Every Rodney Crowell show I’ve seen has been unique and memorable. I’ve seen him in a trio, with a full band, solo, playing songs and reading selections from his lyric book, Word for Word. His recent show at The Birchmere found him playing first with keyboardist Catherine Marx, then joined by guitarist Trey Hensley and dobro virtuoso Rob Ickes.
In 2012, Rodney released an album of songs co-written with memoirist and poet Mary Karr. They grew up on different sides of the “swamp in southeast Texas.” The swamp is Houston, where Rodney grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the city’s east side. His mother had a fascination with words, and his father was a musician who played locally. By his teens, Rodney had taken up the guitar and was writing songs and playing in bands.
I’ve spoken to Rodney, and he strikes me as a pretty even-keeled fellow, but even someone as balanced as Rodney can look back on their lack of maturity in wisdom in their youth, as he did at The Birchmere on Oct. 18. Introducing “Anything But Tame, he said, “I’m proud of being a septuagenerian.” He said he was glad to have met Karr at the point in his life he did, because the younger versions of themselves would’ve found a way to mess it up. He noted that the common wisdom that you have less friends as you get older hasn’t been true for him. This rang true for me, as I have more friends in my 40s than I ever did when I was younger.
“The songs come out of conversations,” Crowell said of his partnership with Karr. One of those conversations was about the country icon Hank Williams, who died when he was only 29 from his alcoholism. Rodney and Mary wondered how things might have been different if, in 1953, the 12-step programs and treatment options have now had existed. They thought about the songs Hank might’ve written if he hadn’t died. “Just Pleasing You” is Rodney and Mary imagining one of those songs.
Watch Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris perform “Just Pleasing You” for WFUV Public Radio on YouTube:
In 1972, Rodney left Houston for Nashville, where he came under the influence of Guy Clark, who served as a mentor to generations of songwriters, including Steve Earle, John Lilly Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, and Hayes Carll, and is one of the major influences on the Americana genre. Guy was also a frequent co-writer, and Rodney wrote “She’s Crazy for Leaving” with him. (Clark passed away in 2016 following a long battle with cancer.)
One night, or, more accurately, very early one morning, amidst the consumption of coffee and weed at Guy’s house, Rodney got up the courage to play one of his songs for Townes Van Zandt. At this point, Rodney was a 20-year-old kid, and Townes Van Zandt was one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, a tragic figure who struggled with mental illness and succumbed to the toll of his many addictions at the age 55.
In telling this story, Rodney spoke of the Bob Dylan documentary Bring It All Back Home. In one scene, the British folkie Donovan plays an “insipid” song for Dylan. When he finished, Dylan took the guitar and played “Just Like A Woman.” When Rodney played what he called a “shitty” song for Townes, Townes took the guitar and played “Pancho & Lefty,” his most well-known song, and “No Place To Fall.” As a way of bringing things full circle, Rodney recorded the song on his latest album, The Chicago Sessions.
While this was certainly a painful experience for Rodney, I’ve come to think these sorts of things are good for us, they keep us humble. One of the best parts of seeing Oppenheimer for me was being forced to think, “I’m a smart guy, but I’m not ‘learn Sanskrit in six weeks smart.'” It’s good for us to be reminded that there’s always a bigger fish.
Released this summer to strong critical praise, The Chicago Sessions was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Tweedy has a studio in Chicago, which Rodney praised for its collection of vintage instruments. Jeff also co-wrote “Everything At Once” with Rodney, which he explained was done by text message.
The Chicago Sessions also allowed Rodney to revisit older songs like “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good.” He wrote the song in the ’70s, when he was living in Los Angeles and playing as the rhythm guitarist in Emmylou Harris’s band. Though Harris recorded it and the song’s been out there a while, Rodney “never really thought it was finished.”
Crowell’s partnership with Harris, which he packed back up about a decade ago with the albums The Traveling Kind and Old Yellow Moon, led to his receiving a pair of well-deserved, long overdue second Grammy Award for Best Americana Album for the latter record. He won his first Grammy in 1990 for Best Country song for “After All This Time.” He’s also won 6 Americana Music Association Awards: Best Song, twice, for “Fate’s Right Hand” and “After All This Time;” Best Duo/Group, twice, with Harris; Album of of the Year, for Old Yellow Moon; and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting.
