GROWING AGAINST THE GRAINONCE ONLY A SIDEMAN, RODNEY CROWELL IS CLEAN, SINGLE AND SUCCESSFUL

If Rodney Crowell's father had had his way, his son would have become a baseball player instead of the major-league singer and songwriter he is today. Rodney would be ripping triples to deep center instead of garnering triple Grammy Award nominations and winning one. He'd be lining his mantle with Golden Glove trophies rather than gold records.

But Rodney Crowell will just have to be satisfied with making great music instead of great baseball. Nearly four years and a general uprooting of his personal life have passed since Crowell broke into the big time with Diamonds and Dirt, an album that provided the singer-songwriter with five chart toppers. Crowell has finally completed the follow-up disc: the mercurial, emotion-packed and understatedly titled Life Is Messy, which is due out in May.

This is truly Crowell's signature work, a kind of denouement of the many trials and troubles of his recent and long-ago past. Split equally among the good times, the bad times and those times still being sorted out, the disc displays some of Crowell's best songwriting yet. The maudlin accordion in I Hardly Know How to Be Myself" discusses-without concluding-how life after love is. This enigma is further explored, and even less clarified, in the eerie Alone but Not Alone." Crowell recalls the good times in the rockabillyish The Answer Is Yes" and (It Don't Get) Better Than This," but saves the real messiness for the dark-humored title ballad. Life Is Messy" is an excellent bit of songwriting, a perfect grasp of the ungraspable, the definition of the undefinable: Just what the hell is love, anyway? It's starting to distress me," Crowell complains in ÔLife Is Messy," I feel like Elvis Presley." Crowell may not have become the all-star ballplayer his father had dreamed of, but he's become the best songwriter from behind the Pine Curtain since Harlan Howard. Ironically, his baseball-lovin' father provided the initial inspiration for young Rodney's musical future. Dad played lead guitar for a hometown Houston country band, and one day he dropped off a gift in Rodney's bedroom.

There it was," Crowell recalls during a telephone conversation from his Nashville home, a new drum set. He never said a word, either. It just appeared." Rodney Crowell was 11.

In less than a year, Rodney made his debut with his dad's band, providing percussion on the Harlan Howard gem Above and Beyond." It was an unforgettable event in Rodney's life, one which would be commemorated in record-breaking fashion nearly 30 years later when he re-recorded the same tune for Diamonds and Dirt.

Once the musical bug bit, Crowell was wholly infected. In fact, he decided that hunkering behind a drum kit in the shadowy rear of the stage wasn't really the spot for him. So he taught himself to play the guitar. There was a yearning to be under the spotlight, an ego-driven desire to be the main man in the band. And one other important consideration. The girls were up front," Crowell admits matter-of-factly. Man, I was vain. I could tell you it was something else, something musically mystical, but that wasn't it. Vanity drove me to the front of the stage."

Harmonic hormones and lackluster school marks (he claims that he never read a book in his 14 years of formal schooling) notwithstanding, Crowell found himself fascinated with the written word. He began writing songs. In 1972, at age 21, he took his Texas-flavored songs to Nashville, but found the cats there contrary to his muse. Mere months later, he returned to his native state, to Austin, where the alternative country music scene was beginning to get up steam. It was there that Crowell met Emmylou Harris.

I was just living, writing and playing a little," says Crowell in his soft, languid drawl. Harris, still looking to blaze her own trail after partner Gram Parsons' death in 1973, bought Crowell a ticket to Los Angeles and into her own adroitly named Hot Band. Crowell remembers it as a time of learning and creativity.

I wrote a lot, that's true," he says, but most of all I gained a great deal of knowledge about arranging and producing. The songwriting grew, but I remember mostly how much I learned about production." By the time his three-year tenure with Harris ended in 1977 (Crowell was replaced in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs), he'd become widely known as one of the best writers in the business. His songs were recorded by such disparate acts as the Oak Ridge Boys (Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight") and Bob Seger (Shame on the Moon").

After Emmylou, Crowell signed with Warner Bros., but his most celebrated commitment during this period came with his marriage to Rosanne Cash in 1979. Crowell had met this daughter of the legendary Man in Black" at Waylon Jennings' Nashville home, although both were living in Los Angeles at the time. Back in L.A., Crowell began producing Rosanne's records, striking gold with Cash's 1981 crossover classic Seven-Year Ache. At the same time, however, Crowell's own three-disc output with Warner Bros. was panned, even though the songs therein were covered constantly by others. Despite his great satisfaction with Rosanne's success, it isn't a period that Crowell recalls fondly.

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