Poetry and Passion: An Interview with Rodney Crowell

Eric Risch
Photo: David McClister

Rodney Crowell is a country legend in every sense of the word. He speaks with us about Tarpaper Road and the legends that inspired and influenced this stunning new album.

"At some indistinguishable point a choice was made. Art over celebrity. Language over formula. Poetry over politics. Out of this choice comes passion as intense as that we felt at 14, illuminated by experience. Out of this passion comes real rhythm."

Those words from then-wife Rosanne Cash were included on the liner notes to country legend Rodney Crowell's 1988 album, Diamonds & Dirt. Earning five Number One singles and the first Grammy of his career, more than two decades later Crowell would assemble most of the musicians who played on that album to record what would become his latest release, the joyful Tarpaper Sky. Begun in 2010, the initial sessions were sidelined by other projects including Kin, a collaboration with poet Mary Karr, and the Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon with Emmylou Harris. Reconvening the musicians, Tarpaper Sky was cut as a band without studio walls, recorded live-to-tape as was done by the musicians who originally inspired them during their formative years.

Speaking with Crowell about his album, his influences, and the state of the music industry, he humbly illustrated just how prescient the words Cash wrote in 1988 were in regards to the artist he is today in 2014.

* * *

I know Tarpaper Sky has been sort of gestating for a number of years. If you were to put it out back when you first started working on it, how do you feel it would be different than it is today?

I don't know. I think the first round of sessions we recorded -- it would've been a pretty good record. There are some things that I took off it that are worthy of being released, but would have kind of knocked it in the tone, the overall tone. And the luxury of recording more songs later on gave me an opportunity to fill it out in the way I wanted based on what I knew about the songs I yanked off of it. It would've been a pretty decent record, but I don't think it would have been as cohesive as it is now.

I do find there's sort of timelessness to most of the songs on it. Do you ever concern yourself with dating your songs?

With timelessness? [laughs] I concern myself with timelessness all the time. If you're not swinging for museum quality, your mind is not in the right place. It doesn't mean you get there, but at least it's the intent.

Do you ever concern yourself with really dating your songs?

I felt like I made a record in 2004 [The Outsider] that was -- I was in Europe a lot, and we were invading Iraq, and I was writing some songs about the protests. I felt like this is a tricky game when you're writing about your country invading another country and such things. That dates it. I didn't feel too comfortable about that in terms of -- that's not something I want to do. If we stay in the struggle forever, I have to move away from it because the songs never exist outside of that time. I have been concerned in that way about it. But the intent is really some form of timelessness and some form of following your own singularity. If you do a good job, chances are the time that you're living in will be timeless.

In terms of the new album, it does seem -- I'm sort of really nitpicking at words here -- it's really bookended by legends. You reference "legends that came before us" in the first song, and in the last song living your own legends down. Listening to the album, I do hear a lot of legends come through. Obviously Guy Clark, a little bit of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams especially.

Hank Williams for sure.

Are you conscious of those legends when you're writing your songs?

The legends in "The Long Journey Home" were Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison, and the legend in "Oh, What a Beautiful World" -- "We live our legends down / Wake up in lost and found / Become that highway sound / And roll on through" -- that's Townes Van Zandt who I was thinking of when I wrote that line. In a lot of ways that song -- I was thinking about Townes a lot.

Then there's Guy when you walk across Wyoming -- yeah, although, you know what? This is the first time is come up, and I've done quite a few of these interviews. It's the first time it's come up. That's really perceptive of you. Although I'm conscious of it in certain instances when I'm working on a song, as I'm coaxing it out of hiding -- I hadn't really considered the cumulative effect of my notion of legends. I thought for sure when I wrote "Frankie, Please" and then I heard the first playback of it, I thought "God, I tapped into some Jerry Lee there." You're the first one to really put the magnifying glass on that. I thought that was my exact reaction to it when I heard it. It's like "Shit," you know? "That's Jerry Lee."

With that song -- "Frankie, Please" and even "Fever on the Bayou" -- when I think of your music, I think of a certain cadence. It's still there in your delivery. It's still there on those two songs, but then on some of the other songs, like "I Wouldn't Be Me without You", is more manipulated with that Hank Williams reference, and there's more of that sort of sway on "Somebody's Shadow". Over time have you had to change your delivery, or are you more comfortable with your voice?

Comfortable, but the rhythms, there are natural rhythms that happen from my absolute immersion in Hank Williams as a very young spirit on this planet. In recent times, I've really moved into (most of my musical research now is country blues) Blind Blake and Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins kind -- and also jazz, and the blues part of jazz, the early Louis Armstrong blues-infused jazz. I think what I'm trying to explore right now are those rhythms and structures. "Somebody's Shadow" is sort of the first one that started to manifest a little bit: a sense gone deeper into understanding some of those guitar patterns, like RL Burnside, the way he plays. "Forever", "Maybelline", "Nadine", and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Move it on Over" and "Mind Your Own Business" are forever locked in my brain as a sort of tumbling lyric cadence.

You have a lot of literary imagery. Do you find that in your writing now you are influenced more by that after writing your memoir? Or is it something that you've always aspired to?

The process of contemplating language in terms of how it stands on a page, which is really, really different than words sung out into the air, it has changed it somewhat. But another thing happened besides writing a memoir. A real close friendship with Mary Karr -- she and I collaborating on a group of songs that became Kin and really working consciously between the two of us to merge the sensibilities of the songwriter and the sensibility of the poet and how to at some point make choices that are poetic and other times make choices that are songwriter choices because of the way words sound when you sing them. They may stand on the page alone perfectly, but not sing well -- and vice versa. That has become part of it, consciously part of it more so then in my 20s and 30s when I just wrote what came to me.

Did you work out the songs and the melodies prior to the recording sessions with Tarpaper Sky? I know they were largely recorded live.

Yeah, I'm always and always will be -- I'm not a guy that goes in the studio with a riff in mind and then builds a song in the studio. I have a song written to the point that I'm satisfied that I have the song. This doesn't mean that I don't get in the studio occasionally and change a line because it becomes clear to me when it's recorded that that doesn't hold. For the most part, they're finished songs when I go in the studio.

You tend to juxtapose a lot of images in your songs, especially on this album -- the inevitability of love and life, spiritual and physical elements. I also found that it plays into the sequence of the album. You go from your more pastoral ballads to more upbeat songs; was that a real conscious effort on the production side of things with sequencing the album? What's your approach to that?

I will say this: I've always sort of had maybe an inflated sense of my ability to sequence songs in a narrative flow. But I have to say that this one was the most difficult, probably the hardest work I did on Tarpaper Sky was figuring out how to sequence it. I haven't listened to it through for a while, but I did notice that as I got into "It Wouldn't Be Me without You" and "The Flyboy and the Kid" and "Oh, What a Beautiful World" and "Grandma Loved that Old Man", it seems like the last four songs -- it seems like it starts in the place where it's more the broad stroke of "Long Journey Home" and getting back to Louisiana, where Frankie would've lived and going through that.

I eventually land on this kind of love and family, and then there's "Jesus, Talk to Mama". It seems like the natural flow of it -- it wanted to end back home. For a long time, I was thinking I was calling the record "Long Journey Home". I think when I sequenced it, that's the way it was. But it was pointed out to me that there were a lot of titles about journey home; I said, "Well, I don't want to do that." I think just this sequence -- it does get back to the family.

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