Crowell’s deep love for his wife, Claudia Church, is a major theme of The Chicago Sessions, in the bluesy “Lord, Miss Claudia” and “Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly.” Songs like “Lucky,” expressing his gratitude, reinforce my sense that Rodney is a pretty well-adjusted guy.
Watch the official music video for “Lucky” by Rodney Crowell on YouTube:
At The Birchmere on Oct. 18, Rodney’s set began with “Many A Long and Lonesome Highway.” In a funny moment, Rodney asked the audience, “Anybody know the opening lines of ‘Jewel of the South’?” A moment later, he said, “We’re not gonna do it,” playing “Grandma Loved That Old Man” instead. He opened the floor to requests, and someone shouted out a song before he could finish talking. Rodney explained this gentleman had made a mistake, because he couldn’t hear what he said.
I was really impressed with Rodney’s ability to work a crowd. It’s something I see in artists who’ve been doing this awhile: they’ve experienced everything that a crowd can do and they’ve learned how to respond. They know how to assert their authority without provoking further confrontation. This is a skill, and it has to be learned, and you sometimes see younger artists who haven’t mastered it yet. It takes time.
By request, Rodney did play “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.” More people shouted out requests, and he clarified that he’d be playing the requests around what he wanted to do. So he did the two Mary Karr songs, then “Open Season On My Heart,” before fulfilling a request for “Stars On The Water.” Rodney enlisted the crowd to serve as his rhythm section, stomping and clapping to keep the beat. Other songs in the set included “Earthbound,” “Riding Out The Storm,” the much-requested love song “Till I Gain Control Again,” the bayou tale “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” and the outlaw classic “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” which was recorded by Waylon Jennings. Rodney closed the set with “Please Remember Me.”
The duo of guitarist/vocalist Trey Hensley and dobro master Rob Ickes opened the show with a dazzling display of instrumental skill. Ickes has won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Dobro Player of the Year a remarkable 15 times, which is the record for wins by an instrumentalist.
(When we talk about guitars, we typically talk about electric and acoustic. But there’s a third type of guitar, a resonator. It’s an acoustic instrument, but instead of generating sound by the motion from the strings in the open body of a standard acoustic guitar, the dobro generates sound by the motion of the strings driving the vibration of metal cones inside the guitar. Resonators are used by some country blues musician, and the dobro is a specific type of resonator guitar used in bluegrass.)
A prolific session musician, Ickes has appeared on albums by the artists you’d expect, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and some you’d never have expected, like David Lee Roth. Of working with Roth, Ickes said, “That was a crazy two weeks.”
Hensely, who is about a generation younger, was a musical prodigy who first appeared on the Grand Ol’ Opry when he was just 12 years old. A skilled player in his own right, he recently took home the IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year award.
In a 30-minute set, Ickes and Hensley played a selection of mostly covers and a few originals, beginning with the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Woman” and Robben Ford’s “Rugged Road.” They also played one of the Judds earliest songs, which they mentioned recorded with Molly Tuttle for an upcoming tribute album, and the Allman Brothers’ “Pride and Joy.”
Watch Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley perform “Pride and Joy” by The Allman Brothers Band live on YouTube:
“Backstreets of Broadway,” which couldn’t possibly be autobiographical, is about a young musician who moves to Nashville to become a star, but things don’t turn out as planned. The duo closed with Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At Its Cover.”
During Rodney’s set, Ickes and Hensley boosted his classic songs into even more impressive territory. Rodney isn’t a household name, but he’s one of the master songwriters of the last 50 years. He’s a figure like Nick Lowe, with a cult following, but his songs have been covered more famously by other artists. Like Lowe, he’s also had an excellent career as a producer. For any fan of singer-songwriters or of the Americana genre, Crowell is an essential artist, someone whose work has been massively influential, and who continues to make incredible new music even into his 70s.