A Conversation With Rodney Crowell
Mike Ragogna: Rodney, you've had many hits as an artist, songwriter and producer, but your new album Kin: The Songs of Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell might be the most personal and unique project of your career. How did this album come together?
Rodney Crowell: Well, when I was writing my book that was published this past year, I developed a relationship with Mary Karr, the writer and poet, who, as it turns out, grew up in the same vicinity as I did in southeast Texas, down in the swamp belt down there. We hit it off instantly and really became fast friends. She was very helpful and supportive as I was writing my book, and I hit on the notion that we should write songs together. It took me just a minute to talk her into it, but once we got rolling with it, she took to it like a duck to water. She's just a natural at anything with words.
MR: What was the creative process like?
RC: The creative process was fun. It was like falling off a log because Mary is such a quick study, and her facility with language is pretty breathtaking. As we'd get a song going, I'd get a tone or a melody or a chord change or progression and get an idea going, and then she would throw back all kinds of very useful language to me for a really good song. And we worked really fast. We wrote fifteen songs in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
MR: Were you able to record all those songs?
RC: We recorded thirteen of them, and we cut that down to a ten song CD.
MR: Kin includes have some powerful guests including Emmylou Harris, who figures prominently in your history. There's Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones...Your entourage features quite a few progressive country artists.
RC: Everybody... on the record! (laughs)
MR: (laughs) That's right! Can you tell us a story about a couple of the songs. We just went into the creative process, but I imagine there was some tailoring to the songs or production that had to be done with particular artists in mind, right?
RC: Surprisingly, there was very little tailoring in order to make it fit the artist. For instance, Norah Jones, I sent her four or five songs, and she picked out "If The Law Don't Want You, Neither Do I" and then we went up to New York to her studio and spent an afternoon with all of us gathered around. We played the song, and that was the record. We added just a little bit to it later, but it's really the tone of the record. Everything is done live, often without headphones, so all of the playing and singing was not really produced. It's a performed record, and we had a really good time with that. Joe Henry is a great producer to work with because he's very keen to frame performance before production. It was good fun, with really, actually, little tailoring. Like when Lucinda came in and sang "God, I'm Missing You," that was the very first take of it. As she's singing it, I'm still teaching the guys in the band the chords, actually whispering the chords on the microphone. If you listen closely, you hear it, and that's the take. The drummer and the bass player were kind of listening to the song and not really playing until the very end, but that's how it should go because Lucinda was in the song when she arrived.
MR: Did any of these performers at least have the poetry beforehand?
RC: Well, I made demos of all the songs. The way it developed that we had all of these different performers is that Mary doesn't really sing. I like the way she sings, but she would say emphatically that she doesn't sing. Half of the songs were female narratives and half of them were male narratives, and I said, "Well, let's see if we can get Norah in." So we got Norah, and one thing led to another, and then I said, "Let's get Emmylou," and the next thing you know, we had five great female performers. So I said, "We'd better reach out to some guys to help me carry the narrative," and that's how we landed on Kris Kristofferson and Vince Gill.
MR: There's a sort of loose story line going on through this album.
RC: There is. That's one of the things that Mary and I hit on as we were concocting the songs. We had very similar family backgrounds. Her mother was a frustrated artist, and my father was a frustrated artist, and we talked about that a lot. And both of us being from the southeast Texas coastline, we laughed at the same jokes and the same vernacular and colloquial terms that only we would know. Pretty soon, we were aware that we had a brother-sisterhood going, and the songs took that form. Like the song Rosanne sings, "Sister, Oh Sister." I knew how close Mary was to her sister Lisa, and one day it occurred to me, and I said, "Do you think there's ever been a love song written from a sister to a sister?" And we couldn't think of one, so we set out writing "Sister Oh Sister," which I think is a lovely song, and pretty soon, we realized that there was a family underpinning to the songs. Even "Anything But Tame" is the story of two kids who were friends as barefoot kids, and then kind of emotionally attached during adolescence, and then later on were romantically attached, and torn apart later on. Even the history of that kind of relationship is like family.
MR: Family seems to be pretty much a recurring theme. I'll dance lightly around this, but of course, you were married to Rosanne Cash.
RC: You can stomp on that one! It's a good story!
