Chicago blues, John Prine, Jeff Tweedy and loving Guy Clark enough to safely hate him.
He may be seventy-two but that doesn’t mean Rodney Crowell has stopped developing as an artist. His latest album, ‘The Chicago Sessions’, while demonstrably a Rodney Crowell record, brings the flavours of Chicago more to the fore. This is the Chicago of Chess Records and the Chicago folk revival, John Prine, and modern-day Chicago kingpin, Jeff Tweedy, who also produced the record. Americana UK’s Alasdair Fotheringham caught up with Rodney Crowell over the phone to do something of a deep dive on what was behind the ‘The Chicago Sessions’ and to share some snippets covering his whole career, including the strength of his relationship with Guy Clark.
“Some people have called me a pioneer of americana, and perhaps I am,” Rodney Crowell says at one point in this interview and few people would disagree that back when he was a budding musician in 1970s Nashville, Crowell was a massive groundbreaker for the genre. But you could also argue, strongly, that Crowell’s managing to remain central to americana for nearly half a century and counting, both in his own right and as a prolific songwriter and producer for some of the biggest names out there in the genre, is an even more noteworthy achievement. Furthermore, his 22nd and latest album, ‘The Chicago Sessions’, published earlier this May, has more than enough going for it musically to confirm there’s still no sign of Crowell, now 72, growing any less relevant to americana. Or, for that matter, losing any of his desire to keep on playing.
How Crowell has managed to keep the ball in the air for so long, to borrow a football metaphor, is way too big a subject to cover in a single interview. To hone in on his latest album for some recent clues instead, it’s just a theory but for one thing, most of the best americana has a very strong sense of place, and when Crowell made ‘The Chicago Sessions’, he was very aware that despite making his first album in 1978, he’d never recorded there.
So it was perhaps only natural that – and here’s link number two between the album and a key americana tenet: keeping in firm touch with your roots, musical or otherwise – ‘The Chicago Sessions’ is, in part, his homage to certain top artists who both possess strong links to Chicago, a city which has always been bursting with musical history and culture, and who simultaneously are hugely important to Crowell.
“My Chicago leanings, my fantasies about it were also inspired by John Prine and Steve Goodman, that music – I was really, really taken by that music and to me it came out of Chicago. In fact, my fantasy about recording in Chicago was equal amounts Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf,” – who both cut albums there, at the famous Chess studios – “John Prine and Steve Goodman,” he tells AUK.
“Also let me not forget Chicago Transit Authority, those records they made back in the day, and even in more recent years. I’ve gone back and I listen to that music. It’s not the lowdown side of Chicago I’ve been talking about, but it is a Chicago-based music that I enjoy as being Chicago-based music. And Jeff [Tweedy] in Wilco, those guys, they’ve modernised it in a way – so there’s your americana.”
Of all of those groups and artisits he mentions, one name stands out above all in the genre, Crowell says. “Sometimes I’ve heard myself described as an americana pioneer and perhaps I am. But I always say, that to me the quintessential americana artist is John Prine.”
“He was smart, really smart. You don’t get that wry sense of humour you mentioned he had if there’s not a pretty deep well of intelligence behind it.”
“I’d put him over Bruce Springsteen, or Dylan. John Prine, I mean, he was Everyman, and I don’t know if I can even say any more than that.”
But if the spirit of Prine is all but tangible on an album like ‘The Chicago Sessions‘ – like so much of Prine’s work, there’s the same deep, deft engagement with very human issues, all resting firmly on instantly catchy, finely turned out, melodies – it has to be said that without Jeff Tweedy, ‘The Chicago Sessions’ would almost certainly never have happened, nor yet be anything like its final form. After all, the album was both produced by and features Tweedy, it was recorded in The Loft, Tweedy’s studio in Chicago, and it has a Crowell-Tweedy joint credit for one of its standout singles, ‘Everything at Once’. Given that degree of integration and contribution to the album, it’s almost not surprising to find out that a chance hearing of a song by Wilco, Tweedy’s band, was what brought Crowell and Tweedy to make the album together.
Crowell says he first came across Tweedy when somebody recommended he listen to Uncle Tupelo, the first groundbreaking americana band to which Tweedy belonged. But he really got to relate to his music when Tweedy had moved on to Wilco.
