The Craftsman

By Richardson, Derk | Acoustic Guitar, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Craftsman


Richardson, Derk, Acoustic Guitar


RODNEY CROWELL on his rhythmheavy guitar style and continuing evolution as a songwriter.

IN 2011, Texas-bred singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell published Chinaberry Sidewalks, a memoir about growing up as the only child in a volatile, dirt-poor family in a scrappy East Houston suburb. Over the preceding decade, Crowell had released a remarkable series of albums, including the autobiographical triad of The Houston Kid, Fate's Right Hand, and The Outsider. It was a stunningly soul-baring turn for the musician who made his mark as a member of Emmylou Harris's Hot Band in the 1970s and then established himself as a consistent spinner of Nashville gold (and platinum) in the 1980s and '90s. Crowell issued his first LP in 1978, and by 1988 he was regularly hitting the top of the country charts ("It's Such a Small World," "I Couldn't Leave You if I Tried," and "She's Crazy for Leaving," all from the album Diamonds and Dirt). In addition, country artists of every stripe (Harris, the Oak Ridge Boys, Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed, Crystal Gayle, and Crowell's wife of 13 years, Rosanne Cash) were recording such Crowell compositions as 'Till I Gain Control Again," "Shame on the Moon," and "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight."

But hit making seems the farthest thing from Crowell's mind in the 21st century. At 62, he is more focused on excavating deep and sometimes comic truths about life and crafting them into honest, plainspoken songs. That makes him kin to such contemporaries as John Prine and Steve Earle, as well as to one of his seminal influences, Bob Dylan, despite the disclaimer offered in the opening line of "Beautiful Despair," a brilliant song on The Outsider: "Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan when you're drunk at 3 am / Knowing that die chances are / No matter what, you'll never write like him."

On his new album, Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell (Vanguard), the composer of "Ashes by Now" and "Stars on the Water" explores the notion of family ties, both literal and figurative, in a novel way. He co-wrote all ten songs with poet, memoirist, and Syracuse University professor of literature Mary Karr. A few years Crowell's junior, Karr, author of the best-sellers The Liafs Club and Lit: A Memoir, grew up about 100 miles from Crowell's childhood stomping grounds, in what she calls "the same swampy, godforsaken stretch of East Texas Ringworm Belt." As they got to know each other, the two writers discovered deep affinities. Some - like having ridden their bikes behind mosquitoabatement trucks, breathing in the DDT fog - were steeped in the physical environment of their "sub-sea-level backwater" neighborhoods. Others arose from the ecology of their families, especially from parents who drank too much, suffered from various levels of what Karr characterizes as "nervous," and were disappointed artists.

The fruits of the Karr-Crowell collaboration include songs with such titles as "Anything but Tame," "I'm a Mess," "Momma's on a Roll," "Sister Oh Sister," "My Father's Advice," and "Hungry for Home." (For a transcription of "Hungry for Home," see page 50.) And they were made flesh through the efforts of more "kin." Joe Henry produced the record, and singers Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris joined Crowell in giving voice to the characters that materialized from the mists of their creators' imaginations - and memories.

A month or so before the June release of Kin, Crowell (whose work was singled out in Daniel Levitin's study of the brain and music, The World in Six Songs) discussed what it was like for a veteran tunesmith to partner with a novice songwriter, albeit one who is a "language scholar." The conversation rambled back to his teenage conversion from drummer to guitarist; the influence of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Mickey Newbury during his early years in Nashville; and the perils of political songwriting. …

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