Vintage Q&A With Rodney Crowell

Here’s another highlight from the Westword Q&A archives: a wonderful conversation with country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell that preceded a June 17, 2004 profile.

At the time, Crowell was no longer scoring hits as he did throughout the ‘80s, when he and his former wife, Rosanne Cash, were country royalty, but he’d experienced an artistic rebirth thanks to a pair of excellent solo albums, the largely autobiographical 2001 release The Houston Kid and its inspired followup, 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand. In addition, he had taken part in a one-off reunion of an early band dubbed the Notorious Cherry Bombs – a superstar project of sorts given that his fellow players included Vince Gill, pianist-turned-record-executive Tony Brown and two well-known session pros, guitarist Richard Bennett and steel guitarist Hank DeVito. The combo’s self-titled album came and went quickly, even though it featured what seemed like a surefire country-hit: the sassy “It’s Hard to Kiss Your Lips at Night,” whose hook features the couplet, “It’s hard to kiss the lips at night/That chew your ass out all day long.”

The conversation begins with Cherry Bombs talk before touching on a wide variety of topics, including Crowell’s empowering decision to finance Fate’s Right Hand with a bank loan rather than by going to a label; his tough slog through the ‘90s, which included being fired, more or less, by his old friend, Brown, and the substance abuse that plagued one of his daughters; the vapidity of modern country radio; a song that found him rewriting a classic by his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, who was mighty ornery throughout the process; the impact Cash’s death had upon him; and his preparation for a new album that became 2005’s The Outsider.

The results are fascinating by a country mile:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Before we get to The Houston Kid, I wanted to ask you about another project you’ve got coming out: The Notorious Cherry Bombs. “It’s Hard to Kiss Your Lips at Night” isn’t what people expect from you guys.

Rodney Crowell: We laughed our asses off writing that song. We were thinking, “God, there are going to be some women who hate us.” But we were thinking, “We’re both fairly sensitive guys” (laughs).

WW: You worked hard to build up that reputation.

RC: Yeah, and we wanted to tear it down. We thought, let’s go back to who we really are (laughs).

WW: How did the project get started?

RC: It came about because ASCAP was giving me a creative achievement award last year, or the year before. They asked me if I would get the old Cherry Bombs together, and I know the reason they did. They wanted to give me an honor, but they wanted to get all my famous friends together, so it would really put a shine on their celebration. So we got together and played, and it sounded so good. After we played, Emmylou [Harris] came out and joined us, and afterwards, I said, “Am I mistaken, or do we sound better than we used to?” I really thought we did. Like, “God, this is good.” We just kept talking among ourselves, like, “Man, that was fun.” And enough people said, “Why don’t you make a record?” that we started believing it was a good idea. We were going to do it, and our mate, Tony Brown, whose record company it is, and who was in our band, he fell and hurt himself, so we put it off. I’m glad we did. I’m not glad Tony hurt himself. He had an accident, he fell and hit his head. We had to wait for him to heal up. He was pretty seriously injured.

WW: How long was the delay?

RC: Pushed it back nine months or so. In the meantime, had we started when we thought we would, Vince and I wouldn’t have had time to huddle up and write a few songs. We weren’t really thinking marketing or anything like that, but it looks like they’re going to lead their marketing with that song you mentioned. The only thing we had to say about it, we all took an oath saying, “Let’s do this as long as it’s fun. If we start making this record and it stops being fun, let’s pull the plug.” So it didn’t stop being fun, so we finished it, and from there, we just said, “Look. They’ll put this music out, and if anybody responds to it and likes it and it moves anybody and it has any meaning to anybody’s life, and they invite us to play, and that’s fun, then we’ll do that.” The minute any of it stops being fun, we should not be doing it. This is not about career, this is about playing music because we love each other.

WW: If I’m correct, the original name of the band was the Cherry Bombs. So why are you now the Notorious Cherry Bombs?

RC: Somebody at the record company… We weren’t smart enough in the early ‘80s to copyright the Cherry Bombs, and in the world of the Internet, somebody had. We all just said, “Who cares? Throw it out there.” But the legal department at Universal said we cannot do it and will not do it unless you indemnify us, I think is the word. So we said just stick “Notorious” on there.

WW: In doing research for this interview, I came across something else pretty notorious – a quote from you saying that you had to take out a loan to finance Fate’s Right Hand. That’s got to be one of the most appalling things I’ve heard about an artist of your stature in a long time. Is it true?

RC: Oh yeah. You understand, at the time, the idea hit me. You remember before 9/11, before George Bush came out, and he was kind of feeling around at how to be a president, and he was going on television saying, “Go out and borrow money from your bank and invest in our economy.” I was thinking, That’s a good idea. I’ll be a small businessman. I’ve been at the same bank forever, and I went to them and said, “You guys good to loan me some money and make a record?” And they said, “Yeah, sure.”

WW: So you were just doing your part to keep America’s economy strong…

RC: Yeah, and I failed miserably. It would take a lot more than just me. But I think I make better music from a place of autonomy. I’m enough of a southeast Texas boy – there’s enough white trash in my blood that when somebody gives me money to make a record, I feel like I have to please them instead of myself. And I really think that’s what I’ve got to do as an artist: when I’m just trying to get it right for me. And I found that if I make my own records, finance them and everything, I make better music.

WW: At what point did you figure that out?

RC: Houston Kid was when I discovered that. Houston Kid was out of necessity. I could have gotten Fate’s Right Hand made easily, but the Houston Kid is the one where I emptied out my checking account making that record. I’d been away from it for a while, and I don’t think anybody was willing to – at that moment it might have qualified as appalling, although I don’t see it as appalling. It’s just corporate America. At that moment, my wife was very supportive when I was spending all of our available cash to make a record. I’m not pleading poverty here at all. We’re talking out of cashflow. So I got a little smarter the second time and went to get the bank to put money into it, pretty confident that I could pay them back. And I did.

WW: What was the best part of doing things that way for you?

RC: Freedom. Great freedom. I really think that I honestly – and I say this sort of gratefully – I think I found myself as a recording artist in that process. I have a history, and I am proud of my legacy as a songwriter, all of the songs that I’ve brought forth into our culture. I’m proud of that. But I don’t think I’ve ever unraveled for me the puzzle of how to make my statement as a recording artist, and I think oddly in that little process, I found it for me. I can’t say my process works for anybody else, but I certainly found it for me. And I’ll try to continue in that way, because I’ve become a pretty good self-editor, and if I really work at getting it right for me with a certain amount of evolved self-editing that I’ll be able to make my statement of a recording artist come through.

WW: Before that, were you under pressure to change your sound to fit whatever country radio was playing at the time?

RC: Yeah, but nobody was forcing me. Well, it got that way a little bit. But through the eighties and through that period of time… See, if you’ll indulge me, it was different in the nineties, I stepped away from it. Up until the time I stepped away from it, I was left alone pretty much, except at the tail end. I made a couple of records for MCA that I wasn’t proud of. The corporation had taken over by then and people were starting to leave their thumbprints on my music, and I was letting them do it.

WW: Wasn’t Tony Brown the head of MCA at the time?

RC: Yeah, he was. As you know, what looks good on paper doesn’t always play out. What you don’t realize is the political power struggles within a record company. You see somebody like Tony Brown, who’s so revered and so successful. You don’t realize that within a record company, he has his own political battles going on, to get support for what he believes in. In that particular situation, Tony was never able to rally support for his belief in me within that political structure. One of the reasons besides my children that I pulled away from it is that I realized that I started to kowtow a little bit and started to make music for that political mindset. I really went through a little bit of self-loathing about that, because I think that I always believed wholeheartedly that my job as an artist was to get to the truth, and the only way to get to the truth is to tell it, and not try to couch it to try to make it fit somebody’s marketing plan.

WW: So did you choose to leave MCA?

RC: Well, no. I did not ask. They fired me.

WW: Really? Your old friend had to fire you?

RC: Not really. That’s an overdramatization. Actually Tony and Larry Willoughby came to me and they said, “You know what? We can’t rally the machine to support what you’re doing. So we think it’s in your best interest that you move on.” That’s a gentle way to get fired.

WW: That doesn’t sound all that gentle to me.

RC: Well, maybe not. It was firm.

WW: What did that do to your friendship?

RC: It took a couple years to get over the bruise. But like Tony and I were talking a couple of nights ago, we were on this panel about relationships. My friendship with Tony became deeper after that. Because I know that was hard for Tony to do. It was very hard for him, and I had a lot of compassion for him. I think it was really important to Tony that I didn’t turn away from him. It didn’t ruin our friendship. I made a decision that both of these guys are my friends, and I’m not going to take the low road here. I’m going to remain strong and remain their friend. And those relationships became stronger, because they realized I wasn’t using them. So after a couple of years, the bruising healed up and I began to get really involved in a great relationship with my wife, Claudia, and I went through a lot of stuff with my children. Some of it was really intense.

WW: Did you get closer to your kids in the same way you got closer to Tony?

RC: Yeah, those relationships were deepened. Some of the things I went through with one of my daughters in terms of the absolute reckless life that she’d gotten herself into. It’s something that a lot of people go through. You get a child who’s drug addicted. I mean, seriously, life-threateningly. It’ll put you through some stuff.

WW: How old was she when that happened?

RC: She was late teens, early twenties. It was her late teen years. But knock on wood, she’s going on three years clean and sober, and she’s blossomed into a functioning young woman in the music business. She’s risen to a pretty high level at a record company. She’s creatively behind the scenes. But man, what an amazing turnaround for her.

WW: What’s her name?

RC: Caitlin.

WW: That sounds like a rough experience…

RC: I was dealing with some deep stuff. It made the rest of it so unimportant. It’s not fair to single out Caitlin. I have four daughters. Young women, in this culture. Adolescence in our culture for a young woman, for a girl, is a hard road.

WW: And it was at that point you put music on the back-burner for a while?

RC: The intensity of what I had to deal with really overtook anything about the music. I was producing some records, and actually during that time, I started to write prose, and that’s what led me to Houston Kid and Fate’s Right Hand.

WW: That makes sense, because your writing on those albums is so complex. That’s pretty rare these days.

RC: Yeah, true. I was talking to somebody. I said, “Golly, my work as an artist right now, I really am intent on articulating this real inner world.” I look around at our culture, and it seems to me that our culture is interested in anything than that. But that’s a value judgment I should probably not place on anything.

WW: I don’t know. Just last week, I did a 24-hour survey of Denver radio, and the songs that were getting played on the local hot-country outlets seemed to vacillate between really obvious, uninteresting ballads and really dumb party songs. Does that frustrate you, especially when you’re writing about topics like mortality?

RC: I don’t really pay much attention to radio. I still get royalty checks. The songs are still out there being played somewhere. I don’t make music for the radio. And when I was being played on the radio a lot, I didn’t. It’s funny: It’s sort of like when that faucet got turned off for me – and this is kind of going back to the theme – when that faucet was turned off for me was when I actually allowed myself to get drawn into thinking about making music for that. That was a valuable lesson for me, which was trust your instincts, follow your heart, try to be true and let everything else take its course. As a songwriter, every couple of years, something I write, somebody else will cover it and it’ll be a hit, and it subsidizes the art, and I keep going on.

WW: One of the most surprising song you’ve written over the past few years is “I Walk the Line (Revisited)” – especially since you got Johnny Cash to appear on it, singing the original. How did that come about?

RC: Well, the idea came from carrying around the notion that I wanted to recreate in song that morning when I first heard that song – to see if I could recreate the poignancy of that experience for myself. I had the verses, and they’re basically recreating that poignancy. But I could never figure out how to write a chorus. I had the melody for the chorus, but the words – I had some stupid chorus, the cheesiness of which completely negated the poignancy of the verses. I was ready to bail on it, thinking, I can’t do this, when it occurred to me that the meter of the original lyric fit the meter of the melody I had. When I thought of that, I just slotted it in there, and it worked perfectly. Going on in the innocent energy of that realization, I immediately picked up the phone and called John, who I had access to. Actually what I said to him was, “Man, we just wrote a song.” He said, “What?” I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know what I was thinking. But I said, “Can you come and sing on it?” And he did. He tore himself away from his busy life, and that’s when it sort of dawned on me – the audacity. And it dawned on him, too, what I was asking him to do. And he turned to me and said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve.” To which later on, a friend of mine said, “Man, you just painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”

WW: Did he take it that way?

