
A lot of the better writers labor over their songs for a long time.
Yeah, but from what I gather — I don't know Bob Dylan personally, but from what I gather, he works pretty fast. He's an exception. But then, from what I know first-hand from Leonard Cohen, he works more like I do, which is, you don't let these things go until you're nearly dead sure that you've locked it down.
I read somewhere, it may have been a conversation with Leonard Cohen ... there's a really beautiful song Bob Dylan had called "I and I," on Infidels. That is just one of the most elevated, brilliantly written songs that I've ever heard, and it was in a conversation comparing it with, maybe Leonard Cohen's "Come Healing" or something like that. Bob Dyan said, "I love that song," and he said, "Yeah, well, you know I worked on it for five years." And he said, "'I and I,' that's a great song," and Dylan said, "I wrote it in 15 minutes." I took that to be a bald-faced lie [Laughs]. I don't know if you can write a song like "I and I" in 15 minutes. If you can, God bless you. God blessed you. But to bring it back to me, the more time I do it, the more time I spend on it.
Your previous record, Close Ties, was informed by quite a bit of loss. After that you got very, very ill — maybe you were even already ill at that time ...
Yes, I was.
How did going through that experience inform your own view of your place in the world, your place in the musical pantheon? Does it change your perspective?
In a very short period of time, I lost five longtime friends. I was also making a couple of duet records with Emmylou Harris, and in between, I was making my own record. So I was working around the clock, and in there I also did the music for a film about the life of Hank Williams called I Saw the Light, and was the music director for the Everly Brothers' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute.
I was working all the time for two-and-a-half years, and right when I was getting rolling with Close Ties, my health turned really strange, starting with an odd bit of vertigo that hit me after a strange chiropractic adjustment. I could barely walk for about three months, and then my blood pressure system ... we later came to understand it was dysautonomia, and the medicine that I was being given was exacerbating the thing altogether. My body was totally rejecting any kind of blood pressure medicine, which it was finally learned that I didn't need to take. So I was in a downward spiral for two more years, and then this year, I actually accidentally poisoned myself [with an organic weed killer after not reading the directions properly] back in April, and it took me nearly three months to recover from that. But I'm leading to something good: for the last two months, my health has been improving beautifully, and today I can say that I'm not far from feeling like myself again.
Now to answer your real question: yes, the whole process has deposited me onto a different plane of understanding. As far as my place in the pantheon of music, I can't really say, because I know I'm respected, and I know that some people hold me in really high regard. But in truth, I've never really made it much out of the middle class of performers. I'm not a star. I'm a working writer and musician. Middle class, at best. And I'm at peace with that.
From that perspective, I have no real idea where I fit in in terms of the iconic image that I might present. But I have to say this, I'm really at peace with exactly what it is, because the number one thing for me is to see continual improvement and to get better at what I do. And whatever place I've landed and wherever I've been, it has been exactly the right place for me to continue to grow, and to understand that I'm writing better, singing better and playing better than ever. And I don't saddle that with commerciality. My fifteen minutes of fame were in the late '80s and early '90s. But my relationship with myself as an artist is really from the year 2000 until now. [Laughs]. That's a lot to put out there!
Acoustic Classics is, for me, a document that at that this particular time, I'm playing well and singing well, and most of the songs were written a long time ago, with the exception of "Tennessee Wedding." I don't take the liberty of thinking I'm showing anybody anything new, but I really do think the playing and performing on it, for what it is, is really reflective of where I am right now as a performer.
These Country Artists Are Keeping Traditional Country Alive: