The Unbroken Circle: Rodney Crowell’s Long And Storied Highway

From underground sensation to mainstream hit-maker and, currently, alt-country legend and icon, Rodney Crowell’s influence on country music most certainly can’t be overstated … but it has been understated.

That story usually begins in the 1970s, specifically August 1972, when the Houston-born songwriter drove to Tennessee to join a crop of other hungry songwriters from the Lone Star State that had congregated in Nashville’s West End. But even the beginning of that journey was more like a full-circle moment for the songwriter whose parents grew up sharecropping in west Tennessee, met at a Roy Acuff show in 1942, and moved to the oil refineries of Houston shortly after they married.

And on the east side of Houston, the country music that people loved came from Nashville. “Hank Williams was a hero in our household and, later, Johnny Cash,” he notes in Michael Streissguth’s Outlaw. Crowell was just two years old when his father took him to see Hank Williams live.

He was born to a hardscrabble life, however. Where he lived, “the house’s roof was a sheet of plywood covered with a layer of tarpaper and a mixture of hot tar and pea gravel spread across the surface and left to dry,” he notes in his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. “Hurricane Carla would soon uncover the flaws in this plan. The living room and my bedroom held together surprisingly well. Had the leaks that began in the kitchen and my parents’ bedroom been swiftly repaired, perhaps they wouldn’t have become indoor waterfalls.”

Music, naturally, served as an escape. Crowell began playing in his father’s honky-tonk band at the age of eleven, and at fifteen, he formed his own band that would play anything from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to rhythm and blues, along with, according to the band’s business card, “country, if you want it.” Despite the stylistic diversity on display, though, it wasn’t New York or Austin or Los Angeles that Crowell settled on when he wanted to pursue music further; it was Nashville, because that’s where the kings and queens of the country music he loved dearly resided.

He spent his first nights sleeping in his car, until he rented a house on Acklen Street in Hillsboro Village, with fellow Texas songwriter Richard Dobson and bassist Skinny Dennis Sanchez. Those nights together of song-swapping were just first tastes for what Crowell would experience in his earliest years in Nashville, and what Nashville itself would experience as a wave of incoming songwriters from Texas came to shake up the traditional system.

It happened, in part, thanks to the newly opened Exit/In, a small live-music venue located near Vanderbilt University, and because of the guidance of another Texas-born songwriter who moved to Nashville from Los Angeles after finding inspiration from fellow songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and fellow Texan Mickey Newbury – Guy Clark. Exit/In served as something of a showcase folk club within Nashville for songwriters to test the waters with their self-written material in front of younger, more progressive audiences. And before the actual “test” came into play, songwriters could hone their skills by meeting together at the home of Guy and Susanna Clark.

These songwriters never wrote with commercial aspirations in mind, though some did capture Nashville’s attention in their own way, first through Kris Kristofferson, then through Jerry Jeff Walker, who cut Clark’s own “L.A. Freeway” and cracked not the country charts with it, but Billboard’s Hot 100. Still, commercial success was not the true goal for these songwriters; it was artistic success and personal fulfillment.

Crowell was just one of many songwriters who worked under Clark’s wing, but he’d be the one to find arguably the greatest – or, at the very least, the most versatile – type of success of those Texas songwriters. “I remember Guy Clark telling me, the second time we ever sat in conversation, he said, ‘You’re a talented guy. You can be a star, you probably have the talent to do it. Or you can be an artist. Pick one. They’re both worthwhile pursuits. Pick one,’ ” he notes in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary.

Crowell would, inevitably, find a way to pick both, and in another eerily ironic and prophetic tale that would foreshadow things to come, with his newfound “L.A. Freeway” royalties, Clark bought a house on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville and often invited Crowell to visit. One night, while cruising around together in Clark’s boat, Clark pointed to Johnny Cash’s house, unaware of how big a role the man who lived inside would later play in Crowell’s life.

Crowell, too, would soon enjoy the high life alongside Clark, who by then was struggling as a songwriter and nearly broke. His recordings caught the attention of RCA recording artist Jerry Reed, who along with Harry Warner and Chet Atkins owned the publishing company Vector Music, and signed Crowell to a publishing deal. The new school was now in session, and when Reed recorded Crowell’s own “You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee,” he escaped from the West End and found new opportunities.

Rodney crowell China berry sidewalks
‘Chinaberry Sidewalks’ largely chronicles Rodney Crowell’s upbringing and childhood.

Of course, Texas always had the bigger part of his heart, and not too long after arriving in Nashville, Crowell left to explore the newest sensation down in Austin – Willie Nelson. “Willie was a poet,” he notes in Outlaw. “He was a long-haired stoned hippie country-singing songwriter, but it was all the embodiment of poetry … I went there and was going to be a poet. That’s what I was going to do.”

Or at least he would’ve, until Emmylou Harris – a songwriter who had been making a name for herself within country music, thanks in part to two critically acclaimed albums released in 1975, Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel – asked Crowell to join her Hot Band, comprised mainly of leading rock instrumentalists from the West Coast. “Rodney was kind of like my kid brother,” Harris notes in Country Music. “We were the same kind of sort of quasi-hippie kids, but we had totally different upbringings. He grew up with country music. He was kind of my partner in this wonderful ‘crime’ of making country music – outside the lines, but with total respect for the tradition of country music.”

