Rodney Crowell
Photo: Claudia Church / New West Records

For Art’s Sake: An Interview with Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell discusses his friendship with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, his continued passion for writing, and the importance that risk has played in his career.

The Chicago Sessions
Rodney Crowell
New West
5 May 2023

Rodney Crowell‘s The Chicago Sessions is a renaissance in the singer-songwriter’s career. It’s also the latest in a long line of critically-acclaimed, deeply intelligent, and heartfelt albums that began with another career renaissance, 2001’s The Houston Kid. The list of A-level albums Crowell has made since then seems nearly impossible, yet 2005’s The Outsider, 2008’s Sex & Gasoline, and 2014’s Tarpaper Sky ­have each reaffirmed his place in the firmament of first-rate American songwriters. 

Produced by Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, the new record also features a callback to Crowell’s 1978 debut LP, Ain’t Living Long Like This, via its simple cover, capturing the musician in a moment of happiness and perhaps revealing a little about spirit of the recordings contained within. There is no shortage of top-notch songs on The Chicago Sessions, whether the Tweedy co-write “Everything at Once”, “Somebody Loves You”, or “Lucky”. Equally remarkable is how seamlessly the song “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good”, written during the 1970s and recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner set, fits with the new material and how brand-new Townes Van Zandt‘s “No Place to Fall” feels. 

Tweedy’s touches are characteristically subtle but deft, while the core of Crowell’s band (guitarist Jedd Hughes, pianist Catherine Marx, and bassist Zachariah Hickman) sounds positively fresh and at home throughout. 

As fine as the record is, it indicates that Crowell’s best hours may be yet to come. After all, he’s shown before that he can upset expectations and provide challenges that lead him to higher ground than perhaps even he could have imagined. If there’s one thing to be taken away from The Chicago Sessions, perhaps it’s that the dream is ongoing and as vivid and new as ever. 

Crowell recently spoke with PopMatters from his home in Nashville as he was preparing to take to the road supporting the new album. A patient and revealing conversationalist, he chatted about his friendship with Tweedy, his continued passion for writing, and the importance that risk has played in his career. 

Am I correct that you and Jeff Tweedy met through Cayamo? 

They park the boat, you go ashore and hang out on the beach, eat lunch, that kind of thing, and I saw Jeff. I just walked over to say hello and tell him how much I loved his album WARM. We had a brief conversation, and he invited me to record in his studio sometime. I just took that as polite conversation. Somehow my daughter Chelsea got wind of it and said, “Dad, Jeff Tweedy invited you up to his studio; why haven’t you gone?” I said, “He was just being nice.” She said, “Put your manager in touch with his manager!” The next thing you know, we were saying, “Let’s make an album.” It was that simple. 

How long did it take you to determine that there was natural chemistry between you? 

Pretty instantly. I made a trip up there with some of the songs that I had written during the COVID lockdown. I spent all my time just about in my studio [during that time] and made all these demos where I played everything. I banged on walls for drum sounds, punched in bass parts, and recorded all these songs, and it was entirely me. I played some of them for Jeff, and he said, “I like the vibe.” 

He picked the songs that he liked. There were one or two times when I may have said, “Let’s do this one,” but I had an instant trust with Jeff. Our sensibilities are different enough but the same in a way. He likes what I like, and I like what he likes. In the places where his sensibility about a certain thing might be different than mine, I was happy to go with it because it gave a different perspective. In a few cases, he was happy to go where I wanted to go because it was a new thing for him. I think we had a mutual connection that way. 

It was truly a blessing and a relief for me to make that record with Jeff producing. I’ve produced a few of my own records, and [when you’re] wearing both the producer hat and the artist hat, one or the other suffers a little bit in the process. With Jeff producing, I was free to play and sing. Pretty much everything on the record is live. Ninety percent of it is what happened when we all played together.

Rodney Crowell
Photo: Jamie Kelter Davis / New West Records

I love records where I feel like the singer communicates something directly to me and that I’m present with the band. I think that’s the sound of this album. 

Very much so. Tom Schick, the engineer, who I have great respect for, [was great from the start]. When I first sat down at the Loft, there was an SM7 microphone in front of me and a couple of vintage tube mics across the way. I said, “Tom, why are you putting that 251 on me?” That’s what we do in Nashville; we put the really good tube mic on the singer. That’s what the Beatles did. Tom said, “Look, the electric guitar amp is five feet away from you. This SM7 will allow just the right amount of bleed onto your vocal track.” That’s when I went, “Ah, yeah. Now we’re getting somewhere!” 

That meant that I had to sing. If the electric guitar track is bleeding into my mic and I’m bleeding into the other mics, we have to get this stuff right. It set the tone for how to do it. It was lovely. 

