Clip: Rodney Crowell makes music outside the country -- and country's -- mainstream
Rodney Crowell makes music outside the country -- and country's --
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, September 29, 2005
When Rodney Crowell says he's in the "faith-based" phase of writing a new
album, he's quite consciously reclaiming that culturally charged phrase
from the manipulative political machinations of the current administration
in Washington, D.C.
For Crowell, the country-music veteran who performs Saturday, Oct. 1, at
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the paths of
spirituality and politics intersect at a place George W. Bush wouldn't
That's certainly one reason Crowell called his latest CD The Outsider. In
the 1970s and '80s, it seemed like everything he wrote turned to Nashville
gold or platinum. His songs (including "Till I Gain Control Again,"
"Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," "Shame on the Moon" and
"Somewhere Tonight") were popularized by Emmylou Harris (he was a member of
her seminal Hot Band in the 1970s), Rosanne Cash (his former wife), the Oak
Ridge Boys, Crystal Gale and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and he had his own
hits with "Ashes by Now," "Stars on the Water," "It's Such a Small World,"
"I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried" and more.
Now, although he gets major-label distribution, Crowell makes records that
not only fall well outside the constricted boundaries of the country
mainstream but that also express sentiments diametrically opposed to
governmental policies, social priorities and dominant cultural values. But
while he's something of an outsider, he says that's not what he had in mind
when he wrote the title track to the new album.
"To me, the outsider is God," Crowell explained in a recent phone interview
from Nashville. "If you take extreme fundamentalist Muslims, who believe
it's sent down from Allah that destroying the infidel is their duty, and
then if you take the extreme fundamentalists on the Christian right, God
got disenfranchised somewhere in that deal a long, long time ago. The
minute you start saying 'I'm the only one that's right,' you have lost it,
as far as I'm concerned."
The Outsider is the third album of a recent Crowell trilogy that may well
develop into a longer series of life explorations. On The Houston Kid
(2001), Crowell looked back at growing up; Fate's Right Hand (2003) was an
introspective examination of his adult life; and The Outsider comments on a
culture of selfish materialism, as in "The Obscenity Prayer": "Give to me
my tax cut outsource / Build me my own private golf course / The Dixie
Chicks can kiss my ass / But I still need that backstage pass."
Like the Dixie Chicks, Crowell has felt "the chill" of right-wing reaction
to the political implications of his latest songs. "The right, the real
extreme conservatives, they swarm on you like bees," he said. "The
left-of-center liberals, we're many splintered. This is a piece of work for
those people, but they need to take some responsibility and come get it. I
don't think the corporate system is geared to reach the left, so I think
the lefties need to make themselves more available. But by the same token,
it's not for me to say the work warrants the swarm. I feel more like the
Fuller Brush salesman than anything right now. I just have to go door to
door, knock on the door and say, 'I got a good product here and I think
this might be good for you.' The cavalry ain't gonna ride in on our behalf."
Like many of his contemporaries in Americana music, including the highly
political Steve Earle (also featured at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass) and John
Prine (who has taken heat for his song "Some Humans Ain't Human" and its
lines: "Or you're feeling your freedom / And the world's off your back /
Some cowboy from Texas / Starts his own war in Iraq"), Crowell is making a
point just by exercising his right to free speech.
"Unfortunately, 9/11 crystallized some misconceptions that made some people
unable to realize that really healthy dissent is in truth more supportive
of those poor soldiers being sent to get slaughtered than this blind
allegiance to a certain political regime," Crowell said. "It's like the
Earth is flat and we're gonna walk off the edge of it. It causes me a
certain amount of dismay. I realize that Americans are innocent -- only
seven percent of our population even owns a passport. But man, I'll tell
you, I don't think corporate America and the political regimes meet in an
innocent place, and they don't mind using the innocence of Americans in a
If it sometimes seems that songwriters like Crowell, Earle, Prine, Loudon
Wainwright and others are bringing Bob Dylan's 1960s mode of social
criticism into the 21st century, Crowell is happy to grant that point. On
The Outsider, he and Emmylou Harris sing a duet version of Dylan's "Shelter
from the Storm." Crowell opens the new song "Beautiful Despair" with the
confession, "Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan when you're drunk at 3 a.m.
/ Knowing that the chances are no matter what you'll never write like him."
And he seems to make a musical nod to Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only
Bleeding)" on "Dancin' Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)."
"'It's Alright, Ma' would be the prototype for that tune, I freely admit,"
Crowell acknowledged. "When I was 12 years old, or however old I was when
Bringing It All Back Home came out, I'd just skip back and forth endlessly
between 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and 'It's Alright, Ma' and 'Mr.
Tambourine Man,' and now my Dylan roots are showing big time."
Unlike so many classic '60s Dylan songs, Crowell's "Beautiful Despair" is
deliberately haiku-like in its minimal use of words to capture the feeling
the songwriter was after. Crowell calls it his "favorite bit of writing"
and offered a detailed explanation of its origin: "It came from sitting on
the floor with a fellow in Belfast, a friend of mine who's a barrister in
the court system there -- he wears a white wig and everything, but he has a
poet's soul. We were just sitting on his floor -- he keeps his speakers on
the floor, I like that -- with a party going on overhead, and we're
listening to [Dylan's] 'Every Grain of Sand,' which is one of the most
fully realized, beautiful bits of songwriting in our culture. When it was
over we just looked at each other. It was about 3 a.m., truly, and my
friend just turned to me and he said, 'You know what? That's on a par with
Byron or Shelley or Walt Whitman, and I'll drink the rest of my life
because I'll never write like that.' And that just slayed me. It was such a
generous show of who he was, and the next morning the phrase beautiful
despair hit me. And once those two words hit me, I said, 'Oh, I know, I
know what this is.' So I got to the hotel in Dublin and took the dictation.
When I flew home, I went straight into the studio and it just fell right
out, the arrangement and everything."
Which circles us back to what Crowell means by "faith-based" songwriting.
"When I'm at my best," he explained, "I let the songs tell me what they
want to be." But patience is something he's had to relearn. "I started out
that patient," Crowell noted, "and I innocently hit an electric commercial
streak, writing some songs and making some music that was just an
exploration of a particular moment in my creative path but struck a chord
in the country part of the culture at the time. Unfortunately for me, it
sent me into a bit of self-consciousness where I sort of abandoned the
patience and started thinking, 'Oh, I've made money for these people, now
I've got to make more money for them.' The funny thing about me is I was
twisted enough that I didn't think about the money I was making for myself.
I come from a lack of privilege, post-Depression era people, and we would
never presume that we possessed the worthiness to strike it rich on our
own. So it sent me into trying to write hits, and it's not my favorite time
of my -- would you call it a legacy? -- my career. That's the point where I
got self-conscious, and self-consciousness is the enemy of good art. You've
got to come from the innocent, subconsciously clear place."
And how did he recover the patience that allowed him to await the arrival
of songs for his 21st century trio of brilliant, contemplative,
philosophical and socially conscious albums? "I just walked away from [the
commercial career] and let it dismantle itself," Crowell said. "I bit the
bullet and crossed over that threshold to the realization that I may not be
a big star in this thing. Maybe my path is something else. So I just
started driving my kids to school and looking out after them. I stumbled
onto a fantastic woman and built a relationship and became more solid
inside myself and went back to work with a different mind-set, which is to
please myself, because it's the only way I can be original."
Rodney Crowell & The Outsiders perform at 2:40 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1, at
the 5th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate
Park, SF. Admission free.