Young Country repellent

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Crowell's joy in his new-found freedom is clearly shared by his fellow Cicadas. Indeed, The Cicadas is a record remarkable for its start-to-finish consistency; it takes a while to listen all the way through because, time after time, one is tempted to replay certain tunes for the sheer enjoyment of hearing them over and over. The first single, "We Want Everything," an aching, haunting, angry song of loss, is already up and running on both AAA and Americana stations (the latter, curiously, is the upstart country format that plays real country artists, from George Jones and Merle Haggard to Robert Earl Keen and Rosie Flores).

And it doesn't escape Crowell's attention that the Cicadas hit would be anathema on mainstream country stations because of its subject matter.

"The song is about back-to-back suicides," Crowell says. "About the same time a friend of mine in New Orleans killed himself, my management company experienced Kurt Cobain killing himself, and there just seemed to be this rash of suicides for a short period.

"And I wrote that from this side, from feelings of disbelief and anger that people can choose to kill themselves." Crowell takes a deep breath. "I'm proud of that song in the way that it wasn't a labored piece of writing for me, it was just one of those that came out of...well, I personally believe that these songs exist in their whole state in some other reality than the one we're in right now.

"And my job is to bring them in from wherever they are as close to how they exist. And if I do a good job of that, those songs last a long time, and they're poignant, and they have an atmosphere and a life of their own."

Crowell stops far short of claiming that every song on The Cicadas is one of those from-the-beyond efforts, but the listener would be hard-pressed to pick which ones are and which ones aren't. "When Losers Rule the World," co-written by Crowell and Ben Vaughn, kicks the album off in laughably cool fashion. "Through the Past," a Crowell-Stan Lynch effort, marries trad-country narrative history and rock balladry. And "Our Little Town," a protracted effort that required lyrical closure from Crowell's old hero, Guy Clark, is as winsome a union between folk homily and breezy melody as one could ask for.

The Cicadas also found compositional bliss in an outside-the-realm collaboration: T-Bone Burnett and Bono's neo-country lament, "Wish You Were Her."

"That song goes way back," Crowell says with a laugh. "A friend of mine, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, came to my house in the mid-'80s, and at the time I had a sorta music den, and on the walls I'd hung all the gold and platinum albums I'd received.

"And he played me 'Wish You Were Her,' which is off T-Bone's Behind the Trap Door, and I was so stunned by its brilliance that I got up and took all the gold and platinum records down and I put them in storage. That was 12 years ago, and I haven't done anything like that since. It taught me that I'm an artist, not a museum keeper. That song changed my life, and what I think about the end result of what I do. Ever since then, I'd intended to record it, and with the Cicadas record, this became the time and place."

That sort of personal wake-up call is perfectly epitomized by the whole Cicadas project, which, he says, he anticipates being a permanent situation. The opportunities and power of the unit are exhilarating.

"I've never really tried to make music like this before," Crowell says. In fact, his new sense of experimentation is so far-reaching that he recently approached a rather unexpected artist for collaborative purposes. A voracious reader, Crowell was blown away by The Liars' Club, the acclaimed memoir by Texas-born author Mary Karr.

"I'm about a year late on that book," Crowell says, "but it's one of the most poignant and uplifting things I've read of late." His voice drops and takes on the embarrassed, slightly confessional quality of a shy teenager asking Jenny McCarthy to the prom. "I love that book so much that I wrote [Karr] a letter seeing if she wanted to write some songs."

Crowell laughs, as though he'd never written songs before, and that no one in their right mind would consider working with him. "She hasn't answered," he says, his voice a verbal shrug. "I don't know if she would. But I thought, you know...This is the first time I ever wrote a fan letter. And I said in it, 'Oh, and by the way. I think you could write songs if you wanted to.' I'm not attached to the outcome, but it would be fun."

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Rick Koster