In a way, Harris was living out the dream cast by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to thrive artistically and commercially without Nashville interference, and she even recorded a few of Crowell’s own compositions along the way – like “Bluebird Wine” and “Till I Gain Control Again,” among others. She boosted Crowell to new prominence as a songwriter, and with the latter hit alongside “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good” landing as B sides to top ten country hits, Crowell had hit his first real big break since leaving Houston years earlier. Harris’ manager took over Crowell’s career and helped him land a record deal with Warner Bros., and while his label debut, Ain’t Living Long Like This, was far from a commercial success, it resonated with the right people regardless. Willie Nelson was a background vocalist on the album, and soon, Waylon Jennings – who had, ironically enough, never crossed paths with Crowell up to that point – recorded several of Crowell’s own songs, including the title track to that label debut and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” among so many others. The Oak Ridge Boys and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also joined in, by recording “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “An American Dream,” respectively.

But with increased success came a break from the Hot Band, and soon enough, Crowell was a mad hatter of the country music industry, recording his own material and trying his hand at production for Rosanne Cash, who became his wife in 1979. At the time, Cash was worried about following in her famous father’s footsteps, not just because she didn’t want audiences to see her only as Johnny Cash’s daughter, but because she saw firsthand the repercussions her father’s career took on his personal and family life.

When Crowell began work on Cash’s second album in California, he noted, in Country Music, “she was shy and a little reticent to put her own sensibilities out there. She was keenly aware of the finer points of her father’s creative mastery [and] why he was a global icon – a very articulate, intelligent young woman right on the cusp of becoming a fully realized artist when I met her.”

Cash’s album would include some of the members of the Hot Band – now named the Cherry Bombs (and would later have Vince Gill and Tony Brown among its ranks) – as session players, and her very first number one hit, “Seven Year Ache,” would stem from an argument with Crowell outside a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. The couple eventually moved to Nashville, and Cash continued her hot streak as an outsider, just as her father had, albeit in her own way. It worked. Her 1985 single “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” was a No. 1 hit that won a Grammy award, and the album it stemmed from produced three more top five singles. Cash’s streak would fade as the decade came to a close, but after her own King’s Record Shop went gold, her husband released an album that did just the same and set an unprecedented new record for a country music artist.

The ironic part of the story at this point is that, while it was clear he could write and produce hits for other artists – including outside of the country music genre by penning Bob Seger’s “Shame On the Moon” – Crowell couldn’t log a hit for himself yet. He turned to his former piano player and eventual MCA label president, Tony Brown, for advice, who promptly told him to “think radio,” echoing shades of Guy Clark’s own advice to Crowell from long ago. They began work on songs specifically geared toward country radio, which would all form Crowell’s own Diamonds and Dirt album, released in 1988. Its first single was a duet with Cash, called “It’s Such a Small World,” which became the first of five consecutive No. 1 singles off the album for Crowell. It was followed by “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” then by “She’s Crazy For Leavin’,” originally a Guy Clark composition left unfinished, then by “After All This Time,” a song originally written for Willie Nelson in 1978, and finally by a Wynn Stewart cover of “Above and Beyond.”

“After All This Time” was likely the riskiest choice, a four-minute-long ballad that was very slow in tempo and was rearranged to chronicle the growing riffs between Crowell and Cash’s marriage (which would eventually lead to divorce, in 1992), but it resonated nonetheless, and for a brief moment in time, Crowell was an A-list country act. Keys to the Highway followed the star-making breakthrough collection but couldn’t quite muster up to its lofty expectations, with a cover that seemed to emphasize a tougher image for Crowell and no No. 1 singles this time around. And though the next album, Life is Messy, was led by the top ten “Lovin’ All Night,” its other singles outside of “What Kind of Love” failed to even chart, and Crowell’s Columbia Records days came to a close. 

Rather than fret over it, however, Crowell bounced back just fine knowing that he had pulled off the unlikely and seemingly impossible – top the charts with meaningful, self-penned material. Everything else was just an added bonus. So he produced albums for Guy Clark and Jim Lauderdale, and in time became an icon for the growing alt-country and Americana movement of the ‘90s. But he also chose to focus mostly on his family during the decade, with the only other notable marks surrounding his work in the decade coming from his role within the country-rock band the Cicadas in 1997.

Another irony: Crowell is mostly seen today as an icon today for the underground spirit of the Americana genre, but several mainstream artists have made hits out of his own recordings, too, including Tim McGraw’s “Please Remember Me,” Keith Urban’s “Making Memories of Us,” and Lee Ann Womack’s “Ashes By Now.” Really, the new century brought forth a rejuvenation for Crowell’s career in several ways. He became something of a philosopher through four critically acclaimed albums of the 2000s, including 2001’s The Houston Kid, an inward-looking album that contained reflections of Crowell’s childhood through fondness (but without simple nostalgia) in “I Walk the Line (Revisited)” and “Telephone Road,” and with bleakness in “The Rock of My Soul” and “Topsy Turvy,” the latter of which chronicled his parents’ abusive relationship. The Outsider, released in 2005, could be viewed as an appropriate sequel based off the title alone. But really, considering that album’s inspirational atmosphere that aims to connect rather than divide, it’s a fitting way to describe Crowell’s career in general – an outsider who never shunned the system but also never embraced it, instead opting to find his own unique place within it. On that note, he succeeded, and the proof is in a storied career that hasn’t ended just yet.

One comment

  1. Wow, amazing stuff, Zack!

    Rodney Crowell has long been one of my personal favorites. ‘The Houston Kid’ is one of the seminal albums in my development as a country music fan. I’ll never ever forget the first time I heard “The Rock of My Soul” as an 18-year-old and being utterly blown away.

    I think he has to have one of the most impressive and unusual careers in country music history. He’s both a mainstream country star and an alt-country legend. He’s famous as a singer, but also as someone who’s written plenty of enduring songs that other artists have made famous. How many people can say those things?

    Liked by 1 person

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