Rodney Crowell Paints a Portrait of Loss, Aging on ‘Close Ties’
Rodney Crowell might not burn up mainstream country radio charts with any of the songs from his new album, Close Ties. And while that might not be easy to accept, the legendary singer-songwriter doesn't let those kinds of concerns affect the art he creates. His job, Crowell argues, is simply to write the best songs that he can and trust his audience to find and appreciate them.
"I'm under-appreciated, of course," Crowell tells Taste of Country on a recent afternoon by telephone, adding, "That's their loss."
That kind of defiant honesty isn't just a defense mechanism for the iconic singer-songwriter. It's a different way of looking at the picture than many commercial artists, one that values the quality of any given song far more than any chart position it might attain. Several of the songs on Close Ties stand alongside any of the best of Crowell's long career, and he doesn't even attempt to pay any kind of lip service to any of the trends in country music on the collection of 10 tracks, which eschew slick production for a very raw, organic sound that places the emphasis on the lyrics and melodies.
It's an evolution that Crowell himself did not imagine back in 1988, when he scored one of the biggest commercial breakthroughs in country music history with his fifth studio album, Diamonds & Dirt. That album placed an astonishing five consecutive No. 1 singles, but over the course of the ensuing decades, Crowell has been anything but commercially predictable in his musical choices, carving out a career as one of the most awarded and respected songwriters in the world even as his commercial fortunes have varied.
Crowell addresses that fact with biting wit in one of his new songs, "I Don't Care Anymore," which finds the legend openly mocking his younger self. That track provides a respite from material that is freighted with loss and mortality on Close Ties, which was informed by the deaths of several very close friends and musical forces in Crowell's life. As he tells us in the interview below, the album was a long process fraught with emotional ups and downs for the Grammy-winning music legend.
ToC: Did the title Close Ties come before the project, or later in the process?
RC: It came very late in the project. [Laughs]. I was poring through all of my poetry books, thinking, 'There's a phrase in here that's gonna be just right to sum up this album.' And I just came up with nothing. And then I was thinking about the song "I'm Tied to Ya," what that really meant. Several of my very close friends -- five, to be exact -- passed away during the writing of the songs. At least eight of the songs that are on the album. And that's when I thought, 'I had really close ties with these people that are gone.' It found its way into the writing.
Was that the impetus for the record?
No. The impetus for the record is, I like to make records, and I consider myself an album artist. I finish up one, and I'm writing songs for another. It's similar to a painter who wants to do another collection and show. These albums are basically how we show these songs we've written, so it wasn't the impetus to write the songs. It just happened to be what was coming to pass in my day-to-day life as I was writing the songs. So bits and pieces of that find its way into the narrative.
One of my biggest songs ever was Bob Seger's version of 'Shame on the Moon,' and I'm still re-writing that song. I'm gonna get it!
Which was the first song you wrote for the album, and how did it inform the subsequent songs?
Actually, "I'm Tied to Ya," I started that song in 1997 when I was in a cultural exchange in Ireland, writing songs with Irish songwriters. I had the melody and the verses, and the Irishman that I was collaborating with had that really beautiful B melody. But I never really wrote the right words for it until it came to pass that Sheryl Crow and I were gonna collaborate on a song. I realized, 'I have the makings of a duet.' So as it turned out, "I'm Tied to Ya" was the very first song I started as far back as 1997, and I finished it not long before I recorded it with Sheryl. I wrote the words that she sings just a month and a half before she recorded them.
That's quite a long time. Is that a normal thing for you, to work on a song that long?
[Laughs]. I've worked on 'em 30 years before.
When you finish one, do you consider it finished and put it to bed, or do you still tinker with older songs that are already recorded?
One of my biggest songs ever was Bob Seger's version of "Shame on the Moon," and I'm still re-writing that song. I'm gonna get it! That's one's what, 40 years in the making? The last verse of that song was never right. [Laughs].
Who was the inspiration behind "Life Without Susanna"?
My friend Susanna Clark [Guy Clark's wife] died, and I knew I wanted to write a song about her, for her. I knew it had to be a love song of some kind, because I loved her, and in the end, I said I would not be doing any kind of service to what she meant to me if I didn't make this as truthful as I could possibly make it, which means the raw truth. I knew I wanted to write a song that's the very rawest truth I can drag out of myself, and from that point on it's a matter of, "Okay, tell me what it is." You get up every day and you go back to work until you find it.
The album kicks off with "East Houston Blues." There's a line in there that sticks out that says, "If there's a god above, he's got it in for me." [Laughs]. Even though you've had a lot of success, do you see yourself in an underdog sense?
I'm under-appreciated, of course. As probably I should be. The underdog place is ... you know, my wife would tell me, "You're so revered. People hold you in such high esteem." And I would say, "No, I'm undervalued." And she says, "Well, okay ... if you need to come at it from that angle, if that keeps the carrot in the right place, then go ahead and think that." So I think it's better to think you're undervalued than overvalued.