MR: (laughs) Okay, so you were married to Rosanne Cash and you produced many albums with her and many hit singles. Getting into the studio with Emmylou Harris, with Rosanne Cash -- even though Joe Henry was producing -- the mechanics of this is that you were around during all that, right?
RC: Of course, yeah. I'm in the engine room, and Joe is up in the cockpit.
MR: You must be very close to Emmylou Harris considering all the work you've done together.
RC: Emmy's mother calls me Emmy's little brother. Emmy and I did have a brother-sister relationship for years. And Rosanne and I were of course married, but we were kids when we got married, you know? It was a fun experience because it was the first time I had been in the studio recording with Rosanne in 21 years.
MR: That's sort of where I was going with this. How did it feel to be back together?
RC: Oh, it was good fun. You know, John Leventhal, her husband, played guitar on it and is her producer and sort of started taking over. And I, in a very friendly way, said, "You know, John, I'm driving this one!" He said, "Yeah, but this is my fire hydrant!" So we had a good laugh, and he's very, very generous-spirited, and played beautiful guitar. He knew we made some great records together, and he knew it was all okay.
MR: You spoke about Lucinda earlier, and we talked about Norah Jones, and you also have Vince Gill and Kris Kristofferson on Kin.
RC: Well see, here we go again! Vince is my baby brother. When I call him on the phone, I say, "Hey, baby brother." It really is an extended family. And Kris is like my favorite uncle. I love Kris. So no love lost here.
MR: Lots of love gained.
RC: Love gained.
MR: So, "'Til I Gain Control Again" is one of Emmylou's classics, and years later Crystal Gayle had a hit with it. You, of course, wrote that song, sir.
RC: Yes, sir, I did.
MR: And also, you wrote "Shame On The Moon," a big one by Bob Seger. What was your reaction to its huge success?
RC: Oh, I anticipated the check that would be coming in the mail. (laughs) With that kind of success, I enjoy it, but I never was fooled into thinking that that was the end of the story. I was always careful not to let that kind of success remove the carrot. As a matter of fact, I recently rewrote it because I never was happy with how I wrote it the first time. I'm going to record it again with better lyrics.
MR: How did it get to Bob Seger?
RC: The story I heard from Bill Payne, who played piano on the record and was a friend of mine, was that Bob Seger had a girlfriend who had my album that it was on and talked him into it.
MR: Love it. And there's the Oak Ridge Boys' recording of your "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight."
RC: That's true.
MR: Another huge record for you. Now, you had your own recording career with hits as a country artist. Did it feel like everything was leading up to that as you were having songwriting covers?
RC: Well, I didn't think it was leading up to that. I'm just an instinctive artist. I don't really have much of a sense of a grand plan, and as artists go, I'm really a horrific businessman. It's always been about writing the next best song I can write. It seems like when I do that, if I just stay focused on that, good things happen on the back-end of it. If I try to put success or a certain kind of song in front of the list and say, "Okay, I'm going to write a blues song," it doesn't work for me. I have to just let the songs speak to me, let them tell me what they want to be, and then go out and make their own living. It's really as simple as that.
MR: And to this day, is that how you do it? Does a song come to you, is it that type of thing?
RC: Oh yeah, they'll come up and tap me on the shoulder. And there are other times where I absolutely have to put on the goggles and drill to the core to try to find the song. Sometimes it's really hard work, and sometimes it's just right there.
MR: Yeah. Beautiful. Having an amazing career like you've had, what advice might you have for new artists?
RC: Well, in this day and age, my advice is really very antiquated. I'm not a big fan of popular culture. "Who wants to be the next idol?" doesn't seem to promote individuality or a particular singular vision. It seems like when young artists go that way, they eventually herd them into one style -- basically, big, broad-stroke popular. Where's the Tom T. Hall in that or the Bob Dylan, which is poetry-driven, singular vision artistry? So my advice is too antiquated for someone to make it in this day and age because it does seem like the keyhole is so much more narrow now, than say, when Woody Guthrie was out there writing protest songs that were so heartfelt and so beautiful.
MR: On the other hand, doesn't there still need to be a seed of talent, something, at the heart of what they're doing?
