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Rodney Crowell Talks Tarpaper Sky, Emmylou Harris and Possible Book

by Nancy Dunham on May 01, 2014

Rodney Crowell is a very unusual musician.

Although he’s had incredible success -- most recently for his collaboration with Emmylou Harris on what became the Grammy Award winning album Old Yellow Moon –– he seems completely unaffected. It’s not that he’s unaware of the impact of his music – as evidenced by fans’ heightened anticipation for his new album Tarpaper Sky -- but paints himself more as a musical Sherpa than a master.

“My theory about songwriting is very simple,” he says. “If I am patient enough, the song will tell me what it will be. I’m something of a song whisperer saying ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’

When it’s suggested that such a process takes incredible patience, Crowell talks about the satisfaction it brings him.

I’m grateful every day that I can work as an artist,” he says. “People always ask my wife [Claudia Church] how I do it and she says ‘All I know is that every morning he comes down, makes coffee, and then goes and works.’ And I’m blessed to be able to do that.”

Some of his work style was adopted from the study of great master painters who honed their skills through sheer effort. Studying their methods has prompted him to adopt a work ethic that allow for few days off from writing except when he is on tour.

“I love that type of process. I’m a monk,” he says. “I thrive when I’m completely focused.”

In keeping with his monk analogy, Crowell said that he has a strict system for songwriting, which includes writing lyrics in long hand on a page.

“I try to hide some of it from myself on the page so I don’t write it down uniformly from beginning to end,” he said. “So I write in a notebook upside down and sideways, purposely. That way, I am able to defy predictability.”

When he and long-time collaborator Steuart Smith began work on Tarpaper Sky, they frequently discussed landscape painting and French Post-Impressionist Artist Paul Cèzanne. That’s not unusual for them, said Crowell, adding that their idea was to record an album that has what he calls a “pastoral landscape tonality.”

Although he says he’s pleased with the approximately 20 songs recorded for the album he and Smith, perhaps best known for his guitar work with The Eagles, felt strongly that only very specific ones could make it onto this album.

The result is a collection of songs arguably as dynamic and relevant as Crowell’s best work, including his 1988 breakout album Diamonds & Dirt.

Tarpaper Sky takes listeners on a journey from anthems (“The Long Journey Home”) to Crowell’s south Texas roots (“Fever on the Bayou,”) into southern flavored R&B (“Somebody’s Shadow”).

Crowell seems unconcerned about recapturing the gritty, raw sounds on the record that was born from old-school style recording sessions that found the musicians gathered in a circle.

“I like to take production out of the mix. It’s all about performance,” he says of recording. “There were a lot of years when I operated from a production angle and as I’ve gotten older and more confident in myself as guitar player and singer I have become more interested in the performance….Part of the romance of our recording process is that we ditched head phones and figured out how to play without them. That put us in a different mindset.”

And each night on tour, fans should expect a slightly different, yet no less spiritual, interpretation of the songs.

“I have no interest in reproducing a song the way it was on the record,” he said.

“You can use certain musical sign posts, but as far as dragging musicians around with me so they can recreate what someone else did night after night, that’s not of interest.”

What he does have an interest in is continuing to create as many projects as possible.

Even as he prepares to tour behind Tarpaper Sky, Crowell is in the midst of a partnership with Harris on a new album.

The two have worked together since 1975 when Crowell joined Harris’ much-lauded Hot Band. Although they’ve always remained close friends, it’s taken a concentrated effort to carve out time to collaborate.

“We just decided to do another duet album together, to have some more fun,” he says talking about their joy in recording and touring together. “We had a ball working on Old Yellow Moon. We bring out a lot of good stuff in each other. We just understood that we have to have more time to explore that.”

He talks about how productive they are especially when writing together in the same room.

“Right now, Emmy and I are collaborating on one song that I started to write 17, 18 years ago,” he says. “I’m no good at telling a song what it should be. It will tell me what it wants to be.”

Time constraints also kept Crowell and Smith from working together until recently. Although the two began collaborating in the 1980s, it took years for them to find time to craft Tarpaper Sky.

Crowell has repeatedly said that returning to one of his earliest musical collaborators does not mean this album is a glance back at the past.

“I don’t see it as a look back at all,” he says. “This is the first time we’ve really been able to get together for a sustained collaboration since [Crowell’s 2001 album] Houston Kid,” he said. “We’ve done work here and there but he couldn’t get away from his stadium jobs [playing with The Eagles]. So part of it is when we saw a window when we could actually work on it.”

Crowell’s schedule was equally busy. He collaborated with writer Mary Karr on his critically acclaimed autobiography Chinaberry Sidewalks and then the album Kin. He was then almost immediately collaborating with Harris on Old Yellow Moon, which took them on tour with Richard Thompson.

And Crowell shows no sign of slowing down.

In addition to his next music projects, he is considering writing another book. Typical of his style, he will not do anything remotely like a tell-all or brag book.

“I will not write about the cool career I have had,” he said. “If I can figure out how to make it about how my adult years have been spent inside the music business with some creative and cool people, then yes, I’ll do it. As long as it’s not about me.”

Comments

Nancy, Well written and very interesting.  Thanks. 

Rhonda

By Rhonda - 05/06/14

One correction to this informative article: Crowell alone wrote his excellent memoir “Chinaberry Sidewalks.”

By Julie - 05/06/14

Very insightful and informative. Thank you.

By Kurt - 05/06/14

Glad you and emmylou got to makeing a record we tried to get emmy to do a record with you when we and your mom saw her at Rockefeller

By wayne and glenda prescott - 05/06/14

Yes, he did write it alone—Chinaberry Sidewalks—but he collaborated with others including Mary. She was his mentor if you will. Thanks for the note, though!

By Nancy - 05/09/14

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