To kick off 2019 in its ongoing coverage of American music and its culture, The String features a true icon of authentic country/roots music, indeed one of the artists around whom the Americana format was conceived in the 1990s. Rodney Crowell is both a songwriter’s songwriter and an artist who’s reached and moved mainstream music fans since breaking out in the 80s. He embodies the honed edge of Texas folk poetry and the refinement of Nashville songcraft. And he’s stayed artistically ambitious across four decades of work. He’s a two-time Grammy Award winner and he was the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting winner in 2006, the fifth such recipient, one year behind his friend and guru Guy Clark.
The 2010s have been a whirlwind for Crowell. He published his first work of prose, the memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, in 2011. He made two duo albums and toured the world with his lifelong colleague and champion Emmylou Harris. Most recently he took on a down-to-earth collection of some of his best-loved songs, interpreted spontaneously with friends in the studio on Acoustic Classics. He released his first-ever Christmas album early this winter. And in the midst of all that he battled back a frustrating neurologic disease that landed him in a number of emergency rooms around the country while on tour. We talk about that, along with a number of topics that range from the early days to recent creative pursuits.
On taking up memoir writing mid-life and how it shifted his songwriting:
“I’d done fairly well writing broad stroke love songs but at that time in my life I really wanted to dedicate myself to a more singular sensibility, which I realized would narrow the audience quite a bit. But it struck me as a way to have an extended career and to stay really interested in the work and to grow. Starting to write prose was a really good choice on my part.”
On coming back from a scary illness for which doctors had no answer:
“I literally changed my mind about it. I started reaffirming the fact I’m a healthy man. I’ve always taken care of myself. And I’m going to live in that reality and that’s going to be my narrative. And I just stuck with it, and after about six months, I started to turn the corner. I’ve been really well. From July this past year all the way up to New Year’s Eve, I’ve been working more than I have perhaps in my entire career.”
On making his first album in 1978 in Los Angeles as a single dad of a 16-month-old:
“We would start work at 6:00 in the evening and would work until about 4:00 in the morning. I’d take my daughter to the studio with me. I had one of those fold-up playpen things and I’d set it up in the Enactron Truck (producer Brian Ahern’s mobile studio). She’d sleep and I’d take breaks and play with her. . . I made that first album entirely with a kid on my hip. And it was great.”
Up next for Crowell in 2019 is what he describes as a harder rocking album with a Texas theme, including guests such as Billy Gibbons, Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Dunn and Lee Ann Womack.