Rodney Crowell’s visit to Cincinnati this week might seem to be just a routine return of an “old hand” Roots-music singer/songwriter — his first solo album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, was released in 1978.
But there are some dramatic new developments in Crowell’s long career. The record he released last year with Emmylou Harris, Old Yellow Moon, won a Grammy in January for Best Americana Album. An earlier tune of his, “After All This Time,” won a Grammy in the Best Country Song category in 1990.
After all this time, indeed.
“The second (Grammy) is better,” Crowell said during a recent phone interview. “You get older, you appreciate things more. That pat on the back feels a lot longer.”
Crowell says he appreciates the fact that he and Harris shared the Grammy. In 1975, after she recorded his composition “Till I Gain Control Again,” she asked him to join her touring Hot Band as rhythm guitarist. He did and remains eternally grateful for the early break.
“(The Grammy) was very poignant, and something of a full circle, because Emmylou had a lot to do with my career,” Crowell says. “She was the first artist to start recording my songs. And other people followed suit. If not for her, I wouldn’t be talking to you, probably.”
Another new development was that the most recent Grammy was in the Americana category, which didn’t exist in 1990.
“I guess somebody figured out this was a form of music a lot of people liked but mainstream radio doesn’t embrace so much,” he says. “So somebody created a category. Performers like Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), people making really good music for a long time, have sort of drifted into the category. It’s a way to frame singular-intent music.” (Crowell was just announced as a nominee for Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Association's awards.)
The recent Grammy was a milestone of a middle-age creative burst for the 63-year-old Crowell. It began when he returned to recording after a half decade off with his much-lauded, autobiographical The Houston Kid in 2001.
He has kept at it, honing his musical skills on a regular basis with solo albums as well as a project with poet-writer Mary Karr called Kin and a reunion with members of his old band The Cherry Bombs. He also published a memoir in 2011 about growing up in Houston, Chinaberry Sidewalks.
The secret to this streak of strong work?
“I kind of got it into my head that I was writing a memoir in song, which also led me to write Sidewalks,” he says. “It’s more of a singular approach to songwriting rather than the broad-stroke song. I decided to really dedicate myself to a more singular point-of-view.”
His newest work, released in April, is Tarpaper Sky, an album Crowell says was “performed not produced” in live sessions without the use of headphones by him, guitarist Steuart Smith, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Eddie Bayers. Backup vocals were added later.
The musicians on Tarpaper Sky were in the band that recorded 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt with Crowell. That album produced five No. 1 Country hits, as well as the Grammy-winning “After All This Time.” Crowell’s wife at the time, Rosanne Cash, was also making Country hits in the ’80s.
Among the 11 songs he wrote or co-wrote for Tarpaper Sky are many that seem to have the same singular, autobiographical point-of-view of his other recent work.
Opener “The Long Journey Home,” for instance, appears to conjure detailed, descriptive images from his past: “My dead drunk Uncle Fireball growls these words/Blood don’t make you family, boy/And I’ve got news for you/Rattlesnakes don’t sing like speckled birds.”
But that isn’t necessarily the case. Crowell has learned how to take the specificity of his recent writing and apply it to subjects that aren’t just based on first-person experience.
“I saw I had had a nice run (with) a very singular point of view as a songwriter, and enough of Tarpaper Sky is pulling back with a broad-stroke approach,” he says.
“Long Journey Home” actually reflects this, to some degree, as does the swaying Cajun rocker “Fever On the Bayou” and the Rockabilly-tinged “Frankie Please.”
But it’s not always so easy to draw a line between one and the other. The plaintive, acoustic love ballad “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” sounds confessional, with lines like, “Sometimes I think about leaving/And if I had some place to go/I might even crank up the engine/And roll down the street just for show.”
Broad-stroke or singular?
“Well, it is personal,” Crowell explains. “It’s a song to my wife. But it seems like whenever I write that kind of love song to that single person, it comes out broad-stroke.
“Love songs are broad-stroke, by definition,” he continues. “You make it singular in that you’re speaking to someone specific — it brings more poignancy to the narrative. But I think of that song as (one) George Strait could sing. It has that kind of appeal.”
Crowell arrived in Nashville in the early ’70s, a time when a new breed of performing songwriters was coming in the wake of Bob Dylan recording there. They were different from the conservative Countrypolitan professionals who had ruled.
Crowell says he — and pals like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others — brought new values. They didn’t just want to write hits for others; they wanted to write to their own inner voice.
“At three in the morning, we were all up and roaring and having a good time and the conversation was, ‘What are you working on,’” Crowell recalls. “Then you play a verse and chorus of something. Maybe it gets waved off, but maybe someone says, ‘Cool, you gotta finish that.’ That wasn’t about what kind of money you were going to make from it. That was about what you were learning about the craft of writing good songs.
“Money will come if you do good work, but it’s not the reason to do it,” he says. “That was never part of the equation with this bohemian crew. We were aiming for timelessness.”
And Crowell has certainly found it.
RODNEY CROWELL performs Thursday, May 15 at 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info here.