At first glance, a statement on an artist’s own website that, “as many say, your favourite song was probably written by Rodney Crowell” sounds a little exaggerated. But as a quiet giant of the americana scene himself for over half a century, and whose work primarily as a songwriter, but also as a producer and musician have also contributed to such a wide and deep range of other top artists’ careers, you could actually wind up concluding it’s an understatement. In fact, Rodney Crowell has been so much a part of the americana woodwork in so many ways and for so long, without ever hitting mega-stardom status but briefly in the late 1980s, that he sometimes risks getting taken for granted: it’s actually that hard to imagine americana without him.
Look at Crowell’s career in terms of individual output and it’s impressive enough: 22 albums and counting, excluding supergroups, live albums and guest appearances and not to mention a new LP, ‘The Chicago Sessions’ soon to be released. His 1988 album ‘Diamonds and Dust‘ was the first album to contain five number one songs on the Hot Country Songs charts in one fell swoop, then he’s had another ten number ones on top of that. However, where Crowell truly knocks it out of the park is the mind-bendingly long and prestigious list of artists who’ve either included a Crowell song on one of their albums and/or co-written songs with him. To name but a few and in no particular order: Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lucinda Williams, Waylon Jennings, Jeff Tweedy, Keith Urban, Van Morrison, Alison Krauss, Bob Seger, Jewel, Dolly Parton, The Grateful Dead, Wynona Judd and Chris Stapleton are all there in some shape or form.
In some cases, like Emmylou Harris, his ‘Bluebird Wine’ opens her breakthrough second album in 1975 and four decades and innumerable collaborations later they co-wrote and sang on two albums, ‘Old Yellow Moon’ (winner of a Grammy) and ‘The Travelling Kind.’ In others, like Keith Urban, his version of Crowell’s ‘Making Memories of Us’, was at the top of the charts in 2005 for five weeks flat. In yet others, one of his most famous songs, ’Til I Gain Control Again’, has been covered by dozens of artists. But in any case, the list just goes on and on. Then there are the eras Crowell spans. At the risk of some wild generalisation, it runs all the way from the outlaw-country of the mid-1970s through to the silky smooth mega-hits of the 1980s country rock scene, the classic, southern rock sounds of the 90s and noughties and the more whimsical, folk-driven vein of the last ten years. And he’s never been a mute witness: watch ‘Heartworn Highways’, the 1970s legendary film of the Nashville folk-country scene and you’ll see Crowell is there, strumming along with Steve Earle, Guy Clark and all the rest. Then just a few days ago, AUK ran an article about his forthcoming album, co-written with Jeff Tweedy, the aforementioned ‘The Chicago Sessions’.
In between and to shamelessly lift a few pieces of random background information from Wikipedia, he’s played rhythm guitar for one of Emmylou Harris’s backing bands in the 1970s, produced several of his ex-wife Rosanne Cash’s albums in the 1980s, written two books about his career and his songwriting, been musical director for a Hank Williams biopic in 2015 and even figures prominently in musician-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s ‘The World in Six Songs’, for which he was interviewed. But it’s far from being all about him, either. In 2021, as my colleague Tim Martin wrote, Crowell masterminded ‘Songs from Quarantine’. These were two albums designed as benefits during the pandemic for the Music Health Alliance, a non-profit charity based in Nashville that, at a time when many musicians were suffering badly from a simultaneous loss of income and increased risk of health issues, tried to fill the gap of being “music’s resource for healthcare solutions and access”.
All this and we barely got onto talking about what he’s actually written. It was tempting to make this article 10 Essential Albums, given the scale of his output. But as so many of Crowell’s songs form part of other artists’ repertoires as well, it will do no harm at all to remind fans who’s actually written them – and show how outstanding an artist and performer Crowell is in his own right as well.