“I think I probably heard about Uncle Tupelo back in the early 21st century, that’s post-modern for you,” he says with a laugh.
“But I don’t think I really dialled it in until Wilco, then when I heard ‘Impossible Germany’ [from their sixth album ‘Sky Blue Sky’ – Ed.] I was like ‘Oh shit, that’s good stuff.’”
“Then I don’t know what place I was in but the funny thing about it was I was driving home late one night when Jeff’s song ‘I Know What It’s Like’ came on the radio and it just floored me,” Crowell recalls.
“It just so happened I was on a ship out to sea that Jeff was also on, the Cayamo Cruise, a few months later. When I approached him to share how much that song really stuck with me and to tell him how much I loved his songs, he said ‘Sit down, man, many thanks.’ And then he suggested I come to The Loft in Chicago sometime and record.”
“I just thought it was neighbourly chatter. But later on I was talking to my daughter and she was like ‘How come you’ve not gone’, and I said ‘Well, I think he’s just being nice’, and she said ‘Better go talk to his manager’ – ‘Ok, I’ll do it.’ The next thing you know, we’re making an album.”
One of the most striking tracks on the album and a barbed, quietly witty analysis of the risks of overstimulation in the modern world, ‘Everything At Once’ was a co-write by Tweedy and Crowell. But Crowell agrees that the description of the song’s content on the album’s publicity blurb as “walking a tightrope between hopefulness and cynicism” is also an apt description of much of his own work of five decades, his constant quest for a balance between two seemingly contradictory foundations for deeper attitudes to life.
‘It’s like I remember my second album, ‘What Will the Neighbours Think’, that was back when I still read reviews and the lead line of it was “terse optimism”,” he recounts. ‘And I looked up the word ‘terse’ and then I went ‘Ok, I like it!’ Or maybe they could have said ‘optimism based on reality.’
As for ‘Everything At Once’, ‘Jeff and I have very different personalities, we are cynical but we’re goodhearted about it. We’re cynical, but we’re not unkind.”
Yet if recording with Chicago and working with Tweedy represented new terrain for Crowell, the city itself, and the influences of time-honoured elements of music strongly entwined with it, are unmissable on the album. In the case of the Chicago blues, for example, they’re there in the very first chords of the opening song, a piano-based riff that could be straight out of a Muddy Waters track, courtesy of the mythical pianist Otis Spann, but actually in this case thanks to the excellent Catherine Marx. Crowell returns to the blues style for the entire second song, ‘Somebody Loves You’ in his latest exploration of a genre that wasn’t initially part of his music, he says. But when the blues finally found a place inside his work, its impact was huge.
“The blues for me when I was younger was Hank Williams. It was a form of country blues that Hank Williams got from whoever he got it, some blind guy in Alabama, probably. So I grew up on that, but it was later on and I didn’t try to cultivate any of it on my own because I felt like a blue-eyed white boy and I didn’t feel like I could get there.”
“But as I’ve aged, I’ve sort of discovered for myself my version of country blues. not Hank Williams derivative but more derivative from Lightning Hopkins and R.L.Burnside.”
“I started to develop more as a guitarist, based on country blues and I started writing more that way, and I discovered something. And I thought about great rock and rock musicians like Eric Clapton and the Stones and they were so influenced by blues musicians, and I said it’s really time for me to let that in and let me see how it manifests itself.”
“I’m not going to sound like Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger, I said, but there is a version of me that can do this or that wants to do this, this more blues-based music. I certainly did it on my own [album] ‘Close Ties’, I thought that was the first time I really achieved what I was.”
“So in ‘Somebody Loves You’, there’s an element of how I feel about country blues from my particular angle on it. I had got to be pretty friendly with some of the guys that play that – Billy Gibbons and I did a little bit of work together before and I’d had some discussions with him. I think it just took me a long time, because when I was a younger man I didn’t feel I could deliver that raw emotion. But now I feel I have some version of that raw emotion that I can stand on. I don’t feel like I’m pretending.”