I was lucky that early on, for a while I had the ability to articulate broad stroke love themes like "Please Remember Me" and things like that, and I wrote a lot of hit songs. But the last 15, 17 years that doesn't interest me as much as my singular sensibility interests me. It makes my audience smaller, but it's the audience that's the most attentive.
Realistically, once you pass a certain age country radio is not going to pay attention no matter what you release.
Yeah. Well, that's their loss.
"I Don't Care Anymore" is a song in which you're not afraid to look at yourself in an unsparing light.
By the end of that song, I was laughing. As the bridge says, I was taking the piss out of myself, because I stumbled onto my 1988 album cover on Diamonds & Dirt, looked at that guy on there and said, "Wow, I can't relate to that guy." [Laughs]. "Look at that ... got a wife beater on, got a bolo tie and mullet hair." I just started taking the piss out of that guy, and then the song just took its own form. I was just laughing my way through "I Don't Care Anymore."
I certainly don't care anymore about all of the things that the 1988 version of myself would have cared about -- whether I was cool, or accepted, those insecurities that you have when you're younger. Those are gone, but I care more than I did then. To be earning a living as an artist at any time, any place is kinda the ultimate gift that you can receive from the universe, and I'm very much aware of that. I get to do exactly what I want to do.
I think back in the '80s when I was having hits all the time, I took it for granted. I don't take it for granted now. It's my work and I'm lucky to have it, and I love it. I love the work. I'm very grateful that I was given the ability to create.
"It Ain't Over Yet" is a really cool track, and of course it features two interesting guests. What's the story behind the track, and what led to Rosanne Cash and John Paul White appearing on it?
My friend Guy Clark was passing away, and I was aware that that's where it was going a good while before. In the last six months of Guy's life, five of those months I was writing that song, and more or less writing it to him, but also writing it to myself.
The opening verse about the rickety legs and watery eyes, that's impressions that I gleaned from my friend as his body was failing him. The second verse is sort of a fusion of what I'd experienced as we had our successes and failures, and then the last verse is pretty much about me in relation to my older friend Guy, who was 9 years older than me, and wiser than me. The choruses that John Paul sings are from the perspective of a younger friend saying, "Hey, hang on, it ain't over." That's what I was writing to Guy as that was happening.
Guy was a heavy smoker, and I'd say, "One more cigarette ain't gonna send you to your grave. Come on, man, just be who you are." So that's a love song, too, but the narrative part, the bridge part that Rosanne sings was written from the point of view of things that Susanna had said to both of us over the years. She always chided us and made fun of us because we were competitive. We had that friendly competition about trying to one-up each other with songs. She always felt that was silly and had nothing to do with art.
I knew Rosanne was the right voice for that from the moment I wrote it. John Paul was a wonderful discovery for me. He came in and he blew us away. Beautiful voice, and he's also a wonderful guy, and he's become my friend, somebody I value a lot.
"Storm Warning" really sticks out of the record stylistically. What was the inspiration for that?
Mary Karr and I were writing songs a few years ago that became an album called Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell. We wrote that song during that season of songwriting, which also happened to be around the same time that a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Mo. There was also a really bad outbreak of tornadoes that came through here and hit down in Alabama. It was a really heavy outbreak of tornadoes, ending with the one that really demolished Joplin, Mo., and people who say there's no climate change, they haven't lived here long enough. Tornadoes the last 10 or 15 years around here, I've lived here a long time, and it's recent stuff.
I kinda started "Storm Warning" about that, and it was left over from 2012. It is the most electric-sounding thing on the record.
What are some of your own personal favorites among the songs on Close Ties?
I have a real thing for "Forty Miles From Nowhere" as a piece of writing. It's in a place in the sequence of a record where you either discover it or you don't. It was a very enjoyable piece of writing and recording for me. I like everything about it. The song is basically, I was pondering grief, and what if I was in a position -- and this again comes from the loss of these close ties -- what I was in the position of widower? What might that be like? And I wrote that song by putting myself in those places of what it might be like if I lost Claudia. Which is not likely to happen. I think I'm the one who will wear myself out before her. But I really enjoyed the process of writing that song and recording it.
I think back in the '80s when I was having hits all the time, I took it for granted. I don't take it for granted now.
You have tour dates coming up. How many of the new songs will you be playing at upcoming dates?
Potentially 9 of them.
That's a lot of new material to offer people.
One of the things about my audience is, as I said, it being a smaller audience but paying really close attention, they're happy if I say, "Hey, I'm going to play you my new album," and play them 9 new songs. "Storm Warning" is hard to re-create, but I could do all 10 of them, really, because the songs have to work without production, or I'm not going to record them. All of my songs work without production, so I can just stand up and play them with just a guitar.
I have a real fine acoustic trio with me, and we can do about anything. We're very nimble, and the audience is perfectly happy to go where I wanna go. They seem especially happy when I dish them up something from 1988 or 1978. They seem very appreciative of that, but they're very tolerant of my insistence that I'm not an oldies act. If I'm not good enough based on the music and the things I'm creating now, I should stand down. They seem to support that notion.
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