How important is it to have a relaxed vibe in the studio? 

It’s what you want, and I took three of my musical compadres to Chicago, each of them delighted to have an opportunity to work with Jeff Tweedy and to work in the Loft. By the same token, Jeff was delighted to play with us and to provide the drummers, John Perrine and Spencer Tweedy. Hometown boys. It was an adventure for everybody and a sweet adventure at that. 

You picked up on the vibe. When I heard the record back, I thought, “I’ve strived for this and succeeded more than I’ve failed at it.” Although I stand behind the records that I’ve self-produced as good work, but working with Jeff Tweedy or Joe Henry? That freed me up to play and sing, and I’m the best version of me when that happens. 

You’ve said that this record harkens back to your first one. Is part of that because it was made in the way that albums were made in the late 1970s? 

I have a very vivid memory of being in the studio with Jim Keltner on drums, Ry Cooder playing slide guitar and Dr. John on piano, Emory Gordy on bass, and Emmylou Harris and I being in a vocal booth recording “Elvira” live. Everything that happened on that tune, with the exception of an overdubbed saxophone solo, was a live recording, as was 60 percent of that first record. Over the years, I could probably create three albums of all live recordings, but recording live is just the best way for me. The record I made with Joe Henry, Sex & Gasoline, is all live. What it says to me is that I need to create opportunities for myself from here on out because I still have a lot that I want to do, to where the atmosphere and the work are designed for me to play and sing and for the devil to take the hindmost. 

I know that the songs aren’t connected by an explicit concept, but I think there is a theme running through them, this sense of having hope in the darkness. 

It’s always on my mind, even with Triage, the last record that I made. It was hope in the face of darkness, a little more dire maybe on that one than this one. It seems that my optimism grows stronger as things get darker. 

I strive to find a new form of expression in each song that I write. I continue to write daily. I’m never honestly in a war with what I wrote in 1978 or ’84, or ’99. But I am aware that oftentimes words that I’ve used in the past will work beautifully in something I have going, but I’ve already said it, maybe using the same words or in a different way. That means it takes me longer to write songs than it used to. 

Not only do I hope for some good outcome for the human condition, but I also have hope that I will continue to grow as a writer of songs and prose, the way that Leonard Cohen did in the last ten years of his career, which is my favorite period of his. I want to continue to come up with meaningful original stuff. 

What role has risk played in your career? You have gone to some really unexpected places at times, and that seems to be where you find the best good stuff. 

In the mid-’90s, I made a couple of records for MCA. My cousin worked in the A&R department, and one of my best friends [Tony Brown], who co-produced Diamonds and Dirt, was over there. They gave me a lot of money. The idea was, “Let’s get Rodney over here and get him to make Diamonds and Dirt again.” I went along with it for the money, and I made a couple of what I consider mediocre albums. It was the nadir of my recording career, I think. So as I grew through that and dealt with the sense of loss that [came from the feeling that] I had betrayed my commitment to Guy Clark a long time ago that I would always strive to be an artist, not a commodity, I came into making The Houston Kid. I consider that the beginning of my best-recorded work. I made some good records before then, but that’s when my career as a recording artist found itself and continued from there. 

One of the mantras I had was, “Do what you’re afraid of. If you’re afraid of it it’s a good sign.” That’s different from the fear I felt [with MCA], where they gave me a bunch of money, and I felt like I had to satisfy them. The opposite side of that is, “I’m afraid this might not work. I’m going to give it my best.” For the most part, that’s panned out really well for me. So risk continues to be what I’m working on right now, actually. Pretty much everybody I admire takes risks in some shape or fashion. 

You mentioned writing every day. I try to follow the same practice, whether it’s a journal entry or something I’m working on for an outlet. I don’t always know what the inspiration will be or when it will show up, but there’s something exhilarating about it when it arrives. 

One of the things that I teach in my songwriting camps is that I get up and go to work every day because the inspiration that I was given in my 20s that was sometimes lightning in a jar [is different]. As we get older, inspiration is based on hard work. I earn my inspiration now. If I’m at the corner of my studio where I have a desk and my guitars, and as long as I’m there, there’s every chance that inspiration’s going to find me. Or it’s going to take pity or whatever. 

I think of Renoir: The day he died, he did a little still life in the morning. He got up and went to work the day he died. I saw a van Gogh exhibit about the last 144 days of his life. He did 156 paintings, and they were all at the Metropolitan in New York, all laid out in succession. It was one of the most moving things that I ever experienced. The day before he shot himself, he had done a really lovely painting, not ambitious, not broad stroke like The Starry Night or any of that. It was just a quiet painting. That’s how I want to spend my life, what’s left of it: Doing work for the sake of the work. 

Rodney Crowell
Photo: Jamie Kelter Davis / New West Records