RC: I think he was frustrated with what I was asking him to do. Like, “You’ve got a lot of nerve changing the melody of my song.” That was a real interesting moment. I had to go through the file cards in my head real quick and go, “Do I stand on my own on this, and go toe to toe with Johnny Cash?” To which I did. I said, “Yeah, you’re right. But you can do this. And you should do this.” That made him mad, and I think it really added to the song. His performance on that is particularly robust. He went out in the studio. I think, he never said this, but it was like, “I’ll show you, you little shit.”

WW: Not many people could do that with their former father-in-law – especially if their former father-in-law was Johnny Cash.

RC: Yeah, I’ve got some good history with Johnny Cash (laughs). It’s like, being around him, everybody was always sucking up and kowtowing to the king, you know, and doing anything they could to ingratiate themselves into his world. So I always just took this reverse attitude, which was, “Hey, I’m my own man. I’m not gold-digging. I’m not here to kiss your ass. I’m my own man.” And I think he always liked that. I think he respected that. He knew, there were so many people around him yessin’ him to death. And often I was completely wrong and completely off base, but I think the spirit in which I did it actually gave us a good friendship that lasted long after the marriage to his daughter did.

WW: What did he think of the song when you were all done? Did he still think you were a little shit?

RC: (Laughs.) His reaction was even funnier. I went over to his house to play the finished version for him. I played it, he was sitting there listening to it. He said, “Okay, that’s good. You’ve done a lot of work. You’ve done more work on this than me. That’s really good. But I’m not going to give you half the publishing on it.” (Laughs.) That is funny. I’m thinking, “You’re playing one-up with me. I know you’re Johnny Cash. You’re going to one-up me all the way on this.” But then June walked in and said, “Johnny, that’s a tribute to you and a damn good one. You stop it!” And he said, “All right, all right. I’ll give you half of it.” (Laughs).

WW: It doesn’t sound like she played kiss-ass with him.

RC: No, she didn’t – and she busted him on that one. It was cute.

WW: After his death, you didn’t hear a lot of stories like that – ones that presented him as a human being, as opposed to an icon.

RC: I was conflicted with it. People were wanting my commentary; a lot of people’s commentary was being sought on it. I was conflicted. I really wanted to be left alone on it. That was the loss of a friend, a really important relationship in my life. It was really a great vehicle for me to prove myself to myself, because he was so powerful and so compelling. He always gave me the opportunity to hold my own, for my own reasons. I was conflicted at the time. I remember there was a performance that I took part in. I was so conflicted and out of my head about it. I didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to do it. And then something else happened. I realized, you know, this is just about me grieving over the loss of a friend. So it was awkward.

WW: Did those tributes get to the heart of the man or the legend?

RC: The legend. But his public persona was a great deal of who he was.

WW: After the seriousness of Houston Kid and Fate’s Right Hand, was it kind of a relief to be able to make the Cherry Bombs album?

RC: Well, Cherry Bombs is – well, it’s not a lark. It’s serious music. We didn’t sacrifice our integrity to have fun. But look, the Cherry Bombs… I must continue what I started.

WW: Go full circle.

RC: Yes, yes, exactly. It’s funny. If you look at it, it’s like, Vince sort of got dark with his stuff, and I sort of lightened up a little bit. It was a palate cleanser. But I don’t want to take anything away from the music. I stand by it wholeheartedly. But for me, it’s like, now I’m back to work on what it is that I feel intensely passionate about, and what kind of statement do I want to make on my next record. That’s where I am now.

WW: How much of the album is done?

RC: Quite a bit. It’s more a matter of which songs.

WW: Does it have a theme, like the last two?

RC: Well, you know, yes. I’m a little bit defensive about speaking about something that’s hypothetical, but there are a couple of thematic ways I can go. It’s really a matter of deciding thematically which way. Let me put it to you this way. I say this without being overly self-important about this. There’s three or four records I want to make, and I could make at this time, and that’s a dilemma in itself. It’s like having a good hand of cards and playing the right cards. Knowing which card to play. I will continue to write and see. What I did on the last two records was go to work on what was the most frightening. I thought that was a good way to go. What am I afraid of? What am I afraid to put out there? That worked for me pretty good. I’ve just got to wait and see if that’s a good barometer to follow.