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Life is Messy

Rodney Crowell, walking down Amnesia Lane: The Houston Kid is the best album of Crowells 22-year-long recording career.
Mark Graham

He wanders into the lobby of the Dallas Observer looking not a little lost and anonymous. It's little surprise that no one asks him his business or offers him assistance, as his is not a recognizable face, and even when it's revealed to a couple of curious passers-by who he is, they care very little, offering, at best, a shrug...at most, a shrug. Perhaps if this were Nashville, Rodney Crowell--possessor of numerous Grammy Awards and other music-industry accolades, owner of a handful of No. 1 country songs, writer of top-10 hits for the likes of Bob Seger ("Shame on the Moon") and the Oak Ridge Boys ("Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight") and dozens of others--might attract more attention; if musicians were ballplayers, Crowell would possess hall-of-fame stats. But in the hallways of a newspaper, he is just another subject looking for a tape recorder into which he can recite his life's story. And, for the moment, that is fine with him: During the course of the next hour or so, Crowell will say repeatedly that he thinks of himself as nothing more and nothing less than a man proud to put in a hard day's work, and a proud man should also possess humility enough to walk the streets unknown.

It is a rare thing for a man of Crowell's stature--and he does indeed rank among the music industry's elite, lest you mistake him for just another journeyman looking for a hit--to prowl a newspaper's corridors. This is a business in which you go to the mountain, or at least a restaurant where the mountain will make Important Conversation about his new record over chips and salsa. But Crowell will insist repeatedly that his forthcoming album, The Houston Kid, is not one more piece of product to be promoted today and sold at The Nice Price the day after tomorrow. That's why he's at the doorstep with hat in hand, the Fuller Brush man who wants you to know why you needneedneed what he has to offer. Likely, you will not forget the man if he comes to you, sits on your couch, and tells you his secrets.

"This record is important to me," Crowell says, sitting in a cramped office decorated like a dorm room at a junior college. "And it's important to me because I am an artist. That's what I do. I get up in the morning sometimes, I drink a cup of coffee, and I go, 'Yup, I'm an artist,' and I have gratitude. A lot of people get up and go to jobs they don't want to go to, and I have one I am grateful for."

He is explaining why he's making the rounds, visiting every writer and DJ in the state--the one in which he was born 50 years ago, the son of sharecroppers' children. As far as he's concerned, The Houston Kid is the only album of his of which he's proud. The rest of them--all 11, including 1989's Diamonds & Dirt, which spawned five top-10 hits and is being reissued this month with three unearthed demos--wouldn't make up two good records if combined. It's the sort of album every artist wants to make: The Great American Record--personal confessional as collective insight, autobiography as universal truth. And it's the sort of album every music journalist wants to write about, because it's revelatory and messy and brilliant and painful and uplifting; it peels back the curtain separating performer from fan and allows for intimate glimpses poorly faked in publicity photos. Crowell even paid for the album out of his own pocket, as he was without a label for the first time since his 1978 debut, Ain't Living Long Like This.

Every artist, dilettante or icon, gets into the business of tale-telling because they believe theirs is a story worth sharing; when the English-lit professor told them there's a novel inside all of us, they're the ones who believed him. But somewhere between the first word on the page and the final period of the piece, they look so far inward, their stories translate to no one; they're written in indecipherable code, solipsistic gibberish. For proof, look no further than most rock stars' releases on which they write about the perils of being famous, a subject to which no one but the most gilded of lilies can relate. Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, writes about growing up poor, discovering rock and roll on the car radio--and living in fear of being beaten by the same fists that battered his mother.

"The rock of my soul went to church on Sunday/The rock of my soul went to work on Monday," Crowell sings of his father, James Walter Crowell, an Arkansan who grew up on a small Kentucky farm and left school after eighth grade to help tend the family land. J.W. landed in Houston after marrying Rodney's mother, Cauzette Willoughby, herself the daughter of farmers, and moving for a time to Detroit, where he did a stint on the assembly line. Houston was the land of plenty (as it turned out, plenty awful) for J.W., who moved south looking for work on the docks. The family settled in East Houston, amongst shotgun shacks and two-room hovels, and J.W. took whatever odd jobs he could find, including delivering ice.

 

But it was not the life J.W. planned for his family, so he took it out on them, making his son "a firsthand witness to an age-old crime," as Rodney sings on The Houston Kid. "A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime," he sings in a deceptively soft, sweet voice. "Five, 6, 7, 8, 9 years old/That's what I remember about the rock of my soul/I told him I would kill him if he did not stop it/But the rock of my soul just would not drop it." Later, in the rollicking "Topsy Turvy," Crowell sings of how his old man thought whiskey made him "strong and smart," when it merely rendered him "crazy as an outhouse rat"--crazy enough to bust out the kitchen windows with a baseball bat, crazy enough to give his wife a black eye. Crowell wishes only for a brother or sister with whom he can share the grief; his was a rather private hell from which he longed to escape: "I wish some kind of millionaire would come adopt me on the spot."

The album is not entirely autobiographical--Crowell refers to himself as an ex-con fresh out of the joint, blurring the lines between memories and the made-up--but there's enough evident truth to make The Houston Kid an unsettling listen at times. Crowell has never obscured his lyrics behind metaphor and imagery. His has always been the plain language of conversation--describing the first kiss and the first swing, the flush of new romance and the pain of dead love. The albums he and ex-wife Rosanne Cash recorded during the disintegration of their 12-year marriage were like missives from the front; the two lay bare and battered at the end.

But Crowell's writing--and, for the first time, his performance--has never felt more immediate or visceral; he's populated his tale with characters (Spitshine Charlie and Peg Leg Bill "dressed to kill," or the "cracker gigolo dressed up like trick-or-treat") and places (Prince's burger joint, the docks) and influences (Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins) that linger from his childhood. It deals both with his fears of being washed-up ("Some people 'round here think I've lost it," from "Why Don't We Talk About It") and his discovery that "love is all I need," a sentiment that ends the disc and keeps it from being too overwhelming.

"What's daunting about it is..." Crowell is trying to explain why he made The Houston Kid, why so public a person would make so private an album. He began working on The Houston Kid two years ago, shortly after his mother's death in 1998. Crowell had long wanted to make a record such as this one, but found it impossible: Either he wasn't ready, or the myriad major labels to which he had been signed wanted no part of it, and who was he to argue with the people scooping money from buckets? For a while, he even thought he was tapped out: In 1994, he signed to MCA Records after stints on Warner Bros. and Columbia, and found himself trying to fit a format he had long ago outgrown. He recorded two albums for MCA, Let the Picture Paint Itself in 1994 and Jewel of the South a year later, and says now he was "ashamed" of both. It was time to start over, and when Cauzette died, Crowell thought it was appropriate to begin sharing his life's tale, if only because one doesn't tell tales when family is still alive. He worried about only one thing: He didn't want listeners to think he was trolling for their pity.

"It's a good fear, I think," he says. "I had a fear in operation, which was I knew I was getting right on the edge of Oprah Winfrey self-exposure, but I gotta be really careful to tell this in such a way that all the characters keep their dignity and I don't try to unduly draw a sympathetic vote my way. I don't want to manipulate the listeners with this. I don't want the sympathy vote with this, and I tried to stay real honest with myself about when I was crossing the line into giving this information and exposing this truth. What's my reason for exposing this truth? Is it to draw attention to me and to get you to go, 'Awwww'? When I would always sit with it, it would always come up, 'Naw, that's now what I'm doing.' My reason for doing this is it's the job of an artist to be a mirror and get to the truth. All the artists I love and admire so much, that's what they do.

 

"What I learned about songwriting a long time ago was if I write a song that's true to me and true about my experiences--a song that is a photograph of that thing, whatever it is--then it's true for everybody. All those great songs, that's what they are." He begins singing 'I Still Miss Someone' by Johnny Cash: 'At my door the leaves are falling, a cold wild wind has come..." He stops and begins speaking again. "That's true for that man who wrote that song, and that's true for all of us."

Cash comes up often in conversation; he remains Crowell's idol and friend long after Rodney divorced Johnny's little girl. Indeed, Cash shows up on The Houston Kid, on a song titled "I Walk the Line Revisited," lending his vocals to what is essentially a remake of his 1956 standard. Cash at first balked at the way Crowell changed his tune, but eventually came around; Rodney's still his kin, even at a distance. For the first time in his career, Crowell's made a record worthy of Cash's cameo: The Houston Kid recalls the likes of Nick Lowe, Sam Phillips, even the Beatles every now and then ("Topsy Turvy" is awash in Rubber Soul psychedelic pop). Crowell admits it was indeed his goal to be placed in such company. He has the awards, now he'd like a little respect.

"I had to get my own self-respect," he says. Suddenly, he breaks into a grin, and his eyes open a little wider. "I just had an epiphany. I think I needed to make The Houston Kid so that I could see myself with those artists I admire. That's a pretty vulnerable thing for me to say. That's why I needed to do this piece of work--so I could feel like I belonged in the class with Emmylou Harris and Tom Waits and your artists of integrity. Funny, there were a lot of people who already perceived me as being there, I guess, but I didn't. I did as a songwriter, but not as a recording artist."

The Houston Kid is but a small part of that process: Two weeks ago, he was in Houston filming a documentary about his life that will accompany the release of the new album in February. He is also writing his memoirs, a task he'd like to complete before he begins working on his next album. When his mother died, he began writing prose for the first time and decided he had lived long enough and been through enough--playing with Emmylou Harris in her first Hot Band, being married to and divorced from Rosanne Cash, getting remarried to model-cum-country star Claudia Church, for starters--to begin penning his autobiography.

But, he insists, The Houston Kid is the heartrending side of his tale; the book will deal with the humor of age and experience. He waves off the notion that he's a man at a crossroads, looking back and vanquishing old ghosts before he can move forward. His story has been so often romanticized--more than one writer has told stories about how an 11-year-old Rodney played drums in his daddy's band, without ever mentioning how Rodney was terrified of the abusive J.W.--that Crowell would prefer it be told realistically from now on.

"Writing memoirs is not confronting old ghosts," he says, emphatically--and with a small grin. "I've lived long enough to where those old ghosts are funny. I've lived long enough to see how fucked-up we all are. I mean, I come from some crazy stock--people with a notion. They're people who say, 'I'm gonna drink half a case of Jax beer and get in my car and put it in low gear and see how fast I can drive it, and lesse what happens.' My Uncle Porter and Uncle Raymond would take down a telephone pole and walk away unharmed. On one hand, you can look at that and say those are old ghosts, or you can look at that and say those are crazy, funny sumbitches.

"My intention in writing the memoir is, I try to find the humor in it. To me, the humor is the beauty of where I've been, whereas the songs on The Houston Kid, because I write songs first, I sort of confronted the ghostly, edgy dysfunction, for lack of a better word. In writing the prose, it's about..." He pauses a moment. "My mother and father are dead, and it's far more important to paint the picture of the humor that was their lives--seventh-, eighth-grade-educated son and daughter of sharecroppers going to Houston without a clue of what to do and scratching out something out of all of that and doing it without a clue. In that cluelessness lies the humor, so it may be romanticizing it to think of it as confronting old ghosts, when it really is a joy."

 


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