Poetry and Passion

An Interview with Rodney Crowell

by Eric Risch

27 May 2014

Photo: David McClister 

Do you consider yourself a poet?

With “Jesus, Talk to Mama” and “Grandma Loved That Old Man”, those are fairly autobiographical, if I’m correct?

They are those two. And you know what, “I Wouldn’t Be Me without You”—I don’t know if it’s autobiographical, but it is directly—it is a portrait of the woman in my life.

With “Jesus, Talk to Mama”, how did you come up with the blues sound to it? The first time I listened to the song, given the structure of it, it was almost like a wink and a nod, almost the morning after kind of repentance.

You know, [laughs] I do come from Scotch-Irish stock. Whiskey makers, merrymakers, drinkers on Friday and Saturday night, Protestants who go to church on Sunday morning to get it all of absolved in order to do it all again. I grew up in that church. My mother drug me to those churches. She was really invested in it. I observed it. I never felt myself as part of it, so I was always an observer, I guess. Even as a kid, I was a songwriter or a writer. I observe. That’s what we do. We observe and we report back. I think “Jesus, Talk to Mama” is really an observation. My mother always wanted me to write a song like that. I have over the years before she was gone and passed away—I wrote a couple of what you would call “gospel songs” she was pleased with.

Finally, I said, “This is a song that my mother always wanted from me.” I was in Australia, and I just sat down in a park with my guitar to find this baby. That was it. Basically gospel music as it really appealed to me—probably the first one that really did it for me was Hank Williams singing “I Saw the Light”. He lays into it. I felt like—okay, this is the one. Jerry Lee Lewis really comes from that same church that I’m talking about—speaking in tongues, that Pentecostal thing. You don’t approach it gently. You don’t really approach it reverently. [laughs] You approach it with your hair on fire.

On “Grandma Loved That Old Man”—the first time I listened to it was without looking at the track titles. I felt like it was sort of a literary parlor trick in the way you detailed the grandfather then all of a sudden it goes into the protagonist of the song is really the grandmother.

Yeah, the song is about my grandmother. It’s set up—we talk about him. I like the notion of “parlor trick.” I hadn’t thought about that, but it was like reversing the narrative on them.

Right before the album came out, you did a number of shows that SXSW. What are your thoughts on the music festivals these days and SXSW in particular? I know it’s taken some heat for being more mainstream, changing really from where it was back in the day. Do you view these festivals as a necessary evil for record releases?

I do. Let’s face it, man: the record business, the CD business, is in the tank. Everybody says it. High-rolling record guys at the top of big corporations, they feel it. The truth of the matter is I’m proud of this work. I want it to have its day, and there are a lot of people out there competing to speak to you. When I go to SXSW, I don’t see it as ... I was there at SXSW when it first started, and it was Austin, Texas, and all of its down-home charm and people and showcases you would do. There was no ambition in it. It was just music, music, music. Now SXSW—I play 11 shows in four days, and there’s only one reason to do that. That’s to get as many people who are in the business of spreading the words, such as you are, to get them to know that “Rodney’s got a record.” I don’t have the luxury of not doing that. That’s okay with me. I actually think—as a younger man, I just wanted to go get drunk and sleep as late as I could and play the gigs. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. “They should know I’m a genius”. Now I feel like—“They by now know that I’m not a genius. I’m just a hard-working artist. I need to go stand by this.” I have a much healthier attitude toward it than I did.

In terms of SXSW in those kinds of shows where everybody’s really competing for attention—for those younger musicians who may have footed their own bill to get there, what advice can you give to more upstart musicians these days? Obviously with the change in the industry and the longevity that you’ve enjoyed, I don’t know if that’s something that will be there 30, 40, 50 years down the line for other artists.

