But for the past fourteen years--since he found his rhythm as Emmylou Harris' guitar player, singer and song supplier, Crowell's tunes have been covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, and Ricky Skaggs.
Crowell also has made a name for himself as a record producer for folks including his wife, Rosanne Cash, father in-law Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall. His hits have included "Shame on the Moon" for Seger, "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" for Emmylou and the Oak Ridge Boys, and "Voila, An American Dream" for the Dirt Band.
Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, with Crowell providing a substantial amount of original material, was the wellspring of the current generation of rootsy country pickers. Ricky Skaggs was in the group, as was English guitar wizard Albert Lee (who penned Skaggs' hit "Country Boy"). Crowell's affiliation with the band led to a recording contract and albums that were critically applauded, but airplay and sales were meager at best.
That is, until now. Ten years after the release of his first record, Crowell is finally on the charts as a performer as well as a songwriter. He didn't just wake up one morning and find himself in the pages of Billboard, however. Over the years, he learned that to make it in the country music business, you've got to learn to play ball.
"Let me give you a little story," Crowell says from the Nashville office he shares with his wife. "For me, it's always a question of integrity. For the CMAs [Country Music Academy awards] this year, I was nominated for some of their categories--album of the year and the duet with Rosanne. And so they invited me to perform, and they put me in this `new country' group. I went to the rehearsal, and I said, `Oh, yeah, I'll do it.'
"So, I went to the rehearsal, and I did it, and it was real ridiculous. I sang a minute and a half of my record `I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried,' which was okay, except for the way it was presented; the production was real stupid.
"But at the end, me and Highway 101 and Kathy Mattea and Foster and Lloyd and Lyle Lovett are supposed to go out and do this song, saying, `We are new, and we are carrying on this old tradition . . . ' and me and Lyle are sitting there and going, `Jeez, what are we doing? Where do we put our foot down?'
"So I asked the producer of the show, `Can I . . . would you mind if I didn't go out for that song on the end?' I said, `Look, maybe I just broke through this year on the Top Ten, but I've been around a long time, and I don't feel right about this. It's really humiliating.' So the guy said, `Okay, we'll just write you out of the show entirely.' And I say, `Oh, shit. Well, uh . . . uh.'
"So me and my manager got together and he said, `Walk on this if you want to,' and I made a decision to go ahead and do it . . . and I really think I made the wrong decision. I don't think Joe Public out there gives a shit one way or another whether we were ridiculous, whether we were really stupid."
That Crowell gets fed up with the crass show biz of Nashville isn't surprising. Born and raised in Texas, Crowell describes his music "as a marriage of real traditional country and early British rock," and he rebels at being categorized.
"To me, 1965 was a real exciting time in music--Dylan was happening, the Lovin' Spoonful with `You Didn't Have to Be So Nice' . . . but by the same token I was tremendously into Merle Haggard and what he was doing with his stuff like `Swinging Doors,' and the Buck Owens stuff," Crowell says. "The real root of my musical tastes formed right there in that 1963 to 1966 period, and where I bought records, on the same rack I would pick up Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones--and all along I was into Chuck Berry. It's taken me a while to define it and to try to make all of those influences my own."
Leaving Texas in 1972 to be a songwriter in Nashville was humbling. "That was when it started to be `put up or shut up,' because I was just kind of a `mindgarden' bullshit songwriter, and then I came here and got around a bunch of professionals and got my mind blown and threw everything I'd ever done away and started over."
Almost two decades later, Crowell is still learning about the business--if his experience with the CMAs is any indication.
"The main thing I'm trying to do," he says, "is get people everywhere involved in the music I'm making, you know. There's certain things you've got to do; it's really too bad, but it's true."
Crowell has no illusions about his current success: "The bottom line is that for a while now, that's the keyhole I have to operate in.