Friday, February 20, 2009

Crowell and the Male Confessional

What distinction is there anymore in being termed a "singer/songwriter"? It had cache in the 1970s, but its meaning then was pretty specific—if you earned the moniker it meant you played an acoustic instrument and wrote songs about your feelings. This definition separated the James Taylors and Carole Kings from rock and roll writer/performers like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

It was very profitable to be a singer-songwriter in the pre-disco days, as I've heard Don McLean mention to a British interviewer. But it was a flash in time, and now there are so many singer/songwriters that the term no longer seems useful. A performer stands out more if he or she doesn't write, and instead interprets.

Writing your own songs still puts you in a box, though, and it reminds me of the traditional song-plugger's fate: you write, and then hope that someone will record one of your songs because then you can continue doing what you love. Continue writing, that is—and, unlike the songwriters of yore, performing.

This brings me to today's subject, Rodney Crowell. As I conducted research on him, I learned on his website of all his "chart-toppers" and I'm glad for his success but—and I have no way of measuring this suspicion—I'm guessing that many people still don't know about him. Like many songwriters, he's under the radar and greatly underappreciated.

Crowell may never have achieved true notoriety because he can't be pigeonholed. Like many songwriters I love, the closest category he brushes against is country. Maybe when he had his chance he declined donning a Stetson and becoming a personality.

I sense his style was Americana years before that label had been invented. Crowell had his apprenticeship in Emmylou Harris's band (another musician who resides on the categorical borders!) and then broke out in the early 1980s. His style was brash and rocking and overtly commercial. No denying that the man knew how to put a song together, and to write some very seductive hooks.

I first came to listen to him in the early 1990s with Life Is Messy, a work he released shortly after his divorce from Roseanne Cash. I immediately loved his voice and songwriting, and continued to follow his work for the remainder of the decade although it seemed to me that his creativity was declining.

Then the twenty-first century dawned, and Rodney Crowell kicked off a series of releases that contain songs that are part memoir, part political rant, and part what I can only call "men's confessional" writing. I was captivated anew. Here was Crowell continuing with his refined and polished songcraft, but telling stories in a vein that was part Phil Ochs, and part Randy Newman/Loudon Wainwright III. Oh, all my musical buttons were being pushed!

2001's The Houston Kid marked the beginning of the cycle. Crowell shares painful memories of his childhood here. Growing up in Texas, his father was a man of low degree who beat his wife as Crowell describes in "The Rock of My Soul".

The rock of my soul didn't have much charm
With the lack of education on a red dirt farm
He was fond of disappearing on an eight day drunk
Coming home smelling like a lowdown skunk
And he said...Do like I say, not like I do and you might make me proud

Another Houston kid on a downhill skid for crying out loud
I'm a first hand witness to an age-old crime
A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime

Our Houston Kid had a tumultuous youth. Just reading the lyrics as I'm doing, a listener learns that the protagonist leaves Texas and goes out to California and "turns tricks on Sunset/twenty bucks a pop." He inherits his father's anger, as revealed in "Wandering Boy":

I used to cast my judgments like a net
All those California gay boys deserve just what they get
Little did I know there would come a day
When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay
Lean on me I'll be strong
you're almost free it won't be long
wandering boy

The CD also features Crowell's tender reminiscence of hearing Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" while sitting on his father's lap as daddy drove (hey, it was 1956!).

I'm back on board that '49 Ford in 1956
Long before the sun came up way out in the sticks
The headlights showed a two-rut road way back up in the pines
First time I heard Johnny Cash sing, I Walk the Line
I got my thrill behind the wheel upon my daddy's lap
Grandpa rode co-pilot with a flashlight and a map...

I've seen the Mona Lisa I've heard Shakespeare read real fine
It's just like hearing Johnny Cash sing, I Walk the Line

Crowell's specificity gives his words power. I am, of course, delighted at the concept too of writing a song about a song. Yes, all these years later, that moment of inspiration is still crystal clear in your memory!