If the style of ‘Somebody Loves You’ is deeply linked to the blues, its content, skewering the opportunities for hypocrisy in organised religion, has much deeper roots in Crowell’s personal history. As he recounted in his widely praised autobiography, Chinaberry Sidewalks, he first became aware of the potential for faking religious devotion in the 1950s, when one day as a young boy, he was taken to a prayer meeting presided over by a fire-eating, hell-raising preacher.
Whilst seemingly in the throes of delivering an ultra-serious Praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition rant to his rapt congregation – including Crowell – “That really rockabilly preacher looked down at me, I’m kneeling there and he winked at me. I said it in the book and I mean it to this very day, [in doing so] he let me in on a secret: he didn’t believe all that shit. It was a good performance,” Crowell says with wry amusement.
Crowell’s ability to spin out irony so finely at times it’s almost invisible has been a much-appreciated constant in his career and that gift is certainly notable in his searing analysis of the downsides of organised religion on ‘Somebody Loves You’. However, as another top americana artist, Ray Wylie Hubbard once said about his mickey-taking ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother’, the problem with irony is that some people don’t get it. And Crowell admits that when it comes to ‘Somebody Loves You’, it’s entirely possible that “Some people may take it literally.”
“It’s in that chorus, I’m taking the piss out of religion and somebody could hear what I’m singing and not realise that’s what I’m doing, they might think I’m on their team.”
“And I like to think I’m on everybody’s team. But basically in the first verse I’m writing about a disenfranchised white guy in the South, he can’t get anybody on the phone, he doesn’t have the education, so then I go to the north and I start writing about a disenfranchised black guy.”
“Then the tie-in is ‘ok, well, you’re down and you’re out but somebody loves you.’”
“It becomes patronising to try to sell that, if religion as a whole is part of the judgemental attitude that keeps the people held down. That’s what I’m shooting at. Of course I have a little go at climate change in a later verse but yeah, I’m from a cynical place with it. I’m pretty much anti-religion. I’m openly monotheist [but] I think religion has a lot to answer for.”
Another song with deep roots in Crowell’s personal history is the one cover on the album, Townes Van Zandt’s ‘No Place To Fall’. While a stunning song in itself, Crowell also says his hearing it for the first time was also a Road-to-Damascus event for him, offering brutal clarification on how much he needed to up his own songwriting game.
“It was a key moment for me when Townes played me that song, at the kitchen table at Guy [Clarke’s] house. You know that Dylan movie [The ‘Don’t Look Back’ documentary of the 1965 ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ UK tour – Ed] where there’s a scene where Donovan is singing a rather soft folkie song and then Dylan picks up his guitar and sings” – and Crowell sings it himself to me, just to make his point stronger – “Crimson flames tied through my ears” – the first lines of ‘My Back Pages.’ As Crowell sees it, “He [Dylan] just annihilates the guy.”
At the risk of being pedantic, on re-watching the film, it turns out that Dylan plays ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ , not ‘My Back Pages’. But Crowell’s point in any case, is not that he’s Dylan in his own close encounter with musical genius with Van Zandt, rather he’s Donovan. “That morning I was sitting round playing a little beginner’s song I’d done, and then Townes says I got one for you and he plays ‘No Place To Fall’, and it just stunned me. I never forgot that.”
“So when I recorded it, I was trying to go back to that moment and how did I feel when Townes played it for me. I don’t know if it comes through but that was the motivation. It was a pinnacle moment for me: [I realised] I’m not to be able to get by on bullshit. I have to step up and dig for the truth.”
Another song which reaches deep back into Crowell’s past, but which simultaneously pushes him forward, too, is the final track, ‘Ready To Move On’. Although, as the song title suggests, it’s mainly about decisively breaking with your past, Crowell is at pains to insist this is not him dropping a large hint that he has reached the end of his career or that his health is giving out – “people ask me that and ‘I said, no man, it’s just I’ve ready to move on and see what’s next. It’s a little opportunity to study the yin and yang of it all.’ “But in any case, ‘Ready To Move On’ looks back in one crucial way: rather as Crowell aagrees, the song’s spoken word form has distinct echoes of some of the music created by his great friend, the late Guy Clark.
