A Conversation with Rodney Crowell
Mike Ragogna: Rodney, can you give a tour of your new album, Tarpaper Sky?
Rodney Crowell: It started with conversations with Steuart Smith who is a guitar player who normally plays with the Eagles. They actually bought him away from me some years ago. But we're really good friends, and he's a great conversation, very smart, very well-read. He's my friend that reads Proust. So we started talking about landscape painting and comparing Van Gogh and Cezanne--a pretty high and mighty conversation--and I said, "You know, we should collaborate on a record and we should think of songs as landscape paintings," not necessarily trying to go pastoral with that, but trying to find a way to get that study of a subject matter into song. That was the beginning, so I called a team of musicians together that I recorded with in the late eighties and I discussed with them and said, "I don't want to go back and do what we did in the late eighties, but let's find out what we can do together now and let's start by unplugging the headphones and recording a record all live. Let's not produce a record, let's perform a record." That first day was a train wreck because those musicians play on about a thousand records a year and were a little disoriented, but by the second day they understood it and had found the way to listen to each other in the studio and not try to kill the instruments--to play the instruments subtly. You'd be surprised at how big the recording gear will make a soft sound come out of the speakers. Once we caught on to the sounds we were making, from there on we were rolling. Pretty much everything you hear with the exception of a fiddle here or there and a couple of background voices was what we produced on the floor.
MR: You of course have major production chops, and you've produced so many people. You've had an eye on making this type of sound for a while now. KIN has that, and the record you did with Emmylou Harris, Old Yellow Moon has that. This new record seems like a continuation of that thought.
RC: Well it actually started with a record I made called Sex And Gasoline. That was the first record where I threw away the production role. Joe Henry produced it and I sat in the studio and sang my songs and played my guitar with some really fine musicians and I got up and left and said, "Hey, mail me this record when it's done." Now for a producer who's sweated bullets over every note for twenty years plus, I got the record in the mail and I said, "Good God, this sounds great." It's because I didn't hate it by the time I got it done. I had bowed out at the right moment. I started following that procedure and for me it was about a performance, not a production. As I started to study old blues recordings and really pay attention to my favorites it really started to come to me that all of my favorite pieces of music weren't produced, they were performed. The producer is nearly invisible, no thumbprint other than the composition and the performers. That's been my mantra since. I kind of fell on that a little bit--most of the record I made called The Houston Kid I was operating from that mindset, but I sort of fell back into production somewhat and enjoyed it. But it's my intention to continue on this path because I've produced music and now I'm most interested in performing music.
MR: It seems to me with the album KIN, you focused so much on the literary approach while collaborating with Mary Karr, that you had become so conscious of performance and nuance--something that falls by the wayside when you have a larger, less personal production.
RC: I like the word "nuance," and I think you're right. Taking something away and replacing it with a better--question mark--version of that track when it first went down, you're starting to clone music. And the process of working with Mary where we very consciously worked from songwriter/poet--I said, "Mary, don't try to understand the songwriting aspect of this, bring the poet and then let's make the poet work in these songs and when I need to push the songwriter choices forward, I will. But for the most part, let's try and make the poetry work." Now, the poetry doesn't work all the time in song because the phrasing that you get on the page doesn't have to match a beat, but I do think that performance is more about nuance.
MR: Tarpaper Sky, what a great title. But it also includes fantastic titles such as "Jesus Talk To Mama" and "The Flyboy & The Kid," and I'm curious about what inspired the former. Better yet, can you take us on a tour of the album?
RC: Well, you were asking about "Jesus Talk To Mama," though I live something of a spiritual life, it's not a Christian-based belief system that I thrive behind. However, my mother was a get-down speaking-in-tongues Pentacostal church of God, god-fearing goodwoman. When she was alive she was constantly goading me, "Son, you have this gift for writing songs, why don't you write a sacred song?" A sacred song, or a gospel song--I like the word "Sacred." But I was down in Australia kind of lonely and alone out south of Melbourne and I had a day and I started pondering and I said, "You know what, I'm going to write that song." I had written a couple other sthat would qualify but I wanted to write one specifically to her. Really kind of a love song to my mother. I kind of suppressed my true beliefs and feelings to offer to her what she needed from me. That set the narrative for me, that I had nothing to prove about any grounds that I stand on spiritually, but to write a love song, like a Hallmark page from the bible for my mother.
MR: Wonderful. By the way, what a cool approach "Fever On The Bayou" takes in that last verse. So you have some pretty vulnerable moments on this record, like in "God I'm Missing You."
RC: I'm a vulnerable guy. It might be an interesting for you that the song "Fever On The Bayou" was something the great Will Jennings and I started twenty-five years ago. We had that melody and we were keenly aware that we were borrowing all of the Cajun cliches that had been hanging in the culture for eons and we were assembling them. We kind of got two verses that we could stand behind but we could never come up with a third verse. We were on it for years. Will just said, "You know, maybe we can't squeeze out three verses of that kind of language." Eventually, I gave up on it, and it sat until 2012 when I was in an airport with a musician friend and we were talking about a movie I'd seen called Spanglish. He said, "That's like Franglais." I said, "Franglais?" and he said, "It's French and English." I said, "Oh, that's Cajun!" That's really what the Cajuns have done, they've taken both languages, merged them together and killed the language. The lightbulb went off in my head and I said, "Ah, that's what the last verse can be." I worked on construction crews with Cajun guys who spoke that patois all the time, and none of it really made sense. I'd ask them, "What are you saying?" and they'd tell me and would be part English and part Cajun French. I sat down and did a little research and found some French words that I knew and some French words that I could rhyme and I put themtogether and kind of had a continuation of cliché, really, but it completely worked. I said, "Ah, now I'm in Picasso territory."
MR: Nice, bringing it back to the artistic references. I also wanted to ask you about some of the guests you recorded, such as Vince Gill, John Cowan, Ronnie McCoury, Shannon McNally, and you also have intense players including Jerry Douglas. But this is your musical crew, right? You're very tight with these people.
RC: Yeah, well people ask me why I live in Nashville, especially my Texas friends who have a thing about Nashville. I don't live here because of the corporate music industry, although I respect it because it's put a lot of children through college. But it is a highly creative community and I can pick up the phone and get a hold of Béla Fleck or John Jorgenson or Jerrry Douglas or Stewart Duncan. To me, they define genius and they're generous and love a good collaboration, so I live in Nashville because of the collaboration.
MR: You mentioning that brought Goat Rodeo to mind, where even Yo-Yo Ma joined in for the fun. Rodney, what advice do you have for new artists?
RC: Follow your heart. Pretty much any artist that I know of that has found that mentor status, if they're generous and okay to bestow a bit of mentor-type information, it's do what you feel, not what you think. It's like putting on a suit of clothes and standing in front of the mirror and saying, "Do I look good?" You know those best days are when you get up and throw on your favorite pair of Keds and a good shirt and a jacket that'll keep you warm and maybe drag a comb through your hair. That's, generally speaking, what we love, and I think that's the approach of the artist. And I would say work at it daily, day-in and day-out. Start your morning working on your craft.
MR: You've been successful, you've had many hits as Rodney Crowell and with others covering your originals. But even with all this success, do you ever feel you're still, in some respects, a new artist?
RC: Well, my wife was out of town a couple days ago and we were talking on the phone and she said, "How's it going?" and I said, "You know, I think I can get better at this." And I really do! It was sort of a mild epiphany. I wouldn't call it a knock your head off epiphany, but I said, "I can get better at this," and I know I've been getting better at it for twelve or fifteen years and I feel confident that my competence has grown a lot over that time period. I feel like I'm a realized artist, but hey, the good news is I can get better and I'm going to continue to aim for that. When I listen to Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me" or "Hit The Road, Jack," or if I listen to "Into The Mystic" by Van Morrison or "Smoke Stack Lightning" by Howlin' Wolf--or anything by Lightning Hopkins--I'm not saying I want to do that, but I'd say I want to find that in myself. That's what I want to bring forward.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Stanton Moore
Mike Ragogna: Let's have a conversation about Conversations. You haven't heard that one before, I imagine.