Number 10: ’Come on Funny Feeling’ from ‘Fate’s Right Hand’ (2003)
Not one of Crowell’s best-known songs, but on an album which confirmed there was life in the ol’ dog yet after a rare unproductive patch in the late 1990s. Amidst all the profusion of finely crafted work on ‘Fate’s Right Hand’ ’Come on Funny Feeling’ is one of its zippiest, brightly paced tracks that kind of jumps up and down, loyal canine-like, and begs to be noticed, but without any risk of ripping your arm off. So when a song like this one comes along, wearing its literacy lightly on its sleeve with its passing references to poems like Rilke’s ‘Panther’, and simultaneously bursting with typically vivid imagery, energy and good-humoured determination not to let the bastards grind you down, it’s impossible to resist.
Number 9: ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ from ‘Close Ties’ (2017)
Depicting landscapes and their atmosphere in a way that’s simultaneously concise and evocative is one of Crowell’s specialities. And this description of Crowell’s home in Tennessee, from the bees that swarmed a few years back “too wet the old man said” to the cedar grove on the hill “A few gravestones, a pre-civil war fence and the random arrowhead” and the house itself “The floorboards creak and faucets leak, but it’s the emptiness that sings” all as a melancholy backdrop to a vivid, painful picture of (thankfully imagined) widowhood is simply stunning.
Number 8: ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’ from ‘Diamonds And Dirt’ (1988)
One of the five number ones from his most commercially successful album, and a co-write with one of his best friends and the biggest influences on songwriting, the late, great Guy Clark, who recorded it himself back in 1981 on an album Crowell produced. Poignant tongue-in-cheek humour on a searing rockabilly number is never going to sound bad.
Number 7: ‘This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am’ from ‘Triage (2021)
In 2017, Crowell was diagnosed with dysautonomia, a condition where the nervous system doesn’t work properly, and which as he put himself, offers symptoms of “more or less everything the medical community can’t readily prescribe medicine for”, Then three years later suffered from a brief, but no less scary, case of transient global amnesia. So if his work was already often very reflective, as the pandemic kicked in and with these illnesses as personal background, that element got cranked up to even more intense levels. Which leads us to ‘Triage’, and ‘This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am’. The song title is quite a mouthful to manage as a chorus, but a guide to handling growing old gracefully, thoughtfully and with a spring in your step even as the shadows gather, all packaged in an infectiously melodic mid-paced ballad, it can’t be matched.
Number 6: ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ from ‘Rodney Crowell’ (1981)
Probably his best-known song of all, covered by everybody from Van Morrison to Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson to (wait for it) 1980s Gothic dream pop band This Mortal Coil. The narrator has messed things up with their partner, knows it’s too late, but wants to continue just in case they miraculously get things back on track. So it’s got all the classic tropes of head versus heart, bleak reality versus desperate hope, trying to turn the clock back versus knowing it’s impossible, expressed within the Crowell trademark approach of boiling down life’s complexities to something accessible and immensely listenable. A three-minute tear-jerker with a capital T.
Number 5: ‘God I’m Missing You’ from ‘Tarpaper Sky’ (2014)
One of Crowell’s stand-out albums, for which he reassembled some of the band that had worked with him on ‘Diamonds and Dirt‘, and a song which had already appeared on the highly recommendable 2012 album, ‘KIN’, jointly created by Crowell and poet Mary Karr. As he once told USA Today, “the song began its life as a poem Mary was working on that I more or less hijacked, throwing a guitar riff and melody into the mix of what was shaping up to be a lovely poem. Mary had the line ‘there’s a sanded-down moon’ to which I added ‘in a tarpaper sky’ and — voila! — an album title was born.” A heart-breaker originally sung by Lucinda Williams, Crowell’s comparatively understated, even-handed take allows its hard-bitten lyrics more of a chance to breathe on their own account – and the whole song blasts off into emotional space as a result.
