Interview: Rodney Crowell Crafts a Musical Memoir With ‘Close Ties’
Rodney Crowell has been making music since the late 1970s, but in more recent years, his creative process has changed greatly. The 10 years spent writing his memoir, 2011’s Chinaberry Sidewalks, “completely” altered his songwriting process.
“Craft-wise and process-wise and revision wise, writing that book made me a better songwriter — technically, a better songwriter,” Crowell tells The Boot, noting that the first seven of those 10 memoir-writing years yielded very little of the final product. “Now, the songs that I write are far more fleshed out; they’re more airtight. I don’t let them go until they’re as good as I can make them.”
Age has a bit to do with it, too. “Those lightning bolts that you catch in a jar,” as Crowell describes the sort of inspiration he found in his early years, don’t come as often these days.
“When I was a younger person, I got some real flashes of brilliance. I wrote a song like “Shame on the Moon” that was [a No. 1 hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band in 1983], but the last verse was s–t. I’m still trying to re-write that last verse, and I had I gotten that burst of inspiration now, I would write that song more cleanly, and I would get it right,” Crowell explains. “Maybe what I’m doing may not be as broad-stroke as it would back in the day, but I’m really talking about my ability to deliver on what comes to me.”
And deliver Crowell does on Close Ties, released on Friday (March 31). His newest album’s 10 tracks pull from his upbringing in Texas, his early days in Nashville and memories of friends and former loves, all vividly woven into song. Words from Susanna Clark (the late Guy Clark‘s wife) are sung by Rosanne Cash in “It Ain’t Over Yet,” while Crowell and John Paul White‘s lines in that same song are inspired by Guy Clark and Crowell’s friendship. “Nashville 1972″ name-checks the Clarks, Tom T. Hall, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and more.
“It’s about place … about getting the story right,” Crowell says of being precise with his lyrics’ real-life references. He later adds that, yes, the lines about playing a “s–tty song” for Nelson at a party and then “puk[ing] out in the yard” are 100-percent true: “Oh, yeah, I puked … although it wasn’t ’cause of the song” (that song “didn’t make it past that moment, though”).
The music video for “Nashville 1972″ juxtaposes Crowell wandering around 2017 Nashville with the song’s nostalgic lyrics, such as “Things have changed round here, you bet / But it don’t seem much better yet.” However, the video’s plot, as it were — Crowell can’t get into the Ryman Auditorium, so he busks on Lower Broadway, then ends up onstage at Robert’s Western World — highlights how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“All of that happened just in the natural course of being down there and having a film crew, and we went with it,” Crowell recalls, calling it “serendipitous.” “So, in that sense, Nashville is no different now than it was in 1972. Things just happen.”
In addition to Cash and White, Sheryl Crow appears as a special guest on one of Close Ties‘ tracks, “I’m Tied to Ya.” That song, Crowell notes, has been around since 1997, when he started it on an artist exchange trip to Ireland. His writing partner had a great melody, and Crowell had his lines down — but the female part’s lyrics weren’t good enough until Crow agreed to be part of the track.
“[Crow] snapped me into focus,” Crowell admits. “I need[ed] to write words that Sheryl [wouldn’t] be ashamed to sing … God bless Sheryl for climbing on board to do it, because the song came into focus because of her.”
Easier to write, though, was “I Don’t Care Anymore,” which finds Crowell making fun of (“but with compassion,” he stresses) his younger self. After pulling out a copy of his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt — a gold-certified record featuring five No. 1 singles — and laughing at his fashion choice on its cover, Crowell went to his studio and had a good laugh while penning the self-deprecating track.
“[On that album cover,] it’s like I’m trying to be cool like Dwight Yoakam — which, Dwight had the handle on how to be cool back then — and I looked at it, and I said, ‘You poseur,'” Crowell remembers, laughing. “That young man that I was in 1988 — I was insecure. Besides making good music, I wanted to be cool; I wanted to be accepted and stuff.
“I really don’t care about that anymore; I really don’t,” Crowell adds. “That’s an honest statement, and … it’s actually really freeing.”
It’s an important statement, too. If Rodney Crowell had tried too hard to be Dwight Yoakam, country music wouldn’t have Rodney Crowell.
“The right thing happened,” Crowell agrees. “I’m very aware.”
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