Stanton Moore: Actually not yet.
MR: This is your first straight up jazz album with a wonderful straight-up jazz posse like your buddy Rick Margitza. What inspired all this?
SM: This is going to sound like a long story, but what happened was I worked on a project called Groove Alchemy which was a book and DVD and then when I realized I could put all the grooves I made on there into songs I put them on a record as well. So it was an album, a book, and a DVD and it all started with trying to check out some of the roots of the classic funk and groove beats and not only understand them in themselves but understand the creative processes that some of the guys went through to actually develop some of these things. So long story short it was basically like putting myself in the doctoral program on funk and groove and it took about five years from conception to completion. So afterwards I was like "Wow, that's so much work, I don't know if I want to tackle anything like that again." Of course a couple weeks later I was like, "Okay, what's next?" I decided to kind of put myself through the ringer again, but more on the jazz side of my playing, which has always been a love of mine. I went to school and studied music and business, but in school part of what I was checking out was jazz and I fell in love with that. This entire time I've been shedding and working on the jazz side of my playing and then taking that and modifying it to fit into the funk thing that I do. So most of my fills and ideas and things like that are coming from jazz vocabulary and I just alter them to work in a funk context. So I've been working on all this stuff for a long time, but I haven't really had enough outlets to play in that way musically. A little bit here and there over the years, but not as much as I'd like to. So I decided as I was working on all this stuff to give myself an outlet to play the music, so I put together a piano trio with David Torkanowsky and James Singleton and started playing at Snug Harbor on Tuesdays when I was home. Often on tour, you'll come back on Sunday or Monday and then I can be there on Tuesday, so it was a pretty regular night that I could be in town if I was in town. So I started doing that with those guys and started rehearsing, usually on the day of the gig and playing the gig and recording the gig and going home and listening to it and figuring out what I could improve upon. Not only was I shedding all this stuff but I was checking out transcriptions of a lot of my favorite cats, like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and Max Rhodes.
I'm just really putting myself back in the woodshed, but at the same time, giving myself a musical outlet to develop out musically as well. We started the trio, doing it on Tuesdays because I'd usually be home if it wasn't a long tour. We started doing that and rehearsing during the day and we developed this whole repertoire that was basically New Orleans composers, some of them guys that I'd play with, some of them more my contemporaries, but it was all starting to feel very in our wheelhouse and it was all stuff that we were very comfortable with, stuff that we'd all had some kind of experience playing before and it was all challenging songs, too. So it was really quite a challenge for me and an outlet for me to work on all this stuff that I was refining, and I did it by really putting myself back in the woodshed and creating this trio that I could play regularly with. Once we had done that for about a year, a year and a half, something like that I started feeling like the band was getting to the point where we were feeling comfortable enough and found it good enough that I would want to go in and record it. That's when I started making plans to do that and starting an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the record. So all these things just kind of culminated in me presenting this record that is a side of my playing that in some ways is a return to my roots because I've been doing this for so long and it's what has informed a lot of what I play, but what I present to the public has usually been funk and groove oriented, even though I've been shedding this stuff for years. So in some ways it's a return to roots and a return to ways that I was able to play back when I was developing, I'd play more gigs like this, so it's definitely my roots, but it's also kind of a reinvention in that a lot of the public haven't heard me play in this way yet.
MR: What is it about the New Orleans style that speaks to you?
SM: What I started to realize was the the material we were playing was all stuff that I had heard when I was growing up and it was all stuff that had moved me. Some of these things were played by my mentor Johnny Vidacovich, some of these things I heard from James Black, some was Herline Riley and Shannon Powell, for lack of a better description it's almost like folk music to me. It's things that I've heard for years, things that have been a part of my upbringing, things that are a part of my foundation or a part of my past, and then they're also still challenging songs, so it's something that feels comfortable to approach, this body of tunes that we're working with. Not just the ones on the record but all the tunes of the trio that we either recorded and didn't put on the record or didn't record. But all the material that we play with this group is all trial and error. We'll try something and see what works and it just happens to very naturally and organically have developed into a body of work that mostly is composed by New Orleans composers and mostly stuff that we played before either in one configuration or another.