After The Houston Kid came 2003's Fate's Right Hand. On this release, Crowell continues to display his musical and lyrical virtuosity. His rockers seize your pulse, and your slapping your hand and tapping away while catching snatches of his always clever lyrics. On the title track he sings:

Cool as a rule you don't learn in no school
You don't brown nose the teacher from a dunce hate stool
It's the turn and the rhythm of the birds and the bees
The mommas and the poppas and the monkeys in the trees
It's the brothers and the sisters living life on the street
Play a hunch pull the punch and you'll likely get beat
By the junk food tattooed white dude true blued
Honky with an attitude coming unglued

Fate's right hand...I don't understand at all

In another great rocker on the CD ("Preachin' To The Choir") Crowell pokes fun at his need to write songs in the first place.

My self importance is a god forsaken bore
I aim for heaven but I wake up on the floor...

Baytown, Texas there's a fisherman I knew
He read the Bible and he spit tobacco too
He said that crap about the rod you spare to spoil the child
Is only propaganda meant to keep you in denial
Go and follow your desire but he was preachin' to the choir...

When I'm standing at the St. Peter's gate trying to slip on in
I might as well plead guilty fo the worst of who I've been
I used to like to think I had a special way with words
But right now I'm convinced I've more in common with the birds
I'm not ready to retire I'll keep on preachin' to the choir

So when the situation's dire I keep on preachin' to the choir

In other cuts he unpacks his inner anger in "The Man in Me" and his fear of mortality in the gently acoustic "Time to Go Inward." Also pure sexual desire/lust is laced throughout his music—Rodney is going to tell you the WHOLE story!

The Outsider, his 2005 release, is notable for its political songs. "Don't Get Me Started" pops immediately to mind.

Who shoulders the blows it comes and it goes
It's a six-trillion dollar debt you pay through the nose
I said don't get me started I'm a drag when I've had a few drinks
And don't get me started I don't care what anyone thinks

Additionally there's his signature compelling and fun opening track ("Say You Love Me") and a sweet duet with Emmylou Harris on Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm".

I had the pleasure of hearing Rodney Crowell live promoting The Outsider. It was at Johnny D's, an intimate supper club where my wife and I have attended many a memorable show. Crowell's performance was certainly one of them. He is such a wonderful singer, and his music has such power, not only because of the words, but because he can rock in some numbers, go acoustic/gentle in others, or slide into a country if that's the feeling.

Last year Rodney Crowell released Sex & Gasoline. This album was produced by Joe Henry—a stellar songwriter in his own right who has also worked with Loudon Wainwright III. Here's what some critics said.

Crowell continues to hit the right notes and nerves on tunes with earthy roots charms bubbling over with smartly phrased discontent.

"...Crowell's natural Texas twang propels his lacerating insights, making barbed deliveries of a brew of politics and passion on "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design." His language is plain-spoken but evocative, detailing beauty in delicate fashion as he marries it to a supple acoustic pulse on "Forty Winters," and allowing desire and heartsickness to coalesce into a wistful reminiscence on "Moving Work of Art"...

The sarcasm that drips from the rumbling title track bites without becoming overbearing, anchored just as firmly by its perceptiveness as the subtle, starkly attractive recollection "I've Done Everything I Can." Even when he conjures up primal desire in jagged fashion on the rattling "I Want You #35," Crowell forges a lucid treat, and capitalizes on the lessons of experience even as he maintains a youthful vitality."

Thomas Kintner—The Hartford Courant

"Ever since 2001's The Houston Kid, country singer Rodney Crowell has been coming to terms with his private life in his music. The largely acoustic Sex & Gasoline is his meditation on femininity — not just a celebration of women, but a real attempt at empathy...

...producer Joe Henry extracts most of the "country" from these songs, revealing Crowell to be simply a master songwriter, no matter what the genre."

Mark Kemp—Rolling Stone

"Sex & Gasoline is a really a continuation of what Rodney Crowell has been doing since his return to recording in 2001 with the brilliant, semi-autobiography of The Houston Kid: trying to make sense of who he is and what he's become, of his world and the world around him. When he does so via sketches where the particulars imply some universal, such as the father-daugher rumination "I've Done Everything I Can" and the retrospective "The Night's Just Right," he's at his best."

Stuart Munro—The Boston Globe

If I have managed to capture your interest, I also recommend that you check out Maryanne Vollers's biography of Crowell on his website in which she describes his present move to Montana. The man inspires good writing!

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Oh, yes, that was a memorable concert--he puts on a very enjoyable show!