Rodney Crowell came to Nashville from his native Houston 50 years ago, apprenticing himself himself to master songwriter Guy Clark. In the five decades since, he’s written songs for Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Bob Seger, and Rosanne Cash, to just rattle off a few very partial list of the folks who’ve covered his songs.
In addition to his solo records, he worked as a rhythm guitarist and backed vocalist in Emmylou’s band in the late ’70s, and the duo reunited in the middle of last decade for a pair of albums that each won the Grammy Award for Best American Roots Album. In 2004, he reunited for a well-received collaborative project with old friend Vince Gill, The Notorious Cherry Bombs. All this is to say, Rodney and his band played for more than 2 hours at The Birchmere recently, and there wasn’t a weak song in the set. As long and wide-ranging as the evening’s setlist was, Rodney could easily have added even more of his songs without diluting the quality of the material.
(Rodney, if you happen to see this, I have a joke just for you: I don’t see what the big deal is about having 2 Grammys. I also have 2 Grammys. They’re dead now.)
Coming out of the tradition of Clark and Townes Van Zandt — we’ll get to Townes later — Crowell has, despite having a number of critically acclaimed records, often flown under the radar as far as popular, mainstream recognition. He had a moment of flirtation with mainstream success with his 1988 LP Diamonds and Dirt, off he which he scored — and was the first person to do so, though others have since duplicated the feat — five straight No. 1 country singles. That album, in addition to being his most commercially successful moment, is also a watershed in the neotradtionalist country movement, and it influenced a great deal of what followed in country music.
While he’s still proud of the music on that album, the cover photo is a bit of different story. He recalled how, one evening, at home with his wife, he reached for a vinyl copy of Booker T & The MGs to play during dinner. Vinyl, he said, makes for good dinner music, because “it fills up the house.” When he went to pull out the Booker T album, however, he instead pulled out something else, something he hadn’t seen in a long time: the vinyl copy of Diamonds & Dirt. On the front, there is a photo of him, in which he is wearing jeans so tight they would “make Dwight Yoakam jealous.” He’s also wearing a t-shirt, a bolo tie, and a black vest, and cowboy vest; it’s very ’80s.
Rodney held it up to his wife asked, “Poser?” She said, simply, “Yes.” “That hurt my feelings,” he said, but also referenced Richard Pryor’s point, “If you can’t make fun of yourself….” It occurred to him, “Who dresses like that to walk down a dirt a down?” and he thought, “I can make fun of that guy, because he didn’t know where he was going?” That became the impetus for the song, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” which appeared on the setlist at The Birchmere on May 20.
Watch Rodney Crowell perform “I Don’t Care Anymore” live for Paste Studios on YouTube:
In addition to writing songs for others and recording his own work, Rodney has also produced a number of artists. Most prominently, he produced his ex-wife, Rosanne Cash, during her commercial peak in the ’80s. They met after he’d released his first album in 1977, the acclaimed Ain’t Living Long Like This. At the time, Rosanne was breaking big over in Europe, and Rodney abandoned much of the promotion of his own album to pursue Rosanne across Europe. He recalled being in Zurich, Switzerland, a center of international banking, where all the money is kept, and realizing “I’m never gonna have any of it.” (I can relate!) He also said that he had “a big old male ego,” and needed to show off his skill, so he wrote, “Ain’t No Money,” which Rosanne recorded, and it became a hit for her.
Though their marriage dissolved in the early ’90s, the two have remained friends, and, as Rodney noted, he became closer friends with her father, Johnny, after the divorce. One of his most potent musical memories is of riding in his father’s 49 Ford Rodester, hearing Johnny singing “Walk The Line.” He spent years, decades even, trying to capture the magic of that moment in song, and he did it in “Walk the Line Revisited,” which appeared on his incredible 2001 album, The Houston Kid. He finally solved the problem of the chorus by having Johnny himself sing fragments of the original “Walk the Line” to Rodney’s new melody. Johnny remarked on how Rodney had a lot of gumption to change his melody, to which Rodney stiffened his resolve and replied, “Yes, sir.” When he played the song on Friday night, his bassist, Zachariah Hickman, did a phenomenal impression of Johnny.