MR: Do you think this project is sort of the junction point of what you're doing now and everything else you've done over the years?
SM: Oh yeah, for sure. I'm still approaching all of this kind of from a groove aspect, swing is a groove unto itself, too. Playing in 5/4 with Magnolia Triangle or any of the stuff that we're doing, I'm still deeply connected to the pulse and to the groove of what it is at hand. Sometimes it's a little bit more subtle of a groove, sometimes it's a little bit not as spelled out, but to me it's all groove-based blues-based music, basically. So for me, there's a different approach. Of course, I'm playing different drums, and of course I'm playing lighter versions of my signature sticks, but it's all still to me just a slightly different angle on stuff that I've been doing for a long time anyway.
MR: Does it seem like a natural progression of what you'd want to do for a while or is it a one-off type of project?
SM: Yeah, this is definitely a progression I've been wanting to go on for quite a while, to continue doing this. Right now I've been playing sometimes with Delfeayo Marsalis Big Band Uptown Orchestra on Wednesday nights. I've been starting to play more jazz in New Orleans, especially at Snug Harbor, I'm playing there a lot now. I just love it. I love that aspect of being able to walk into a room and everyone is seated and they're there to listen and there's no mic on the drums, so everything is just very organic and acoustic and I love that, especially touring for the last eighteen years with Galactic, playing these big rooms where everything is loud and powerful, which is fun, I love that, but this is a different approach to music. Now, after doing it for a while I'm starting to get very comfortable with it and I'm starting to really dig it.
MR: Do you hope that others are going to join you in this jaunt so you'll have a bunch of contemporaries?
SM: As far as the audience or as far as musicians?
MR: As far as musicians taking a cue from what you did.
SM: Yeah! To get to where I'm at as far as feeling comfortable with it, I've been shedding this stuff constantly throughout the time that I've been with Galactic and now it's taken a while to where I can get comfortable doing it as well, but it's funny that you ask that because we did start a new project with myself and Eddie Roberts the guitar player for The New Mastersounds and Mike Dillon, a percussionist who plays with me in Garage A Trois and we're swinging out. Eddie Roberts and Mike Dillon have checked out a lot of Wes Montgomery and Milt Jackson records that they made together. So we'll play some of those tunes and play some original tunes and play some other standards and stuff, but we have a lot of material to work off of. So those guys are known in more of the groove and jam band world and they've wanted to swing out for a while, too. So yeah, I guess in some ways I am drawing some other cats into this.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SM: For new artists? Start bands. Start projects. For me, everything that I've done, I would start a band. For Galactic I met up with Robert Mercurio and Jeff Raines and we started that thing. Garage A Trois we started that. As for this, I started my own piano trio. With my trio before, the organ trio, I started that trio. By doing that and not waiting for other people to call me I've been able to develop my own voice as an artist, which I think is very important. For me, I've gotten to where I am by starting bands, starting projects, or being on the ground level. Sometimes I get asked to do a superjam and it might not have been my idea, but then it works out great and then we say, "Okay, let's do this some more" and a band starts out of that initial superjam. I'm in a few projects like that, Dragon Smoke, Frequinox, The M&Ms, which is pretty much a superjam that turned into a band, M&Ms is myself, Robert Mercurio the bass player from Galactic, John Medeski and Papa Mali. Dragon Smoke is me and Robert Mercurio and Ivan Neville and Eric Lindell. So I'm in several projects like that, that started from superjams, but also I wanted to develop my playing in a funk organ trio kind of context so I started my organ trio and did three records with that. I wanted to focus more on the jazz side of my playing, so I started a piano trio. My advice to new artists is: Whatever you want to work on, develop a band or a project that'll work on that aspec tof your art. Start bands.
MR: What does the future bring for you?
SM: Hopefully a lot more music. I have a few other things in the works that I'm excited about, but I just want to keep developing this side of my playing. It's exciting and challenging and I love doing it.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more