After more than 40 years writing songs and making records, legendary singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell has written and recorded a holiday album full of 12 original takes on the merriment and madness of the season. To help celebrate the arrival of Christmas Everywhere (out 11/2 on New West), we chatted with Crowell to find out what inspired him to finally take a crack at Christmas music, what holiday music he enjoys listening to (and what he likes to stay away from), how his stacked guest list shaped the sound of Christmas Everywhere, and much more!
NoiseTrade: After being a prolific songwriter and recording artist since the 1970s, what inspired you to finally take a crack at recording a holiday record and what made now the time to do it? Has the thought ever come up before?
Rodney Crowell: No, I’d never thought of making a Christmas record. There was no reason to consider such an enterprise. But then, all of a sudden, the songs began to find me.
NT: You’ve released the tracks “Christmas Everywhere” and “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney On For Size” as singles. What can you tell us about the writing inspiration and recording of both songs?
Crowell: I had the whacky Spike Jones recordings in mind when I first began thinking about how to approach “Christmas Everywhere” – the fast paced cacophony that Christmas can be. My first draft seemed to lean more toward gypsy jazz so I called John Jorgensen, the premier gypsy jazz guitarist, and enlisted his help shaping the song – a wise choice on my part. With John’s help, I was able to achieve the frantic lyric I envisioned. As for “When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size” – the title came to me and with those words in mind, writing the song was a simple matter of amusing myself.
NT: Tell us about your own personal background with holiday music. Do you have any favorite musical memories from growing up around the holidays or any favorite songs or albums that have been released over the years?
Crowell: I never cared that much for Christmas music. The sentimentality and often banal language didn’t move me all that much. However, I do love the music video Bob Dylan made of “Must Be Santa.” I also like “Jingle Bell Rock” okay, especially the opening guitar riff. Along with the Dylan video, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night” are perhaps my favorite Christmas songs. Little drummer boys and lords a-leaping don’t quite do it for me.
NT: I always respect artists who try their hand at cracking the Christmas music code by writing their own originals. Was the “all originals, no covers” an intentional direction from the beginning or did the floodgates just open up when you first started writing for the project?
Crowell: If I were a vocalist with, say, Sinatra, Streisand or Vince Gill’s tonal quality, perhaps I’d have tackled the go-to Christmas songs. This not being the case, I went with my strength as a songwriter. How I came by the inspiration to write 12 original Christmas songs is a minor mystery to me. It was January in Scotland and the landscape, climate, and Dickensian streetlight I was seeing through leaded window panes struck a late 18th century chord within me. It was these images that I relied on once I was back home and intending to write a Christmas album. So yes, my intention was to make a Christmas album out of original songs.
NT: Your Christmas Everywhere guest list is stacked: Vince Gill, Lera Lynn, Mary Karr, Brennen Leigh. How did those invitations come about and what do you feel each guest brought to the album?
Crowell: I could imagine no other voice than Lera Lynn’s delivering the John Lennon dream sequence I’d conjured as part of “Christmas Everywhere.” Lera’s one of my favorite human beings. Getting Brennan Leigh to write a verse for “Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed” was entirely intuitive and was I ever right to call upon her. Mary Karr and I collaborated on the writing of “Christmas In Vidor” and “Let’s Skip Christmas This Year” and if you know her at all, you know it’d be foolish not to bring such a force of nature into the recording process. And, of course, Vince Gill has been singing on my records for nearly forty years and he never fails to make me sound better.
NT: As another Christmas treat, you’re opening all 12 nights of Vince Gill and Amy Grant’s “Christmas at The Ryman” residency. What are you looking most forward to about that experience and do you have any special surprises in store that you can tease out for us?
Crowell: 12 nights with Vince and Amy is a Godsend. As Amy said, “finally we get to spend time together during the holidays.” I look at every performance on the Ryman stage as a blessed, if not sacred, event and conduct myself accordingly. I’ll approach each performance with joy, humility and reverence. As for surprises, I’ll never tell.
NT: Finally, looking back over the entire holiday music canon, what is one holiday song you wish you could’ve written yourself, one holiday album that you wish you could’ve played on, and/or one holiday television special you would’ve loved to participate in somehow?
Crowell: I suppose I’d like to have written “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or even the Mel Torme tune with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and all that. That said, “Silent Night” pretty much sets the tone for what Christmas means to me.