RC: There's no lack of talent in the crop of artists that are coming along. In fact, they are endowed with massive amounts of talents and the ability to sing or play their instruments and stuff. For me...popular culture has narrowed the narrative down to a very small-scale. Where would "Blowing In The Wind" fit now? I just don't hear that anymore. I don't hear that kind of sensibility among the artists. It's just not there for me. So that's why I don't like to give advice. I don't think my advice is helpful. It works for me, but I'm in a position where I've had my fan base for a good, long while now, and it works for me. For instance, my daughter is a songwriter, and she has a very singular sensibility, and I would say that she's a poet more than anything, and she's just dogged in her right to not be commercial. And okay, that's fine, do what you want to do, but if you want to make a living, you'd better figure out how to get down the main street.
MR: It's interesting, it's almost conflicting.
RC: Let's be honest, it's television.
RC: Television has a very narrow bandwith, and it is predominant in our lives. The Edward R. Murrows and the Walter Cronkites are gone, and that singular, informative voice has given way to this shotgun pattern of news as entertainment, which is not very informative. And I think it parallels the performing art for me, for the most part -- certainly songwriting. There's no denying that you can turn on American Idol and see people who can sing the phonebook and make it sound beautiful. I just don't see a singular point of view that will impact our culture.
MR: It's interesting because I used to worry -- I'm not worried about it anymore because I think it's seen the height of its popularity -- about things like American Idol and these manipulated contests. It almost teaches the kids or the potential new talent that this what you need to do to succeed, as opposed to following your art, following your heart.
RC: Yes, that's the point I've been making.
MR: Yeah. But I feel like it's detrimental. It may take artists off course, like people who normally would have gone on more of a creative path. They've been beaten into with the idea of "Well, okay, this is how I have to do it."
RC: Well, maybe we're a bit pedantic in our view of this. Let me leave it this way. I would imagine that the songwriter, such as myself, when I was supposed to be asleep at night, I would have one of those little crystal radios under the covers plugged into my ear, and I'm listening to music, and the images that the music is presenting in my head are my own images. And to me, that's the beauty of radio, whereas television gives you the images. It doesn't allow you to have your own images. Images are provided for you, and I think that removes a very important part of the artist's vision, which is the enjoyment of your own imagination.
MR: Yeah, video killed much more than the radio star.
RC: (laughs) Yeah.
MR: All right, I want to get back to Kin. I want to get some other thoughts about Kin from you. In retrospect, having done the project, where do you place this in your body of work?
RC: Honestly, I put Kin very close to the top of my body of work. I think it's some of the best songwriting yet, the most consistent songwriting. I'm fond of The Houston Kid, Sex and Gasoline and Fate's Right Hand as records, as whole albums that I've made really more than my big commercial hits in the late '80s. Time will tell, but for my money, this is a very fine piece of work and something I'll be proud of for a long time.
MR: Nice. And of course, Mary Karr was the author of Lit, Cherry, and The Liar's Club. Did you read any of those books before you met Mary?
RC: Yeah, oh yeah. I read The Liar's Club long ago, and that was the seed that was planted then. As I was reading it, I said, "This girl is from the same place I'm from. She can write songs." And that was when the idea was born, and it was part of the reason I looked her up.
MR: Are you going on tour with this project?
RC: I am going on tour. And my book, Chinaberry Sidewalks, my memoirs, are out in paperback, and I'd love for your listeners and readers to get a hold of it.
MR: Chinaberry Sidewalks, that's right, you being an author as well.
MR: Will you just in a nutshell give us the overview?
RC: It's 2/3 of my childhood, and really, the story of my mother and father. Very colorful people, my mother and father.
MR: (laughs) Is there a lot of vernacular in the book?
RC: Some, some.
MR: Nice. And of course, that fits right in with the concept of "kin," the topic we've been talking about today.
RC: Yes, it does indeed.
MR: Okay, thank you very, very much Rodney, for all your time here.
RC: You got it!
1. Anything But Tame -- Rodney Crowell
2. If the Law Don't Want You -- Norah Jones
3. Just Pleasing You -- Vince Gill
4. God I'm Missing You -- Lucinda Williams
5. I'm a Mess -- Rodney Crowell
6. Momma's On a Roll -- Lee Ann Womack
7. Sister Oh Sister -- Rosanne Cash
8. My Father's Advice -- Rodney Crowell & Kris Kristofferson
9. Long Time Girl Gone By -- Emmylou Harris
10. Hungry for Home -- Rodney Crowell
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan