Rodney Crowell: Playing to the A Student
Updated: May 1
If I could influence someone’s description of me I would say, ‘he was curious and he was humble. And somewhere way back in his emotional mindset he was very self-assured.’” – Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell grew up in Texas. His childhood was a hardscrabble one. It didn’t hit him until years later that he had been traumatized by it. His father was a hardcore alcoholic who wasn’t opposed to hitting his mother on occasion. Rodney carried that shame with him long into his adulthood.
His mother was epileptic and belonged to a fanatical, Pentecostal church. Rodney was shaken to his core after witnessing church members shouting at her, while having a seizure, to spit out the Devil. Despite having no use for organized religion of any kind he considers himself a spiritual person. “I’ve always had faith. I’ve never been without it. Ever.”
Rodney began playing drums in bars for his dad’s band when he was 11. His parents neither encouraged nor discouraged their only child’s musical aspirations. At 15, Rodney left home to join a rock and roll band. His dad and mom waved goodbye at the door. He doesn’t even remember if they said, “good luck.”
When he moved out, it didn’t occur to Rodney that playing in a band wasn’t a practical way to make a living. “I never considered anything else and I think for that very reason I’ve had a career that’s lasted. I’ve paid the bills making music since I was fifteen. Music was the catnip. And I was one of those cartoon cats that was just floating through the air following the sound. I’ve been pulled along since day one, really.”
These days Rodney is known primarily for his work as a grammy award winning country music singer/songwriter. His compositions have been recorded by Keith Urban, Bob Seger, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash. His acclaimed memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is a continuation of the door he opened into his childhood with his semi-autobiographical album, The Houston Kid. He has continued to weave the narrative of his life throughout the albums he’s made since then.
By the time Rodney was 22, he had made his way to Nashville. He had fallen in with group of songwriters who mentored each other through the learning process. At the helm of them was Guy Clark. He gave Rodney a book of poet, Dylan Thomas’s to study. He wanted to make clear what they were doing was creating art.
Rodney poured over it. For the first time in his life, he came to the conclusion that songwriting wasn’t something you just do to make money. Being an artist was about sharing your deeper self.
Around 1998, the stardom Rodney longed for began to materialize. At the time, he was married to singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash.They were raising Rodney’s daughter from his first marriage and three of their own girls. That same year his album, Diamonds and Dirt yielded five consecutive No.1 singles. It looked like Rodney had hit the big time. Blinded by churning out music for the masses, he had lost sight of the artist he envisioned himself being in his early twenties. Rodney felt like he had fallen into mediocrity. The celebrity he counted on making him happy had become a detriment to his psyche. “In my youth I craved fame because I was a young man unfulfilled. I was trying to fix the holes in my soul that were there from childhood.”
With the realization that he had lost his way, Rodney shifted gears and self-financed his album Houston Kid. It was a risky move. He made it with the cash he had on hand, even bouncing a couple of checks in the process.“I had to fund that record on my own because I wanted to make the exact music I wanted to make. When I was doing something on someone else’s dime I was inclined to try to anticipate what they wanted. I knew that wasn’t what an artist was supposed to do. In funding my own music, I found my voice.” Eleven albums later he has never veered from that path.
No longer chasing fame, Rodney’s focus is on a career with longevity. “As T-Bone Burnett said to me a long time ago, ‘Oh Rodney, I get it. You don’t want to be rich. You play to the A student.’ He was being funny and sarcastic, but if you’re going to follow your own heart, you have to be prepared to have a small following because it’s singular sensibility as opposed to board stroke sensibility.”
Rodney has learned much over the 50 odd years he has been in the music business. One thing is for certain, he no longer allows fear to dictate his actions. “I remember forming the mindset that if I was afraid of something, I would do it. As a matter of a fact, I made Houston Kid because I was afraid to expose a lot of material in that. I was afraid to write about my father being an abuser of women…so I did it. And it transformed the way I go about doing things. Maybe for awhile I was too revealing. But maybe not.”
Looking back Rodney is at peace with his childhood. In fact, he says he wouldn’t change a thing about it. It’s the trajectory that brought him to where he is today. His faith in God has taken a real departure from the perimeters his mother gave him. “For one thing I wouldn’t call it a him. It’s male and female. It’s beyond gender. It’s singular. It’s mainly love and supreme intelligence. It’s an internal thing that’s outwardly expressed. And I think if that particular discussion even comes close to the coffee table it’s missing the point.”
Today Rodney still follows his heart. It is something that spills over into all areas of his life. He acknowledges his parents did the best they could with what they had. What they weren’t capable of giving him Rodney made sure he gave to his daughters. He owns that he’s done right by them, “I’m a good dad, that’s for sure.”
As far as Rodney can tell they are all following their dreams. “Of course they are. I raised them that way. My girls grew up with the example of following your heart or muse right in front of them, sometimes frustratingly so. Sometimes it was hard for them to get my attention because my head was elsewhere. But they understood although my head may have been elsewhere, my heart never was.”
“I’ll bet that when you’re dying, you’re not going to think about the money you made. You’re going to think about your art.” – Guy Clark
Moving through his 70th decade Rodney has an unwavering faith that he’s doing exactly what he was put on Earth to do. He is a man whose talents are fully realized. That is no accident. The resolve to be true to himself has brought him to that place.”I don’t think I can create anything of lasting value unless it comes from the heart. I’ve had this knowing all along. Even when I lost a handle on how to do it.”
Rodney Crowell has come to terms with his days on Earth being numbered. That awareness makes time precious. He no longer puts off being with the people he loves. And when he’s not doing that he’s making art.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan