Six (Or So) Questions For ... Rodney Crowell


He once left Louisiana in the broad daylight.

"If I could have just one wish/Maybe for an hour/I'd want to be a woman/And feel that phantom power"

- Rodney Crowell, on "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design," from "Sex & Gasoline," a new song cycle filled with biting observations and empathetic poetry, pretty much entirely about women.

The Texas-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter (or is it songwriter-singer, given Crowell's success with the pen?) performs Tuesday night at the Birchmere.

Why an album about women?
Because a young woman very close to me was pretty much losing herself to cultural stereotype. Like, if you're not size zero and long-legged and as overtly sexual as Paris Hilton, and you're not heroin-chic skinny like the Calvin Klein ads, then you have no sexual relevance in today's culture. And let's face it, your sexual relevance is a big part of the continuation of the species. The divine intelligence designed it this way so that we would mate and continue.

Somebody very close to me couldn't find her relevance and was getting close to death's door. Certainly, the culture today does not suggest that a really solid spiritual core inside a woman is what makes you relevant. I was bristling about that and I couldn't stop writing the songs. I kept saying that certainly I could take another tact and be more entertaining. But I have to write what I feel, what's relevant to me. And I just couldn't get away from it. And ultimately, I'm glad I did it. Whether I'll have any impact or not, I don't know.

You've always been a self-sufficient guy in the studio, producing your own albums. But Joe Henry produced "Sex & Gasoline." How'd that go?
Liberating! God, what kind of fool have I been? I made this record in five days, then split. I said, "Hey, Joe, mail me a copy when the mixing is done." On all my records leading up to this, I slaved over every note. But those days are over pal. It doesn't have to be that hard. I can write some songs and go and perform 'em and leave? It was an eye-opener, man.

Listen, if you get word that I've gone back to the old way of making records, have somebody come and shoot me. I swear. It's a form of masochism. I told Joe when we began, "You'd be really smart to keep me out of the control room." The first day, I stayed out and enjoyed this kind of freedom. But later on, I went in and listened to have some fun. I didn't listen to what was and wasn't there. Producing my own records, I'd listen to everybody's performances. Doing this record, I just listened to me. I didn't give a darn what anybody else did. And I sounded good!

In the '70s, you played with Emmylou Harris in the Hot Band. "Sex & Gasoline" includes a duet with Phil Everly (on "Truth Decay"). Between the two of them, whose voice is closer to the heavens?
Man. [Long pause.] I think they're the male and female personification of that. I coaxed Phil out of retirement to sing on this record. God, wouldn't it be something to coax him out of retirement again to have him sing with Emmy? That would be the thing. And that's the only way I could tell whose voice is closer to the heavens. Maybe the answer would have to be Emmy and Phil combined. If you look at how Emmy and Graham [Parsons] sounded together, and you look at how Don and Phil sounded together, with that sibling harmony, I guess, you know ... [he sighs].

Boy, that's a hard one. John and Paul had something, too, for the Beatleheads. But I guess I gotta go with the two voices, and you've gotta go with Don and Phil. But Emmy is probably closer to the heavens because she's already an angel. She elevates you. When you step into Emmy's realm, it's impossible not to be elevated. It's her gift.

(Crowell on country radio, his "Minnie Mouse" vocals and Nashville politics after the jump.)

Twenty years ago, you released an album, "Diamonds & Dirt," that not only got great critical notice, but was also a commercial hit, with five No. 1 country singles ("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"). Given the current state of country radio and the sorts of songs stations have in rotation these days, do you think you'd get the slightest sniff if that same album came out today?
Not at all. Not even close. That was then; this is now. But understand: That's not to say that that album couldn't have inspired some 28-year-old lad from east Houston who's in development now to write a batch of songs and make a record somewhat like "Diamonds & Dirt" and, because they're new to the scene, they might make a crack in the facade and get through. But if I made a record like that? No.

And I honestly think I make better records now than I did then. I do. I say that carefully because there are people who will argue with me and say, "I like your old records better." Fine, then listen to them. But I know what I'm doing. And when I say I do better work now, I'm not talking about the songwriting so much. I'm talking about the recordingartist. I'm a better singer. As a younger singer, I was scared to death to hear my voice. It sounded like Minnie Mouse to me. I hated it. And you can't do good work when that's going on. I gotta be honest: I hear my voice now, and I go, "Daggum, that's pretty cool."

Minnie Mouse?
Well, close. I've got a license to exaggerate. A more accurate description would be that it sounded so thin and so unrealized. Now that I look back on it, even when I was making "Diamonds & Dirt," I was going: "God, if I could just sing, I could really nail this." And it wasn't true. I could sing those songs good for that time. But by the time I came back and made "Houston Kid," I actually liked what I heard. Boy, that was a relief. It was an epiphany.

Music Row is generally a Republican kind of place...
Oh, you reckon? [Laughs.]

Umm, yeah. But you've made no secret about the fact that you're a Democrat, or at least not a Republican.
I'm an independent.

Well, as a non-Republican, do you still get invited to parties in Nashville? Or have you become, like, recording artist non grata?
I used to get invited to a lot of football games. I don't anymore. I've noticed that since Bush took office, all my invitations to Titans games have disappeared. ... Between the blue and the red aspects of Nashville, this is sort of the model - and I can't cry about this: If they want to get a voice for the red, for the right, the people willing to speak up are the ones making a lot of money - the current stars. And whenever somebody goes fishing around in the blue puddle, looking to speak up for the left, they're going to get me, Emmylou, Steve Earle, Raul Malo, John David Souther.

As recorded artists, we're not making as much money as the so-called Republicans. They're making a lot more money than us, selling a lot of records, selling out arenas. Some of the guys I can joke with, and I kid them: "You're aligning yourself with the right because there's more money." That's what it is. But that doesn't mean there are people making good money who don't lean the other way and are sympathetic to the issues that concern Emmy and Raul Malo. They just know that if they speak up, they're going to lose some of their foothold.

But look, it's not about Republican and Democrat with me. It's about humanity. What really moves you: Humanity or greed?

By J. Freedom du Lac |  October 20, 2008; 1:42 AM ET Interviews
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Great post. Rodney is still a relevant artist, after his commercial peak in the late eighties. I have to agree with him - I think he's doing better work now than then. Though I do like to old stuff as well.

Posted by: Good Gravy | October 20, 2008 11:13 AM

Crowell's show at the Birchmere Tuesday night was the most moving performance I've ever seen -- and the first time I think I've ever seen a mid-concert standing ovation from the crowd there.

Posted by: DougHerbert | October 23, 2008 7:53 PM

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