During the second half of his career, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell has taken the words of Artie Shaw and Jack Nicholson to heart.
Crowell took a six-year hiatus to help raise his children, ending in 2001. Since then, he’s released three discs that are the best of his three decades of music, culminating in the new, politically charged “The Outsider.”
Before he left, he was making music that he knew wouldn’t be missed.
The Texas native, who first came to attention as a member of Emmylou Harris’ band in the 1970s, became a country star in the late 1980s (“Diamonds & Dirt,” a blend of classic honky-tonk and early rock ’n’ roll that became the first country album to yield five No. 1 singles) as half of a music royal couple with Rosanne Cash. Their marriage ended in the 1990s, when Crowell began drifting musically.
“The work I was doing, it didn’t feel true to me, to be honest,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Hold it, I can do better.”’
With three children who shuttled between his house and Cash’s, Crowell felt he had to stop touring. “Housekeepers and nannies — I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I pulled the plug on it. I wanted to, anyway.”
‘Everything counts’He returned with a new vigor, keeping in mind something a friend told him came from Nicholson: “Everything counts.”
Crowell’s writing has become more vivid, more socially aware. He considers himself less of a country artist than a descendant of the Bob Dylan school of singer-songwriters. (He and Harris do a duet of “Shelter From the Storm” on the new disc.) His new music is straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll with some balladry.
The words of Shaw, the late big-band leader who became a star at 28 but later felt imprisoned by some of his hits, stuck in Crowell’s head after a PBS special. Shaw explained that he quit playing “because people got fixated on what I was doing on my way to becoming better.”
Unless he feels generous and takes a request, Crowell doesn’t play any of his pre-2001 songs in concert now.
“I feel really strongly that if I can’t survive on the merits of what I’m doing now, then I should pack it in,” he said.
Rather than resent it, the 55-year-old Crowell said he appreciated the chance to explain when an audience member at one of his shows questioned his decision not to revisit old hits.
“When I first started up again, some of the people who were old fans of mine from the radio days came around, took a look and said, ‘Not for me. I’m outta here,”’ he said. “That was OK. But then I started thinking, ‘OK, it may be done for me.’ But then I started seeing the new audience come in.”
Some of his new songs were born of anger, in one case literally. While in a bar in Ireland last year, Crowell was accosted by a woman who railed against the war in Iraq, finger jabbing in his chest. It didn’t matter who he was, or how he felt politically. He was just the convenient American.
He responded with a song, “Don’t Get Me Started,” from the point of view of a slightly inebriated bar patron ranting about politics.
“The Obscenity Prayer” condemns the selfish rich. “Ignorance is the Enemy” reads like a prayer, while “We Can’t Turn Back Now” warns that “democracy won’t work if we’re asleep.” The outsider on the title track is God, resenting how His name is used by politicians.
Crowell clearly has his opinions, but said he wasn’t trying to make a manifesto that might turn off half a potential audience.
Besides, what’s the point in talking to only those who agree with you?
“My red-staters tolerate me and the blue-staters are on the bandwagon,” he said. “During the election year last year, all my liberal friends would be sending me e-mails and I would say, ‘Don’t send me this. I’m already on your team.”’
Chasing DylanAnother late night overseas inspired “Beautiful Despair.” He and a friend, a judge, were listening to music at a party one night. Hearing Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” Crowell’s friend said he’ll drink to his dying day because he knows he’d never be able to write something as beautiful.
When he woke up the next day Crowell knew he had the subject for a song.
“The longing is not to be Dylan or even write like Dylan, but to access your own inner Bob Dylan and give it form, to know that you’ve created your own masterpiece,” he said. “To have that artistic longing to create something like that and know you’ll never do it is a good reason for alcoholism.”
The few more personal songs on “The Outsider” feel lived-in, from the perspective of somebody who’s loved and lost and now has gray streaks in his hair.
That’s sort of like his rendition of “Making Memories of Us.” Young country star Keith Urban recently spent five weeks at No. 1 with a cover of the song, and Crowell complimented him for bringing a sense of romantic innocence that the author couldn’t quite muster.
Crowell’s come to terms with being boxed in by the music industry. His own recordings don’t fit into the current country scene, yet because of his past and his Texas twang, many fans who might otherwise embrace him pigeonhole him as a country artist.
“I don’t think my getting on a soap box and saying ‘this is not country music so don’t lump me in with that’ (is) ... going to do anything,” he said. “That’s no way for me to get the validity of what I perceive I’m doing across. The only way for me to get it across is just to make everything count, every time.”