With this week’s release of his brand new album Close Ties, we sat down with songwriting legend and elder statesmen of Americana, Rodney Crowell. During our engaging chat with the celebrated singer-songwriter, Crowell gave us a peek behind the curtain regarding the autobiographical themes on Close Ties, the infamous cast of characters in early-‘70s Nashville, and his pitch-perfect recommendations for the best Americana albums of all-time.
Noisetrade: Your new album Close Ties is an incredible mix of a concept record, an autobiography, a musical history lesson, and more. At what point during the songwriting process did you start seeing the connecting themes between these new songs?
Rodney Crowell: I’d actually written quite a few songs for this record when I told my producer Kim Buie that I needed her to step in and be my editor. I knew I wanted an acoustic sounding record with a certain energy. I also wanted to have a loose narrative running through the album that tied the songs together as well.
Another thing that happened over the season of writing the bulk of these songs is that some people who were very close to me died. That found it’s way into the narrative as well. It became a reflection of me looking at a world that these people aren’t in anymore.
Some of the songs are older, like “Nashville 1972,” which I wrote about five or six years ago with no intention of recording it. I don’t know how Kim heard it, but when she did she said, “You’ve got to record this song. It’s a summation of the whole record.” I really trust Kim and her musical instincts, so it’s something we were finding together as we worked on the album.
NT: Speaking of “Nashville 1972” – which, by the way, is genuinely one of the most beautiful songs that has ever been written about the rich mythos of the city. What are your thoughts on the shape of the city and the music that surrounds it back then versus now?
Crowell: It was definitely more innocent back then. I arrived in Nashville in my early twenties and money was not a consideration in regards to songwriting. The songwriting culture was much closer to the street. Guy Clark was kind of the curator of the street culture of songwriting, at least as far as the group that I fell into with people like Mickey Newbury, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Dave Olney.
Back then, there was no pressure to earn money and the conversations were about the process of songwriting. It was well before the corporatization of the Nashville music business. Now, when a young talent is discovered, people don’t look at the ability to develop that talent as much as how they can make money off of it. That creates a “shortcut mentality” for an artist: “If I can write the flavor of the moment, then I can get the income stream rolling.” That just wasn’t around in the early 1970s. We were trying to write songs that you could build an entire career on.
NT: Of all of the name drops in “Nashville 1972,” Tom T. Hall gets referenced the most, including the song’s last line. Was that an intentional move to show his impact on you or just a matter of his name fitting well in the chorus?
Crowell: Well, there were other songwriters that had more of an impact on me. Mickey Newbury, for one. If I could’ve gotten Billy Joe Shaver in there, I would have. But back then, Tom T. Hall was already in the position of being a touring performer and was accepted into the mainstream. Plus, he was such a poet. Let’s just say that Tom T. Hall is an archetype that represents for folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson.
Also, as a songwriter, you have to make choices around rhyme and phrasing and Tom T. Hall worked really well in the context of that song.
NT: Have you been contacted by any songwriter friends who didn’t get a shout-out in the song?
Crowell: (laughs) No, I haven’t yet. I hope I don’t!
NT: Moving on to “East Houston Blues”… Do you find that personal songs with such vivid, real world details from your life are easy or hard to write for you?
Crowell: You know, I was just thinking about this recently. It does seem that I’m a musical memoirist of sorts. I’ve been writing my memories into song since my early twenties or so. Sometimes a lyric won’t be specifically autobiographical material but it’s autobiographical to the world in which I grew up. I have an older song called “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” where I say “Dad drove a stock car to an early death.” My father didn’t actually do that, but there was a local racecar driver that I adored when I was nine or ten years old named Billy Wade who did drive a stock car to an early death. When he finally got his shot at Daytona, he died during a practice run. These composite memories from growing up always find their way into songs.
I do it in my new song “East Houston Blues” too. I wasn’t 12 when I first learned to drink and drive, I was 14. 12 just happens to sing better than 14 (laughs).
NT: As you’ve gotten older and more experienced as a songwriter, are you able to access those feelings and emotions any differently for the purposes of songwriting?
Crowell: I think I just have a more dedicated work ethic now. I’ve also incorporated revision into my songwriting with much better results. When you’re young, capturing inspiration is like lightning in a bottle, but sometimes that only gets you two-thirds of the way through a really great song and then you just cobble together an ending to finish it. I have much more dedication to it now. When I’m home, I get up in the morning and work on songs. My dedication to the craft and the process of songwriting is what awards me with inspiration. It’s in the “elbow grease,” as they say.
NT: For all the nostalgic touches on Close Ties, the song “It Ain’t Over Yet” really shows the forward-leaning momentum of the album. Tell us where that song came from and how important it was for you to have Rosanne Cash and John Paul White join you on it.
Crowell: That song came when my friend Guy Clark was dying. During the last six months of his life, I visited him about 10 or 12 times. As his physical countenance deteriorated, I started writing the song. In the beginning, my idea was to just sit with Guy and pretend we were writing a song because that’s what he loved to do. I finished the song right before he died and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to play it for him.
The song wound up as a three-way conversation between Guy, myself, and Susanna – her part is the bridge. When I wrote that bridge, I immediately thought of Rosanne and how she’d be perfect for that lyric and melody. I sent it to her and she immediately got back to me and said she’d be happy to do it.
At first, I didn’t know who I wanted to sing the chorus. I knew I wanted to sing the verses, but since it’s a conversation, I wanted another voice for the chorus. It was my producer Kim Buie who suggested John Paul. I knew him from The Civil Wars and had met him a couple of times. When he came in and recorded it, I was blown away. I didn’t realize his voice was so good on it’s own since I had only heard him sing with two voices in The Civil Wars. We became fast friends and I have a great love and admiration for John Paul. He’s a really good man.
That opening lyric – “It’s like I’m sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a train” – actually came from Billy Joe Shaver. I heard him say it one day and told him it was such a great line. He said he never used it, so I had my opening line thanks to Billy Joe.
NT: The music video is absolutely stunning as well and really elevates the meaning of the song. What was your experience shooting that video?
Crowell: I learned a lot on that video, which is “show up and let the director tell you what to do.” The credit for that video goes to Reid Long, who was the director. He only had John Paul and I in the same room. He actually had Rosanne and Mickey Raphael, who plays harmonica on the song, in different houses in different states to pull it all together. My hat goes off to Reid.
Reid also did the video for “Nashville 1972” as well. I collaborated a bit more with him for that one, but I worked with him again mainly because I was so delighted with what he did on “It Ain’t Over Yet.” Even collaborating with him a little bit, I made it a point to stay out of it and let him be the artist.
NT: As some who has said, “I declare my loyalty to Americana”- a genre that defies any clean-cut definitions – what does that term evoke in you as a songwriter?
Crowell: Freedom. Freedom to chase my singular point of view. I’ve been lucky enough over my career to occasionally write songs with a broad-stroke point of view. “Please Remember Me” or “’Til I Gain Control Again” are examples of broad-stroke love songs, both of which are really prayers when I look at them. But my loyalty to Americana is in that freedom of not always having to do that. Mind you, the audience is smaller, but they don’t go away when you’re not on the radio. My songs are more singular now, not so broad-stroke in nature.
NT: Finally, if you could recommend three albums from other artists from any era (past or present) that represent Americana high-water marks, which ones should listeners seek out?
Crowell: Most definitely The Band’s self-titled “brown album” would be first. Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan as well. Let me flash forward a little bit… How about Dreaming My Dreams by Waylon Jennings. If I could have an alternate, take a real close listen to Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection. It’s such a brilliant record.