Music is a way of life for Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell performs Friday and Saturday at Club Helsinki

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 29, 2004) – For Rodney Crowell, who grew up in an extended family of sharecroppers from Tennessee and western Kentucky, music was just something you did after a hard day’s work. You pushed aside all the furniture and those who had them took out their guitars and those who could played and sang, and the rest danced.

“I’d sing and play and whoever else was around -- one of my drunk cousins would play the spoons,” said Crowell in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. “There was a very Irish-Scotch kind of new-world musicality that was going on.”

That easygoing, relaxing approach to music made a strong impression on Crowell as a youth and stuck with him. When he found himself suddenly beset by shyness as a teen-ager, he found he could reach out to the opposite sex through music.

“It was hormonal,” said Crowell, who kicks off a two-night stand at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) tonight at 9, with another show tomorrow night at 9. “I realized I could use it to meet and attract girls. What’s more to the core than that? The propagation of the species.”

From there, said Crowell, music naturally evolved into a way of making a living. “It’s what I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “It’s pretty primal stuff.”

But what began as a way to blow off steam after a hard day on the farm and later became a means of attracting girls eventually became a very serious art form for the Grammy Award-winning Crowell, one of a pack of country-influenced singer-songwriters -- many, like him, from Texas -- who emerged out of Nashville in the mid- to late-1970s as rebels against the country music establishment.

“When I first showed up in Nashville, I remember not only Steve Earle and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zant,” said Crowell. “Lucinda Williams was around, as was John Hiatt and Dave Olney. Mickey Newbury was sort of the high priest. Guy Clark was the curator of the scene. Townes was this rambling, gambling, enigmatic, very creative artist. Guy was sort of the glue we all huddled around. He was the guy who kept all our eyes on the ball, reminding us that this is not about commerce, this is about art.

“That was the genesis of that mindset of artists, and we all had a lot of longevity because of it. We huddled up and traded songs based on the creative process. Nowadays, a young talented songwriter -- they try to get you on a Shania Twain record right away. We never thought about that. We thought about how you were going to paint the picture. It was more about the process of being an artist than the end result. I think that mindset has kept us all alive.”

Not that some of those writers, including Crowell, didn’t go on to enjoy some mainstream success. Crowell wrote modern country classics like “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Leaving Louisiana in Broad Daylight.” Tim McGraw hit big with his “Please Remember Me” and Lee Ann Womack did likewise with “Ashes By Now.” Crowell boasts the distinction of being the only person to write, sing or produce five consecutive number-one songs on the country charts.

“I’m lucky enough that some of the mainstream artists record my songs,” said Crowell. “That’s always good for me because I always say it subsidizes the art. But we’re definitely the underdogs, and I always root for the underdogs. So I’m on the team I want to be on.”

Crowell’s first big break came when Emmylou Harris recorded two of his songs, “Til I Can Gain Control Again” and “Bluebird Wine,” on her first album. She then brought him to Los Angeles in 1975 to join her Hot Band as rhythm guitarist, harmony singer and songwriter. Touring with Harris and the likes of Glen D. Hardin, James Burton and Emory Gordy – musicians who when they weren’t working with Harris as the Hot Band were better known as Elvis Presley’s band – was a crash course in the big leagues for Crowell.

“I got a real education in arranging music, which later came to fruition in my producing records in the early ‘80s,” said Crowell. “And beyond that, just the absolute blessing to work with someone like Emmylou, who is an artist of supreme integrity and loyalty and grace. My experience with her really shaped how I would conduct my own business. Emmy conducts her affairs with the utmost integrity. Which is not often the case -- not like that.”

Later on, Crowell would gain renown as a solo artist and as a producer of his then-wife Rosanne Cash’s first five studio albums. He also produced albums by Guy Clark and saw several hundred versions of his songs recorded by artists ranging from the Grateful Dead to Andy Williams.

“I’m grateful when anyone records my songs,” said Crowell. “I’ve mainly supported myself in the years when I wasn’t touring and making records through my songwriting royalties. Four kids, private schools -- it’s an expensive way of life.”

Pressed to name a favorite version of one of his songs, he confesses to liking Roger Daltrey’s version of “Ashes By Now.”

“It was never released,” said Crowell, “but we got a rough mix of it. It was in the ‘80s and my daughters would listen to it and they’d just scream when he sang the chorus. I’d say, ‘You don’t do that when I sing that.’ I wish they’d release it on some compilation. It’s really good.

“But the only thing that I have any control over is my own version of my songs. I really can only publicly judge my version. Sometimes I’m my own harshest critic. Other times I’m free to lavish praise on myself when I think I got it right.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 30, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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