Photo: David McClister

Poetry and Passion: An Interview with Rodney Crowell

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.
Rodney Crowell
Tarpaper Sky
New West

“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.

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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.

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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