by Paul Freeman [2009 Interview]

It’s rare that a singer-songwriter creates his best works 20 years into his career. But that’s the case with Rodney Crowell.

Crowell released his debut album, “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” in 1978. He wrote hits for Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris, and former wife Rosanne Cash. His own ‘88 album, “Diamonds & Dirt,” produced five number one hits.

Crowell took a five-year hiatus from recording, wanting to focus on helping to raise his four daughters. After that came a rebirth.

“Because I took time away from the music business, I was able to let all my old destructive ideas of myself fall away and actually become who I really am,” Crowell explains. “From that point on, I made a commitment, for better or worse, to do my best to articulate my sensibility.

“The work that holds me - Tom Waits, WIllie Nelson, Cormac McCarthy - has a gravity to it. I have no argument with art to generate commerce. I just have no knack for that. I’m more concerned with how to somehow approach music as literature. How can I create something that’s timeless, as opposed to designed for the momentary marketplace? Relevance is more important to me than money.”

His songwriting displayed a new depth and sensitivity with 2001’s autobiographical “The Houston Kid,” followed by “Fate’s Right Hand” and “The Outsider.” His latest, “Sex and Gasoline,” is a brilliant album, filled with fascinating political, societal and personal themes.

Crowell, who produced nearly all his albums, as well as classics for other artists, turned to producer Joe Henry (Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco).

“It was freeing,” says Crowell. “It was the first time in my life I walked in, spent four days singing and playing on a record and then left. Eventually I got my record in the mail.

“Producing it myself, I’m already tired of them. I’ve already sweated over every overdub and I’m done with it. But in this case,I got to listen to one of my own records just like a consumer. And I liked it.”

There’s a lot to like about these compelling, psychologically complex songs. The title track, “Sex and Gasoline,” sparked the others.

“It came out of my concerns for somebody close to me and what societal concerns were doing to her. It thrust me into exploring for myself our culture and the restrictions it places on young, middle-aged and old women alike - where superficiality defines sexual relevance.”

On “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design,” Crowell wishes he could magically experience the woman’s perspective, if only for one hour. Throughout, he ponders the woman’s role as both victim and holder of power. On “I Want You #35,” he addresses the dark side of that dichotomy.

The moving “40 Winters” was inspired by correspondence with a fan. “Her husband died at 49 of Alzheimer’s. Most of the language was formed out of conversations she and I had.

“In pop culture’s renditions of art based on Alzheimer’s, the question was always, ‘Why can’t you reach me?’ This woman said, for her, it was always, ‘Why can’t I reach you?’ From that point of view, I thought, ‘Oh, now I know how to write this.’”

“I’ve Done Everything I Can” is about a parent watching a child go out into the world. “Is there anything more frightening than letting go, especially for a passionate father? I don’t ever want to get off the white horse. I don’t want to drop my jousting pole. There isn’t a dragon that I don’t think I can slay. In some sense, you’ve just got to let go, let the dragon breathe the fire and hope for the best.”

Crowell’s songs brim with genuine emotion. “I long ago realized that it’s hard for me to write anything meaningful, if it’s not torn from the pages of my heart. Otherwise, a song becomes just an exercise in craft. When it’s really important to me, when I’m trying to make sense of my world and what’s happening, the songs become more visceral. I try to create songs that are visceral enough to survive.

“As a young man, I used to write songs with a broader brush stroke, based on my need to find that elusive girl/woman who was going to love me into a state of self-acceptance. I eventually grew into my own man. The more I became myself, the more my sense of myself was formed, the more fearless I became in my songwriting. Earlier, I would lead with my neediness.”

For the past 10 years, Crowell has been married to singer-songwriter-actress Claudia Church. “It’s been a necessity for me to grasp and understand my emotional makeup. I have a wife and four very strong daughters. It is incumbent upon me to articulate how I feel, my emotional landscape. The women around me demand it... and I’m the better for it. It informs my work as a songwriter.”

Grammy-winning Crowell, a member of Nashville’s Songwriter Hall of Fame, doesn’t chase stardom. “When I was in my twenties, I thought fame would fix everything. My brush with it in the late ‘80s made me realize very quickly that it doesn’t fix anything.”

For Crowell, the creative process is the healer. “A man or woman who has found his or her work needs ask for no other blessing. I read that and that’s the way I feel. I’ve fed my family and kept a roof over all our heads essentially by making stuff up. Essentially, I have fingerpainted my way through adult life.”

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