As country tunesmith Rodney Crowell prepared to make what would become one of 2001's best discs, The Houston Kid, he discovered that no major label was willing to finance the project. In the end, Crowell paid for the recording himself -- by draining his checking account. "Thank goodness my wife was so supportive," he says about singer Claudia Church, "because I spent all of our available cash."
Fortunately, the investment paid off. Kid, released on the modest Sugar Hill imprint, earned laudatory reviews, making label bigwigs infinitely more willing to underwrite a followup. Instead, Crowell took out a personal loan to pay for the next disc. Why? He'd come to appreciate the freedom that came with being his own boss.
"There's enough white trash in my blood that when some company gives me money to make a record, I feel like I have to please them. But I'm better when I'm trying to get it right for me," he allows. "I have a history, and I'm proud of my legacy as a songwriter. But I don't think I ever unraveled the puzzle of how to make my statement as a recording artist until I started doing things this way."
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These comments are astonishing, considering everything Crowell has accomplished during his career. In the mid-'70s, he anchored Emmylou Harris's aptly named Hot Band and wrote several of the best ditties in the rich Harris repertoire. Shortly after leaving her group, he made his name as a producer of discs such as 1979's Right or Wrong, by Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash. He and Rosanne wed around that time, beginning a country song of a marriage that ended in 1991. Along the way, Crowell released a string of justly acclaimed solo records, including 1989's Diamonds & Dirt. He made smash after smash under his own name ("Ashes by Now") or via cover versions by acts ranging from the Oak Ridge Boys ("Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight") to Bob Seger ("Shame on the Moon"). During a particularly dry spell for country music, few performers combined commercial appeal and critical acclaim more adroitly than did Rodney Crowell.
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These days, Crowell's racking up more raves than radio airplay, and that's a shame, because Fate's Right Hand, issued in 2003 on DMZ/Epic, shows that Kid was no fluke. The music is brawny, and the lyrics are among the most multifaceted to appear on a country CD in recent years. In contradiction to his claim that "my self-importance is a godforsaken bore," which he delivers in the rollicking "Preachin' to the Choir," he does an impressive job of balancing thematic ambition with lacerating wit. "Time to Go Inward," for example, jumps from heartfelt admissions of weakness to lines that praise the wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and Minnie Pearl. How-deeee!
Despite such lighthearted moments, Fate's Right Hand remains a generally somber exploration of Crowell's concerns, which makes The Notorious Cherry Bombs, set for release next month, an especially pleasant surprise. The platter marks the return of the Cherry Bombs, a combo from the late '70s whose members went on to bigger things -- not just Crowell and Vince "Mr. Amy Grant" Gill, but also steel guitarist Hank Devito, guitarist Richard Bennett and pianist Tony Brown, who now heads Universal South, the label releasing the CD. The old pals' sense of fun is highly communicable, particularly on what's likely to be the first single, a wacky lament succinctly titled "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips At Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long."
Camaraderie underscores every note on the disc, with the rapport between Crowell and Brown proving to be particularly solid. That makes sense, because their relationship has survived tests that would have shattered a lesser pairing.
In the Cherry Bombs' wake, Brown produced much of Crowell's catalogue, including Diamonds & Dirt. His success took him from studios to boardrooms at several firms before he landed the top job at MCA Records. When Crowell's relationship with his longtime label, Columbia Records, ran its course following the subpar performance of 1992's Life Is Messy, which detailed his breakup with Cash, Brown eagerly inked him to a three-album contract. Unfortunately, the two platters Crowell made for MCA -- 1994's Let the Picture Paint Itself and 1995's Jewel of the South -- were unhappy experiences for everyone.
"I wasn't proud of those records," Crowell concedes. "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."
Brown was unable to protect his buddy from such meddling. "Tony had his own political battles going on," Crowell points out. "When he wasn't able to gather enough support for me within that political structure, I started to kowtow, started to make music for that political mindset. I really went through some self-loathing about that, because I'd always believed wholeheartedly that my job as an artist was to get to the truth, and not to try to couch things to fit somebody's marketing plan."
Crowell describes what happened next in blunt terms. "They fired me," he says, before backing up a step or two. "Well, that might be a little bit of an overdramatization. Tony and [fellow executive] Larry Willoughby came to me and said, 'We can't rally the machine for what you're doing, so we think it's in your best interest that you move on.' So it was a gentle way to get fired."
By Crowell's admission, "It took a couple years to get over the bruise -- but my friendship with Tony became deeper after that. I know that was hard for Tony and Larry to do, and I had a lot of compassion for them. I think it was really important to Tony that I didn't turn away from him."
After leaving MCA, Crowell seemingly dropped out of sight. In reality, he was dealing with a series of intense personal matters, including the drug addiction that afflicted Caitlin, one of his four daughters. "It was during her late teen years, and she'd gotten herself into an absolutely reckless life," he reveals. "Knock on wood, she's going on three years clean and sober, and she's a functioning young woman in the music business, which is an amazing turnaround for her. But I was dealing with some deep stuff, and it made everything else seem so unimportant."
To get through this period, Crowell began writing prose, which eventually led him back to music. The songs he penned for Kid are intensely autobiographical, telling vivid tales of his Houston boyhood. Among the most striking is "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," in which Crowell juxtaposes reminiscences about the moment in 1956 when he first heard the Johnny Cash classic with segments in which Cash belts out the original lyrics over a modified melody.
Getting his former father-in-law to take part in the recording was a ticklish process. "I said to John, 'Man, we just wrote a song,' and he said, 'What?'" Crowell remembers with a chuckle. "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. That's when the audacity of what I was asking him to do dawned on me, and it dawned on him, too. He turned to me and said, 'You've got a lot of nerve.'"
Rather than backing down, however, Crowell stood his ground. "Being around him, everybody was always sucking up," he says. "But I always took the reverse attitude, which was, 'Hey, I'm my own man. I'm not gold-digging. I'm not here to kiss your ass.' And I think he always liked that, because there were so many people around yessin' him to death. That spirit gave us a good friendship that lasted long after the marriage to his daughter did. So I said, 'Yeah, you're right. I do have a lot of nerve, changing the melody of your song. 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."
Cash's response to the finished product was just as feisty. "I went over to his house and played it, and he said, 'Okay, that's good. But I'm not going to give you half the publishing'" -- meaning Cash wanted to receive all the profits from the song, even though Crowell had written most of it. Crowell was momentarily dumbstruck, but luckily June Carter Cash, Johnny's longtime spouse, rode to the rescue: "She said, 'Johnny, that's a tribute to you, and a damn good one. You stop it!' And he said, 'All right, I'll give him half of it.'"
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Last year, after Cash died, Crowell participated in musical salutes to the country icon, even though he was still grappling with grief over the loss of both Johnny and June, who'd preceded her husband to the grave by four months. When asked if the assorted tributes got to the heart of the man or the legend, he answers, "The legend. But his public persona was a large part of who he was."
The same is true of Crowell. He enjoyed making The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which he regards as a "palate cleanser," but he's already writing songs for his next album. The disc is sure to be another deeply personal effort, although he's uncertain what theme will come to the fore. "There's three or four records I want to make, and I could make, at this time, and that's a dilemma," he says. "It's like having a good hand of cards and knowing when to play the right one."
As for how he'll pay for the recording, there's always the bank. "I was pretty confident I'd be able to pay them back, and I did," Crowell says. But this time around, John Grady, the man behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who oversees Sony's Nashville operation, will likely provide him with seed money, protecting his checking account for another day.
For that, Crowell's wife is undoubtedly grateful.