Rodney Crowell’s Journey: From Bars and Church Choirs to Diamonds and Dirt
Imagine that you grew up in a remote Texastown with a population of about three thousand. On Saturday nights you played drums in your dad’s honky-tonk band, and on Sunday mornings you went to church with your grandfather, who was the choir director. If there’s a better musical background to spawn a future country star, nobody’s found it yet.
Imagine that as soon as you finished school you putTexasin your rear view mirror and headed forNashvilleto push the songs you’d written, and try to break through the corporate barrier and get your material heard by the right people. Before long you get acquainted with Jerry Reed, then with Guy Clark. Emmylou Harris records your song “Till I Gain Control Again” on her “Elite Hotel” album, invites you to sit in for a gig (inTexas!), then asks you to join her backup band, and in a flash you find yourself on an airliner bound for Los Angeles.
That’s how, in a nutshell, Rodney Crowell–who headlines the Saturday show at this weekend’s Beartrap Summer Festival–got his start in the music business. And though he “broke through” much faster than many singer/songwriters, he’s made it clear in the years since that he was not a flash in the pan.
Not only has his songwriting and recording output been especially prolific, a surprisingly wide range of artists have covered his material. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band recorded Crowell’s “Shame on the Moon,” with Glenn Frey sitting in on harmony vocal. The Oak Ridge Boys covered “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Oddest crossover of all, perhaps, is his single “Sing: Chapter 1″ that was written for a Wynona Judd album, and ended up as seven different electronic dance EP remixes, one of which reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart.
The most intense single concentration of Crowell’s innate songwriting chops can be found on his 1988 album “Diamonds and Dirt.” It was his first recorded entirely inNashville, and his first to be aimed squarely at a mainstream Country audience. The material hit its target, big-time, setting a record for the most songs from a single album (five) to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts: “It’s Such a Small World,” “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy for Leaving,” “After All This Time”, and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love).”
In 1979 Crowell married Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, and spun both his and Roseanne’s music into new orbits. He took a detour from his own work to meticulously produce some of her best albums, but he also credits her as a significant influence on his songwriting during the period. They collaborated on a number of duets, the best-known of which is probably 1988’s “It’s Such a Small World.” Crowell and Cash divorced in 1992, but are on good terms and occasionally do a concert together. They have three grown daughters: Caitlin, Chelsea, and Carrie, and also raised Rodney’s daughter Hannah from a previous marriage. In 1998 he married Claudia Church, a country singer fromNorth Carolina. The two met while shooting a music video.
Crowell’s newest project brings his career full circle across 40 years to its beginnings, with his first employer and longtime friend Emmylou Harris: the duet album “Old Yellow Moon.” The tour for it, he says, has been one of the high points of his career: “Matching my voice to Emmy’s voice when we’re performing a song at night, it puts you in a place where the song, the melody, is more important than the attention you’re drawing to yourself as a solo artist. It’s a great place to be on the stage.”
Singing harmony on stage with anybody is far more enjoyable than a solo performance, Crowell says, and he marks it up to human nature: “It’s like in church. One person singing alone in the night, that’s a good thing. You know, it has a certain sound. It calls out to you in the night. But then when there are voices raised together, there’s some kind of joy that comes into it. And this joy becomes sweet and to be shared. And you know, the culture we come from, when someone sings we just naturally go to the harmony part. I don’t think I could sing in unison with somebody.”