Crowell has said that in the genetic mingling of his articulate, word-loving mother and his volatile, country musician father, he believes he was born to write songs.
The best songwriters reveal themselves as vulnerable visceral human beings who’ve been scared, scarred and small just like the rest of us. Their candour and transparency of soul is the key to the listener’s empathic heart and the culture’s admiration. Rodney Crowell is in my opinion a superb purveyor of these qualities and this record delivers him in fine form.
A surfeit of provocative, poetic lines that lead the mind in a quickstep of contemplation and reverie of delight; simple, not convoluted, lucid songs that cover all the complexities of life and love in everyman speak. Nothing exaggerated and nothing understated, just enough.
I talked to Rodney about Tarpaper Sky on the phone from Nashville.
“In 2010 we started work on it but then it got set aside while we did Kin with Mary Karr. Then Emmylou called and we collaborated on Ole Yellow Moon. (2014 Grammy & Americana Album 2013)That was such a luxury though, and it was on a break from that tour that I revisited what I had recorded earlier, and got serious about getting it over the line.”
You also worked with Rosanne Cash on The River & The Thread recently.
“Yes I did do some writing on that, and we had a big ole recording session at my house for that too with a bunch of great people.” (Kristofferson, John Prine, Amy Helm, Tony Joe White dropped by at Rodney’s invitation to be the Masters Choir, as per Roseanne Cash story last issue)
Crowell got the idea in 2010, to call up most of the band that had played with him on his 1988 breakthrough album Diamonds & Dirt and got them together in a recording studio. Twenty years on, Bass player Michael Rhodes, drummer Eddie Bayers and guitarist Steuart Smith, all by now Nashville session royalty. Crowell one of the most admired songwriter/artists in America. Even gold standard elite usually don’t take the opportunity to record like this. In a circle, facing one another and truly hearing one another, with no headphones or glass walls to separate them, they cut live as a band, with the honesty and no-fixes spontaneity of the records that had first inspired all of them as teenagers.
Rodney’s singing has all the depth and nuance he’s noted for, and writing wreathed in
his trademark blend of literary precision and plainspeak.
The only reference to ‘tarpaper’ is the line Sanded down moon in a tarpaper sky. Tell me about ‘tarpaper’s significance?
“It is the waterproof lining they used to put under rooves, and when I was a kid the tarpaper was about all that kept out the rain and slowed the rot from the roof eating down the walls. There was no ceiling and the tarpaper underside is a particular colour of unreflective bitumen black that is dull and uninspiring. I guess I chose it because it was a particularly striking image. It evokes a canopy of gloom with a diminishing moon. ”
‘Grandma Loved that Old Man’ is charged with cinematic imagery that fleshes the characters so clearly. I can see them – him as a preening peacock and her the little brown hen busily bustling life into working order.
“Yes, you got them – they were vivid human beings my grandparents; a drunken ne’er do well fastidious and vain man, and a selfless, God-fearing hard working woman. They were oil and water, but it worked just fine for both of them.”
‘Wouldn’t Be Me Without You’ I wrote for my wife Claudia, I have to write her one every once in a while just so she knows my mind is in the right place.
I read that ‘The Flyboy & The Kid’ is your tribute to Guy Clark?
“It is more for and about Guy and how I see our friendship, and a tip of the hat to him and all that he means to me. – ‘Flyboys’ were WWII happy go lucky guys who literally flew by the seat of their pants and were larger than life characters with not a jot of concern for much at ground level.”
May you always keep in touch with the things that keep you young
When you’re staring at injustice may you never bite your tongue
May the bear-tracks in your future find you downwind in a glade
Where the grass as green as absinthe comes in forty different shades.
‘Fever on the Bayou’ has a great groove.
“That took me over 20yrs to write. I had two verses and chorus and bridge and no last verse and never could wrap it up right, and the upside of taking the time out on the other projects, was that that song got finished and made the cut. We were somewhere on tour and a gentleman said the word ‘franglais’ which is neither French nor English-it’s a nonsense made-up word, which is pretty much what Cajun is, a patchwork of two mangled languages. Anyway from that, I took license to make up a fun ‘franglais’ final verse and finished the song.
