“Time to go inward,” Rodney Crowell sings on the same-named cut from last year’s Fate’s Right Hand, “[to] take a look at myself.
“Time to go inward,” he adds. “Would you believe that I’m afraid?”
And as if that weren’t enough, when Crowell tosses off a list of heavies associated with some of our most fundamental notions of good and true — Jesus, Buddha, Krishna — he caps it with Grand Ole Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl.
Let it be noted, then, that Rodney Crowell, at age 53, is making the bravest, most honest — and most fun — music of his long career.
Crowell predates that nagging little “alt” being shoved in front of “country” to denote rock ‘n’ roll’s dirty encroachment on pristine Music Row. Yet few have blurred those genres so often, or so well.
His star began ascending in the mid-’70s, when Emmylou Harris — enamored of Crowell’s “‘Til I Gain Control Again” and “Bluebird Wine” — asked him to join her new Hot Band as rhythm guitarist, harmony vocalist and songwriter.
“Bluebird Wine” and “‘Til I Gain Control Again” are now Harris classics. (Her take on the latter song is the only real competition with Crowell’s own version, though the cut has since been tackled by Canadian country-rockers Blue Rodeo, and by ’80s indie-noir London collective This Mortal Coil.)
By 1990, Crowell the solo artist had landed a Grammy for Best Country Song for the pedal-steel-dripping “After All This Time,” one of an unprecedented five chart-toppers off a single album, Crowell’s milestone Diamonds and Dirt (Columbia, 1989).
Among those hits was “It’s Such a Small World,” a duet with Roseanne Cash, then Crowell’s wife, and daughter of the legendary Man in Black. Crowell was, for a time, the Golden Boy in Nashville’s Golden Couple.
And since the very beginning, countless performers — Patty Loveless, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, Highway 101, et al. — have mined his songbook for their own bit of shiny success, though often burying Crowell’s sublime balance of intelligence and pop savvy under layers of studio dross.
“Y’know, certainly, I wrote my share of hit songs, and that’s all well and good,” Crowell commented in a candid phone interview from his Nashville home. “And I’ll probably continue to do that by and by to subsidize the art.
“But it’s that human thing that I’m most interested in.”
The human thing
Crowell pulled the plug on his increasingly glitzy, two-tour-bus career in 1994, stepping into the life of family man — concentrating on his second marriage and spending time with his daughters.
When he returned to recording seven years later, The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill) sparkled with a stripped-back sound (we now call it Americana) and beefier lyrics than ever.
Fate’s Right Hand (DMZ/Epic), Crowell’s 11th album of new material, came out last September. Frequently astonishing, it’s a word-drunk package of surprising musical turns and often uncanny emotional balance — between life and a creeping sense of mortality, between regret and hard-won humor.
“All I’m doing is writing what I know,” Crowell insists. “That’s all I have to offer.”
Critical response has been on par with a collective swoon — “surpasses anything he’s done in the past” (The Austin Chronicle), “his masterpiece” (Harp), “brilliantly human” (Billboard).
But Crowell makes a point of ignoring all that stuff.
“I don’t read reviews,” he admits, “and if I know I’m on TV, I’ll leave the room. I find, personally, that self-consciousness is the enemy of good art.
“I’m doin’ the best work that I’ve ever done as a recording artist,” Crowell asserts. “I don’t need anybody to tell me that; I know it. I don’t mean that in any kind of arrogant way; I think the best way to approach that [understanding] is with humility and grace, and to continue to use what I learn each time out and apply it to the next [project].”
The company of giants
When the dirt-poor Houston Kid first hit Nashville in ’72, he found his way to Bishop’s Pub, a hangout for songwriters’ songwriters: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Olney, Harlan White and others.
“Guy was basically the curator of the craft of getting to great songs,” notes Crowell, to whom Clark had soon taken a shine.
“Of course, I came [to Nashville] as a Dylan and John Lennon fan,” Crowell adds. “But Guy put me physically in the scenario where the art was being created. At that particular time, there was no other consideration; there were no economic considerations.”
Not so these days: “Now the young songwriter, 21 years old, comes to Nashville and he hooks up with a publishing company, and the first thing that they start driving into his psyche is writing something for whoever’s recording down on Music Row. [He] does not even remotely entertain the notion of cultivating his own art.
“Those late-night, drunken, stoned-out song sessions [at Bishop’s] were never about who was recording,” Crowell reveals. “They were about, ‘Where are you getting with [your writing]?’ It really became my mission to be able to whip out a song among those songwriters that would hold its own.”
When he tossed off “Bluebird Wine” and “‘Till I Gain Control Again,” even tough-nut Van Zandt took notice.
“Guy patted me on the head and said, ‘OK, now you’re gettin’ somewhere.'”