Rodney Crowell - Biography
By J Poet
Rodney Crowell has had a long and varied country music career, known primarily as a sideman, songwriter and producer until his breakthrough Diamonds and Dirt (1988 Columbia, 2001 Columbia Legacy) that took home a Best Country Song Grammy for “After All This Time.” Part of Nashville’s problem with Crowell is his penchant for honest songwriting, devoid of the clichés and distancing devices most songwriters use when writing about human frailty. His songs and performances are raw, piercing and immediate, in the mode of folk singer/songwriters and like-minded outsiders like Kris Kristofferson and his ex-wife, Rosanne Cash.
Crowell comes from a musical family and was born in Houston, Texas in 1950. His grandmother played guitar, and his father played in honky tonk band until he started a family and took a job in construction to support them, although he still played nights in his own band. Crowell started his career as a drummer in his dad’s band, but he wanted to be a rock’n’roller. In 1972 he moved to Nashville with a pocketful of songs and a dream of being a professional musician. He slept in his car and did other odd jobs until he landed a gig as a songwriter for Jerry Reed’s Vector Music publishing company. He had a small apartment and his roommates included Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, and Richard Dobson. One of the demos he made found its way to Brian Ahern, who invited him to play guitar in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band.
He moved to LA to play in the Hot Band in 1974, and with Harris’s support, took major strides as a songwriter. She recorded Crowell’s “Amarillo,” “Till I Gain Control,” “Tulsa Queen,” and “I Ain't Livin' Long Like This” and produced his first album I Ain't Livin' Long Like This (1977 Warner) which won him rock as well as country fans. But What Will the Neighbors Think (1980 Warner) was more rock than country and included “Ashes by Now,” his first country hit. The same year he produced Rosanne Cash’s Right or Wrong (1980 Columbia), the album that made her a star; they also married.
Rodney Crowell (1981 Warner) continued to blend rock, country and pop, but Warner didn’t know what to make of Crowell and didn’t promote the album, despite the fact that Bob Seeger had a Top 10 pop hit with “Shame on the Moon.” The album refused to release Street Language (1987 Columbia) so Crowell took its blend of country and soul to Columbia. The album got rave reviews and set up Diamonds & Dirt (1988 Columbia, 2001 Columbia Legacy) his Grammy winning breakthrough, a masterpiece that included four self-written #1 country hits “I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried,” “She's Crazy for Leaving,” “After All This Time,” and “Above and Beyond” as well as Harlan Howard’s “It's Such a Small World” a duet with Rosanne cash that also went #1. The album quickly went gold.
Keys to the Highway (1989 Lucky Dog) was another strong effort full of dark soul, rockabilly and country tune inspired by the death of Crowell’s father, but it wasn’t a smash. In 1992 Crowell and cash divorced and he told his side of the breakup story with Life Is Messy (1992 Lucky Dog). Its searing ho9nesty was too much for many, including his label, and they dropped him.
Crowell’s two albums for MCA, Let the Picture Paint Itself (1994) and Jewel of the South (1995) continued to straddle country, rock and pop, and included more strong confessional tunes from Crowell’s pen. After a long break he released The Houston Kid (2001 Sugar Hill) an autobiographical song cycle that was hailed as his second masterpiece. It includes “I Walk the Line (Revisited” an update of the Johnny Cash standard that condenses the history of country music into four neat minutes. Cash contributed guest vocals to the track. Fate's Right Hand (2003 DMZ/Epic), his third masterpiece, was put out by the Coen Brothers/T Bone Burnett label DMZ. It’s a dark brooding meditation on loss, life and mortality.
The Outsider (2005 Columbia) was an overtly political album that showed Crowell’s songwriting growing deeper and more universal. There was an anti-Iraq War song, “Don’t Ger Me Started,” an anti-Christian right wing song “The Obscenity Prayer” and the pro-middle class tune “Ignorance Is the Enemy” featuring John Prine and Emmylou Harris. The album got rave reviews but was not deemed a commercial success and Crowell was again without a label. The feisty indie Yep Roc picked him up for Sex and Gasoline (2008) an investigation of the battle between the sexes that shows Crowell’s deep understanding of the chasm that often separates women and men. Musically it’s a more country, with producer Joe Henry giving the set a dark, thrilling studio sheen. in 2013 he teamed up with Emmylou Harris to produce the top ten country LP Old Yellow Moon.