“I used to work with a lot of Cajun construction guys, as where I grew up in Texas was close to the Lousiana border, and they were a bunch of drunken, carousing fools and I loved them all, but never got to grips with their Cajun language no matter how I tried but that is where that song began I guess.”
‘Jesus Tell Mumma’ Coincidentally I wrote that in Sydney-I had a day off and I took my guitar and went to a beautiful park there and I think she must have been hovering because that is the song Mumma would have wanted me to write more than any other. It was also an exercise for me in celebrating her formidable faith.”
Would I be presumptuous in asking is there an element of ‘mortality stocktaking’ in the songs on this album?
(Roar of laughter) “Every day you wake up is a mortality stocktake! Whoa! I slid through another night; Yep I’m breathing, I am alive and good to go again! ”
Rodney’s respect for heroes Mickey Newbury, Kristofferson, Guy Clark, John Prine etc is well documented.
You were a worthy prodigy in an era of magnificent songsmiths to whom you had amazing access – not least as Johnny Cash’s son in law which is royal ‘entree,’ – are there other standouts whose work drove your ambition?
“Lots of them, but certainly Waylon Jennings, and I got to spend quite a lot of time around Willie back then too – so yes, I have no excuse – I should be taken out and shot if I couldn’t come up with decent songs after having the sheer indulgence of breathing the same air as those guys.”
Archivists would claim that the 2000s redefined Crowell’s legacy. The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider were uniformly lauded as his most revealing and musically complete
albums. Crowell believes with these projects he finally hit his stride as a singer and performer.
“One’s masterpiece always belongs in the future. That’s sort of a ‘whistling past the graveyard’ kind of thing. It’s kind of like ‘Oohh, my masterpiece is out there.’”
“The truth of the matter is I’ve made some really good records. I made a record called Sex and Gasoline (2008) that I thought, ‘Oh man, I’ve really achieved something that I’ve striven and yearned for a long, long time. And there it is. I found it! Yeah, this is good.’ And it probably went as my least noticed record.”
“Then I’ve made other records that I go, ‘Oh, this is really short of what I envisioned.’ And it’s celebrated to the heavens (laughing). You know what? I have no control over that. The only thing I have control over is my work ethic and my willingness to stay sharp – to keep the tools of my craft sharpened enough so that wherever inspiration comes from, it might find me worthy of a good visit now and again.”
“One thing that I’ve learned as an artist about writing songs and making records, when I get it right for myself, generally speaking it’s right for others. But by the same token, although I enjoy having won a Grammy – and the fact that it’s 20 years since the last Grammy – I’ve long since operated under the notion that the carrot is best out in front of me. I think self-congratulation is poison.”
“It substantiates a premise that what I do and my reasons for doing it are worthwhile. And that substantiation now and again is good fuel to the fire. But we all know those logs burn rather quickly, which brings us back to the carrot metaphor.
“Enjoy the log while it’s burning and the warmth that it brings for that particular time. People are validating why I think it’s important to do this, but then it’s back to work time.”
What is next for you?
“Emmylou and I have been holed up together in my studio writing and will be doing another record together.”
On the question of a return visit to Australia, Rodney was quick to say he’d love someone to invite him on down. I said I have told every tour promoter in the world and other places that my ultimate wish list is Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Emmylou together.
“Hey! They’re all friends of mine, let’s get that happening! Tell them I’m a fine upstanding citizen, I have no criminal record, I’ve read ‘The Fatal Shore’ and the guitar player in my band is Australian (Jedd Hughes) – surely that is viable cred!”
When it comes to ‘viable cred’ Rodney wrote the book. Well, the songs. He gave us enduring gems like ‘Til I Gain Control Again,’ ‘I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,’ ‘Song For The Life’ and ‘Ashes By Now’ almost four decades ago and Tarpaper Sky is a gift that keeps on giving for perhaps as long. Thankyou Mr Crowell.