Watch the official music video for “Walk the Line Revisited” by Rodney Crowell on YouTube:
Though they’ve been divorced for decades, Rodney and Rosanne still get along well enough that they’ve worked together, as they did on “It’s Not Over Yet.” As Rodney explained, it’s a three-part conversation between his mentor, Guy Clark, Guy’s wife, Susannah, and himself, as he puts it, “at his worst.” On the recording, Susannah’s part is sung by Rosanne, and a much younger Rodney is portrayed by John Paul White. John was more than adequately substituted for by fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, and Rosanne’s part was covered by keys player Kathy Marx.
Rodney opened his set with the title cut of his 1995 album Jewel of the South, followed by “Earthbound,” from his outstanding 2003 LP, Fate’s Right Hand. “Still Learning How To Fly,” which appeared on the same album, was originally recorded several years earlier on the more rock-oriented Cicadas supergroup project. “Weight of the World,” a co-write with Emmylou Harris, appeared on the their second duo album, The Traveling Kind.
Rodney went way back, almost to the beginning after that; “Oh What A Feeling” appeared on his second solo album, 1980’s What Will The Neighbors Think? , as did “Ashes by Now.” “Frankie Please,” a bit of bit blistering rockabilly, is more recent, coming from 2014’s Tarpaper Sky.
As Rodney noted, he has a not-so-new album that he released last year, Triage, and he played a couple of tracks from that record: the political “Something Has To Change” and the more spiritual “This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am.” He didn’t spend a lot of time on the new material; “Reckless” is a cut from 2017’s Close Ties, while “East Houston Blues” is on, perhaps, his finest album, 2001’s The Houston Kid.
Stream “This Body Isn’t All There Is to Who I Am” by Rodney Crowell on YouTube:
In a great story, Rodney recalled the first time he played the old Birchmere, when he came with Guy Clark and Rosanne Cash, and they all played songs for four hours. Afterward, he recalled, they were paid in cash, and Guy tossed the money in the air, and made a point about how he said they needed to come with him to The Birchmere. I will note that, while I love music, and while I love Rodney, a four-hour show would present some real issues for me to coordinate my Adderall dosing.
As his sound wound toward its conclusion, Rodney played some of his oldest and most beloved songs: “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” and “Till I Gain Control Again.”
The show concluded with Rodney taking a couple of requests. Introducing “Shame on the Moon,” he said, “When I wrote it in in 1979, I never really thought I’d finished the last verse.” He’s since rewritten the last verse, and then he went on to monkey with the whole song, only to go back to the original words, which were a hit for Bob Seger. The other request he played was “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried.” Co-written with Thomas Jane Slate, “Open Season on My Heart” appears on the first duo album with Harris, Old Yellow Moon.
After the requests, Rodney had reached the end of his set, and concluded with a story about playing in Ireland. He went to visit a church near Sligo, where the poet WB Yeats was buried. He wanted to give the audience some American poetry, and the answer he came up with one he was most familiar with: Townes Van Zandt. In that spirit, he ended that show, and this one, with the ballad “Pancho and Lefty,” letting the audience sing the familiar chorus: “All the federales say, they could have him any day / They only let him slip away / Out of kindness, I suppose.”
If you’re a fan of the popular music of the last 50 years, you’ve almost certainly heard Rodney’s songs, even if you haven’t been familiar with the man himself. His body of work is as impressive as almost anyone in the game, and he’s one of the godfathers of what’s become Americana music. As he said after one of the songs, “Who says an acoustic combo can’t play rock ‘n’ roll.” These were some of the finest songs you’ll ever hear, performed about as well as they can be done.
Here are some photos of Rodney Crowell performing at The Birchmere on May 20, 2021. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.