“I see myself as an artist, an album artist,” said legendary singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell in a recent phone interview with The Santa Barbara Independent. “I approach [making a record] much in the same way as someone who’s a painter paints, and hopefully has a collection of 20 canvases to have an art show. Basically, I look at my albums as an art show.” During his storied career, now in its fifth decade, Crowell has created enough “canvases” for many art shows. His latest release, Close Ties, is no exception.
The multi-Grammy winner began honing his craft as a struggling musician in Nashville, hanging out with future musical luminaries including Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, and Guy Clark, who was particularly influential in shaping Crowell’s approach to songwriting. Crowell said Clark once told him, “You can’t hide your narrative behind the chord changes and the melody and sleight-of-hand wink of the eye. … You gotta be able to look somebody in the eye and tell them what you’re singing and not flinch.” Listen to any of Crowell’s songs, including his recent single, “It Ain’t Over,” and it’s apparent that he took his mentor’s advice. The following is an abridged version of our conversation.
On “It Ain’t Over,” even though three different people — John Paul White, Rosanne Cash, and you — sing the verses, it feels very cohesive. I wrote the song as a three-way conversation, and I wrote it over the course of the last six months of my friend and mentor Guy Clark’s passing. We had a 45-year friendship, and that song was born out of different phases of the friendship and relationship we had. And Rosanne’s narrative in it really stems from Susanna Clark — Guy’s wife — and my close friend. … That’s the conversation between the younger me, Guy late in life, and Susanna.
What was your relationship with Guy Clark? He was nine years older than me, and that much farther down the road when I arrived at the cradle of songwriting in Nashville. I stumbled into a songwriting salon that basically he was the curator of. And among those songwriters were some of the great ones, like Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury and Jerry Jeff and Dave Loggins. Steve Earle came around just shortly after I did. … I liken it to a salon. There’s the romantic notion of Paris in the ’20s, and Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, and the beauty of the conversation among artists. But truly, it was a mini Paris in the ’20s in the early ’70s in Nashville. The ongoing conversation was never about money or career. It was about process and the craft of songwriting and poetry. And Guy Clark was really the center of it.
It seems to me that a lot of artists these days do not do that. In fairness to them, they may not have stumbled into a salon of hard-drinking, stay-up-all-night [musicians] discussing the finer points of poetry. We didn’t grow up looking at videos, watching somebody create images to go with music. The images that we created were in our heads … [like] me, late at night listening to Johnny Cash sing on the radio when I was a 6-year-old child. The images that came from that experience came from my imagination. It was Johnny Cash telepathically stimulating my imagination through his recordings. As did Hank Williams and Elvis and all of that music. People coming up nowadays, they’ve grown up where music has been illustrated for them with a filmmaker’s take on what they should see in their mind’s eye. And although the filmmaking may be very poetic, I think it does take a step out of the process.
How did your current album come about? Some of the songs that may find their way [onto an album], may have started 20 years ago. I had a record out in 2014, and Will Jennings and I started a song on it in 1984. … It’s called “Fever on the Bayou,” a very simple song, but it took 30 years to stumble across how to get the last verse to work. There’s a duet on Close Ties that I do with Sheryl Crow that I started the verse that I sing in 1997 in Ireland, on a cultural exchange experiment. … I started having a conversation with Sheryl Crow about doing a song together, and … I knew that I really needed [the key to unlock] that female narrative because I wanted to do it with Sheryl. It suddenly came to me. So that was 19 years in the making. To get back to your original question, I called Kim Buie to produce the record, and she’s a really gifted A&R person. … I had about 30 songs and started playing them for Kim, and I followed what moved her … and those were the ones we went with.
That’s so egoless of you. I could imagine thinking, “I want that to go on the album; I don’t care if it doesn’t fit because that’s a brilliant song.” Yeah, well I’ll get to ’em. You know. They’ll find their way. If I can wait 30 years to get “Fever on the Bayou,” all of these songs can find their way.
4·1·1 Sings Like Hell presents Rodney Crowell Sunday, May 7, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or see lobero.org.