My advice to anybody and myself is that—look, we can show up. I’m too old to be a hipster, but you’re a young hipster, and you have a guitar and you play a little bit. So what—you’re a hipster. Do you have a “Pancho and Lefty” in you? Do you have a “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? If you don’t, you better strive toward getting somewhere close to it because you’re not going to be around for a long time. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” or “Night Life”—everybody who is still doing it, myself included. At some point, I put out “Leaving Louisiana in Broad Daylight” and then later on I put out “Earthbound”; enough to keep me in the game actually as a viable player. It’s a level playing field for everybody. It’s “what do you come up with?”

Are there any younger artists that you admire or hope to see long-term?

Yeah, I greatly admire Blake Mills, Michael Einziger of Incubus, Hayes Carll—a guy down in Texas, is a true poet. I’ve got my eye on Robert Ellis. I want to see him do well. That’s just to name a few. And certainly when I heard Mumford and Sons, when they first came through, that first record of theirs I went, “Okay, this is a slant that I like. These guys are reaching for something beyond what can be seen.” I admire that. There’s talent out there. Whether we have the poets—the reason I mentioned Blake Mills first and I mentioned Hayes Carll second, because to me, they’re the ones that I see poetry or hear poetry. I think they are poets. It’s the poets are the ones that last a long time.

Do you consider yourself a poet?

Yes, I do. I do. If I didn’t, I would be shortchanging myself and leaving the bar too low. When I ascribe a poet to somebody, it’s not like I’ve done it without great thought. To lay that off of myself I answer your question in casual conversation, it’s not for me to say that I’m a poet. That’s for you to say. I’m at my friend Mary Karr’s apartment in New York right now and she’s a poet. She calls me a poet, and that’s good enough for me.

In terms of your overall career, would you consider yourself first and foremost a songwriter or performer?

I was first and foremost a songwriter, and I developed as a songwriter much more quickly than I developed as a performer. I was writing songs in the early ‘70s that I still perform and others still perform on any given night. It took me a long time to really come into my own as a vocalist so that I could really hold my own as a performer. And you got to get on a stage and entertain people, but it took me until The Houston Kid before I really started to kind of say to myself, “Okay, I’m starting to get there, starting to get there.” A year on the road singing duets with Emmylou Harris and some of the work that I’ve done, the work that I’ve done on Tarpaper Sky—yeah, I’m a performer. Songwriter going back to the ‘70s, the intent was to write songs to perform. They really do go hand-in-hand with me. But if I walk out on the street and somebody sees me, it’s like, “What do you attach to that guy?” Most of the time people see me as a songwriter.

Do you feel more or less pressure now as an artist overall to live up to any sort of standard? You’ve come into a very productive period for you right now; do you feel less pressure now? Or sort of equal to what it was before?

I feel less pressure as a performer, and I feel more passion for the work. Listen, man—I’m grateful. People around my house—when I’m home and there are people around my house that I love and care about, but I have to entertain them, I’m grumpy about it on the inside because what I want to do when I get up in the morning is get to work and write and work on what I’m writing. One good 11-song album requires writing about 25 songs. I really have a passion and I love passion for the work that I do. Maybe the reason that I am more productive now is “God, I love this work.” A lot of it is the ten years I spent writing Chinaberry Sidewalks, the seven years I spent throwing what I had written away for the most part, or more honestly revising it, that was a golden period for me because it was like I started to really understand something and earning inspiration. When you’re in your 20s, for me inspiration was just a gift from whatever. Now I earn my inspiration with dedication. I won’t say hard work. I just say dedication and work.

Do you work with a pretty structured schedule when you’re home for your writing?

Not structured in that I have any sort of fastidiousness about how I’m going to do it. It’s a mess around where I work. I can’t find anything. I’m looking for where I laid one lyric. I don’t have any fastidiousness about it, but when I wake up I have a cup of tea or some mornings I have coffee and then I want to get to work. I want to keep moving. Melodies come pretty quickly to me. I understand that pretty quickly. But the time that I spend is finding that language. That’s the joy of the work.


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