Number 4: ‘Frankie Please’ from ‘Tarpaper Sky’ (2014)
Lyrically, it’s hard to get any better than this blistering rocker, musically and arrangement-wise straight out of the Jerry Lee Lewis/Chuck Berry handbook, but in terms of words on the page, this particular apprentice is surely keeping pace of his musical forefathers and maybe even getting a little ahead. h“Frankie please, don’t ever give me the deep freeze,
And your Ps and Qs and don’ts and dos are all the news to light my fuse” is just one example of that. But as songs go, ‘Frankie Please’ is not just a blast of fun and spontaneous Saturday night energy. Like the best pure rock’n’roll, it’s delivered with absolute relish and dazzling polish and at devil-may-care, break-neck-speed, and while it’s shot through with the faultless production that is one of Crowell’s perpetual saving graces, it’s got another – classy, sassy humour – written all over it from start to finish as well. Just brilliant.
Number 3: ‘Earthbound’ from ‘Fate’s Right Hand’ (2003)
‘Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet Jump back in the alley and nanny goats”
If the sorely missed Ian Dury had been Texan and written lines like the above from his famous ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3’ song while knocking back a Lone Star beer and wearing a Stetson, you wonder if he might have come up with something like ‘Earthbound’. That’s because, distances and styles notwithstanding, like ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ was for Dury, ‘Earthbound’ is an equally resoundingly upbeat, left-field, faultlessly arranged song by another genius wordsmith, in the latter case anchored on the reasons that keep Crowell from despairing at life. The key difference, content-wise, is if Dury mixes people and things on his list of what makes this existence worth something, Crowell goes purely for people on his own wonderfully eclectic choices, from Charlie Brown to Seamus Heaney, Walter Kronkite and the Dalai Lama. In the process and either way, Crowell has hit the musical jackpot, again – and Ian Dury would likely have raised a virtual glass of Lone Star in his honour, too.
Number 2: ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ from ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’ (1978)
Famously covered by Waylon Jennings, the title track of Crowell’s first album showed us exactly where he meant to go for the following half-century, thanks to cohesively written lyrics, fearlessly nailed-on societal criticism, all filtered through an instantly catchy melody and chorus (in this case a Texas boogie number) and impeccable arrangement. Built largely around encounters with Johnny Law, ’Ain’t Living Long Like This’ showed what you might call intrepid determination to write from first-hand experience, given it was actually mostly composed during a spell of voluntary incarceration for Crowell in a California jail.
It turns out Crowell was taking the rap for his dog, Banjo, after said pooch had incurred a mere 46 ‘leash-law violations’ [ie not being on a leash]. Crowell refused to pay them, then opted, post-arrest, to delay posting bail until he’d completed the song, including the line ‘You make one move and you’re a dead man friend’ which he first heard in Texas, when he and various inebriated schoolmates tried to dig up a traffic sign one night and found themselves facing the business end of a Highway Patrolman’s revolver. Get to know all that, and it makes ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’ an even more acerbic critique of the terrifyingly outlandish practices lurking within the US legal system and the heavy-handedness of some – too many – of its representatives. Or as Crowell puts it in the pay-off line in the chorus: ‘Can’t live at all like this, can I baby?’
Number 1: ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ from ‘Close Ties’ (2017)
A three-way imaginary conversation between himself and his late friends and artists Guy and Susanna Clark, this is a huge tribute from one fellow musician to another that seemingly rambles around questions like mortality and art, but in fact gives you all sorts of clear-headed, telling insights into both without any pretentiousness. Rosanne Cash, who sings on it, described it as one of Crowell’s best songs, and it certainly has that kind of deceptive simplicity that has always been part of Crowell’s writing: on the outside it seems straightforward enough, but you start listening and you find that within the arrangements, there are an awful lot of moving parts, all faultlessly fused together, all contributing something. Conclusion one: someone put a heck of a lot of unseen work to boil it all down to something as hardwearing and moving and tautly engaged as this, and conclusion two, you won’t get tired of listening to it. As with all of Crowell’s work, it might be getting late in the day, there’s almost always something new to find.