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.
Back then, I was inspired and creative with my writing, but not very mature as a performer. Me and maturity get along well now, but it's a conscious thing." Of course, he admits readily, it wasn't just a dearth of maturity that led to his early lack of success.
I was using drugs during that whole period," he says with a verbal shrug. It bothers me even to listen to those albums; in fact, I won't. It's like I'm pushing myself through that cocaine keyhole again. The only thing good that happened, in kind of an organic way, was the writing. That seemed to come from somewhere else. But that Rodney Crowell and this one here are two different people altogether."
The failure of his third Warner Bros. work, 1981's Rodney Crowell-combined with Rosanne's sudden and spectacular success-put the young marriage under strain. The couple decided to move back to Nashville. They were struggling with drug and alcohol problems, and were beginning to raise a family. The Left Coast lifestyle, they decided, wasn't conducive either to solving the former or nurturing the latter.
The move didn't turn the Crowell-Cash domicile into a house of bliss, but both sought counseling to curb their drug use, and they looked for ways to improve their marriage. Crowell dismisses the frequent reports during that time about their tumultuous" and volatile" relationship.
We never commented on it," Crowell chuckles softly. It was funny to read what people would say. Our relationship was always deep and civil and spiritual. There was nothing tumultuous about it."
Crowell maintains that both he and Rosanne directed their considerable energies toward music and art. He grew as a writer in great part because he began reading-especially poetry.
As we speak, I'm surrounded by books," he says. There's Rimbaud, Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton." Crowell, who is active in youth reading programs, also numbers fellow Texan Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and short-story specialist Raymond Carver as favorites. Crowell extends major credit to this passion for poetry and his ongoing substance-abuse recovery for his recent success.
I've been clean and sober since 1986," he quietly-and proudly-notes. After I got off the drugs, I concentrated on writing and working in the studio with others. It was a very productive time."
This period of clear-headed activity culminated in the release of Diamonds and Dirt on Columbia. In addition to the Grammy he earned, the album went gold. Five consecutive singles from the work went to the top of Billboard's country chart, a record for solo performers. The fifth song to hit the top was Above and Beyond"-the first song he had played with his dad's band way back when in Houston.
Crowell was now climbing the steps to the podium to accept honors for his performance. One award in particular, however, amused Crowell and company. Acknowledging the resounding success of Diamonds and Dirt, the Academy of Country Music named the veteran performer Top New Artist for 1989.
It was okay," Crowell laughs, I really didn't care. Besides, what would I say? `Hey, fuck you guys! You guys are slow!' Rosanne kept it in the best perspective. She watched it on TV, and when I called her, she said, `You know I can't take this seriously.' She was laughing."
Crowell followed Diamonds and Dirt with 1990's Keys to the Highway. A critical and commercial success, the album featured the hits Things I Wish I'd Said" and Many a Long and Lonesome Highway," both tributes to his father, who had died the year before. After Keys to the Highway, Crowell decided to take some time off to concentrate on songwriting. There was, he admits candidly, much to write about. The marriage was growing and contracting, changing constantly." Finally, the two individuals became irreconcilably stronger than the unit. Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell's divorce became final at the beginning of March 1992.
Cash has moved to New York, where she records, paints and sculpts. She and Crowell share custody of their three daughters.
I love her dearly," Crowell says slowly, almost inaudibly, and that's not gonna stop. Our love is so spiritual that it transcends the norm. A lot of people are going to go back to that `tumultuous' stuff, but that's bullshit. We continue to love each other. To say Rosanne is my best friend is to understate the depth of it." Crowell pauses. He is notoriously cool to public commentary about personal matters, so his willingness to talk-and with such frankness-about the demise of his marriage seems astonishing.
I can't give you an answer," he sighs. We went from marriage to something different. It was so unconventional that sometimes we'd have to stop and take a deep breath. We just kept evolving."
However, Crowell's naturally irascible nature comes to the fore when asked to delve into the machinations of Life Is Messy's creation.
Man," he half-growls, that deal is done. Once you've made a record, it's over with. I'd rather talk some more about poetry or a new film or the new Johnny Johnson record. The last thing I want to talk about is something I've already done." Although Crowell may not want to talk about it, Life Is Messy is a tidy exercise in gathering the pieces of his life together. One wonders what the true post-divorce experience will inspire him to create next.
Yet Rodney Crowell is equally unenthusiastic about chatting about the future. Oh, hell, I don't know," he drawls. I just know I'll be going against the grain. I'd hate myself if I was a conformist."
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