“I can see that. Guy does a quintessential spoken word on songs like ‘Let It Roll’, ‘The Randall Knife’… I was close to Guy when he was writing both of them, I produced the first version of ‘The Randall Knife’. I always say he was such a good song-actor and he really was, he was superb at spoken word songs, he had just the right inflexion. And it rubbed off on me.”
His appreciation for spoken word songs, Crowell reveals, was not just thanks to Clark’s amazing ability with that particular form. “Townes had it, too, and spoken word songs like ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’, have been around for a long time. I’ve done songs like that before, too: ‘Time To Go Inward” – off one of his most acclaimed albums, ‘Fate’s Right Hand’.”
“Interestingly, Jeff chose all the songs – I gave him quite a few, maybe 18 – and that was one of the first he chose. He said, ‘I think we should open the album with this’, and I said ‘That’s radical, dude, you may not get past the first song!’ But we wound up agreeing and I don’t think anything but that song could close the album.”
If Crowell and Tweedy putting their heads together during the making of ‘The Chicago Sessions’ has clearly produced some major creative moments, Clark and Crowell’s lengthy friendship and musical collaborations on multiple albums is all but the stuff of americana legend.
“We had good times”; Crowell says. “Guy and I had a long friendship, so much so we even fell out for a while. I hurt his feelings, and he hurt mine, we got pissed off with each other for a while, but we corrected that eventually. That’s the mark of a true friendship – when you love each other enough to hate each other.”
It’s a sign of that friendship, too, that Crowell is happy to go on telling anecdotes about Clark, such as the way Crowell struggled with the chord changes of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ when the two played a concert together at the California Strawberry Festival. (If you want to hear it and decide for yourself, there’s a wonderful live album, ‘Let Me Take Your Down’ featuring the two of them, patently having the time of their lives, where you can you hear the whole gig.). And Crowell’s love of fine irony shines through time and again too such as – given we’ve moved onto the topic of the Beatles – how he once wrote a song on ‘The Houston Kid‘ called ‘I Know Love Is All You Need’, “and this interviewer said to me, ‘ah it doesn’t go too far from ‘All You Need Is Love,’ does it?’ and I said, ’Man, you got me there, I know that song really well, but I never put two and two together.’
Long after I put the phone down, I’m still trying to work out if Crowell was genuinely previously unaware of the similarity between the two song titles or if, as I suspect, he was mildly taking the mick out of the interviewer’s assumption he hadn’t spotted it. Maybe both.
Yet quite apart from his continuing use of insightful humour in songs, another appealing, familiar, element of ‘The Chicago Sessions’ is that it demonstrates Crowell’s wide-ranging apprecation to music and his willingness to delve into all sorts of areas of life from all sorts of places. Just geographically, in terms of the album and the discussion we’ve had, we’ve ranged from Chicago to Texas, from the Bible Belt to the Rust Belt to California. However, Crowell says, by way of conclusion to the interview, that this sweeping US perspective is not intentional: it’s more that the creative process of the album during the pandemic gave him a lot of opportunities to look around. And he took them all.
“It’s an organic thing. I was logged down during the COVID scare, at home back here in my own studio and I was writing ‘Somebody Loves You’ and ‘Ever The Dark’ and ‘Lucky’. Most of the songs on the album, I was writing back here, just amusing myself.”
“And I take writing seriously, as I’m sure you understand, being a writer yourself. If I’m at home, I come back here, drink some coffee, I get to work writing. I think the only way to get anything done is to get back to work every day and I do it, I’m dedicated to it, and everything I come up with is really just the result [of that].”
“That’s when I’m at home. When I’m on the road performing, I don’t write as much there I need my ritualistic part of writing, which is the studio back here with all these guitars that I have and no books. So everything I say on these records I’ve made, it’s not so much by design, I want one such as yourself to realise I’m truly a serious writer.”
“I think I’ve proven that to myself, now I just need to enjoy it. I’ve made it this far so nobody’s going to take my job away from me, and I’m just going to write what I feel is true.”
That kind of upbeat, renewed determination about his work certainly makes it sound like that even after nearly two dozen albums, amongst its many attractions, ‘The Chicago Sessions’ represents a fresh, exciting point of departure for Crowell. Or as he put it in one of his songs, it’s ain’t over yet.
Rodney Crowell’s ‘Chicago Sessions’ is out now on New West Records.
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