As one century turned into another, Rodney Crowell left behind his career as a country hitmaker and embarked on a second career as a literary singer-songwriter with his 2001 autobiographical album The Houston Kid. In this newer phase, he seems to work in two alternating modes: relationship songs and philosophical songs. The songs about his relationships with his parents and his lovers on the 2001 record, for example, were followed by songs pondering political, spiritual and aesthetic issues on his 2003 record Fate’s Right Hand.
Crowell’s newest album, being released Friday, is called Triage, and it’s perhaps his most philosophical yet. On it he wrestles with the growing peril of climate change and the core meaning of human existence — and whether that foundation should be called God, love, nature or something else. But as we sit in his home studio on his property south of Franklin on a recent June morning, the singer insists he started the album with no agenda in mind.
“I write better songs when I let them tell me what they want to be,” Crowell says from a black swivel chair, “when I let them teach me who I am, rather than imposing my will on them. I can talk about all these things — romantic love, monotheism, environmental catastrophe — and make a point or two. But it’s only when I write a song about these topics that I really learn something. I was just on the phone with my friend Joe Henry, and he said, ‘Some people say my songs are brave, and I pointed out that my songs may be brave, but I’m not.’ That resonated with me.”
Crowell is 70 now, but he still has the handsome looks of his stardom days, even if the curls framing his blue eyes and high cheekbones are gray and wispy. He stayed busy during the pandemic. He not only co-produced (with Dan Knobler) his own new album, but also produced Vincent Neil Emerson, a terrific eponymous showcase for the obscure 29-year-old Texas singer-songwriter.
And from Aug. 5 through 9, Rodney Crowell’s Adventures in Song, a residential songwriting camp for beginners and pros, comes to Nashville’s Scarritt Bennett Center. Joining Crowell on the faculty will be fellow luminary songsmiths Peter Asher, Beth Nielsen Chapman, John Jorgenson, Shelby Lynne, Allison Moorer, Allen Shamblin and John Paul White.
“I can’t teach anyone how to write a song,” Crowell admits, “though I think people can learn something from me about how to make the most of the song they’ve written. But it’s hard to get across how a song starts. I’ve learned that if I’m patient, the song will tell me what it wants to be. What happens, I think, is the subconscious gets involved and tells you things you’re not aware of. Once you get it into the computer, you can start rewriting. Revision is the writer’s best friend, and I think I can help people with that.”
The new song “Transient Global Amnesia Blues” is named after a rare but real disease that struck Crowell in October. He was walking with his wife Claudia Church along the three-mile loop of their street. The ninth time Crowell asked her, “Have we circled the loop?” his wife got worried. She asked, “Should I call Joe?” “Who’s Joe?” Crowell replied. “The guy you’re meeting to work on the record.” “I make records?”
At that point, she was scared enough to drive him directly to the Williamson Medical Center in Franklin. The doctors there recognized the condition as transient global amnesia, something they see about twice a month. After four hours of not knowing who he was, Crowell gradually came out of it, and the docs told him that 98 percent of such cases never recur.
The next morning Crowell’s daughter Carrie texted him a photo of a sunflower growing out of an abandoned rowboat on the banks of the Thames River. The resilience of the plant not only echoed Crowell’s own recovery but also made the connection between his amnesia and humanity’s seeming amnesia about climate change. Crowell opens a black hardback notebook to show me the lyrics he scribbled down that morning.
“This is the song trying to tell me what it is,” he explains. “Fortunately, I sat down right here and recorded the song before too much time had passed since the first inspiration. It’s all there: the overall tone of the event and the feeling of writing the song. I explained to my keyboardist Catherine Marx that it felt like swimming back up from the depths of nowhere, like I was surfacing, and she pulled that sound out of her keys. When you try to capture your original inspiration in the studio, there are so many distractions that you can fail at it pretty regularly. So when you do get it, it’s pretty miraculous.”
It’s hard to write a song about a topic as slow-moving and amorphous as the environment. If you get too topical, Crowell acknowledges, the song quickly sounds dated. The golden standard, he claims, is set by Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The two songs never sound dated because they work as fables that can be applied to injustice in any decade. The song on Crowell’s new album that comes closest to that is “One Little Bird,” a conversation between the singer and a bird in his backyard.
“It was a Carolina wren, in that tree right there,” he says, turning to point out the window. “She was singing at me, and her message was, ‘Why can’t you see it’s almost over?’ ”
On the song “Here Goes Nothing,” Crowell sings, “I’m a man in search of meaning.” Several other songs on the album pursue that quest. On “I’m All About Love,” he declares, “I love Jesus, I love Allah,” but on the next line he adds, “I love ‘Claire de Lune’ and the hokey pokey.” For “Hymn #43,” Crowell wrote new lyrics to music composed by his old friend John Leventhal, who’s now married to Crowell’s ex-wife, Rosanne Cash; she sings harmony on the track. “I don’t know if I’ll ever find Jesus,” Crowell sings, “but I can’t say I won’t someday.” This is religious music not of certainty but of uncertainty.
“The reason I don’t have a religion,” Crowell admits, “is because I don’t know for sure. I have some sense of God, but I don’t derive a doctrine from it. Jesus’ teachings — ‘Don’t throw the first stone’ — I’m all with that. But I’m not trying to tell you this is the definitive word.”
Early in the pandemic Crowell got a call from David Macias, co-founder of the record marketing, distribution and publishing firm Thirty Tigers, asking him to listen to some songs by Vincent Neil Emerson. Crowell doesn’t do much outside producing anymore, but there was something about these demos that caught his ear.
“My first impression,” Crowell recalls, “was that he had schooled himself in the same writers who’d schooled me in my early days: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver. But I also heard the shortcomings in what he was reaching for. I rang Vincent up and suggested some things he could do differently — things about word choice and bridges. He came back with changes that showed me that he didn’t think he knew it all. The fact that he had listened and caught on, that everything he sent me was way better than the last version let me know there was a record here to be made.”
Emerson usually performs with a country-rock band in Texas roadhouses; you can see him in person July 29 at The Basement. But Crowell recorded him with a stripped-down, drumless string band so the lyrics and melodies would shine through. The stories describe down-on-their-luck characters, deep in debt, haunted by family death, dumped by women, roaming from town to town in search of a firmer foundation. Through it all, though, is an optimism residing in the tunefulness and smart wordplay.
“There’s no pretentiousness in that boy,” Crowell observes. “He’s a great guy, a great writer, a great guitarist. I have a feeling he’ll be around for a while now.”