Life is Messy

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 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky