Going Up the Country:
An EXCLUSIVE Q&A
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Rodney Crowell may not have shifted as many units as Country superstars like George Strait, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton, yet he has become one of the genre’s most influential singer/songwriters since releasing his solo debut in 1978. He began his career in the ‘60s playing in Garage bands but soon followed his heart and pursued a career In Country Music. Influenced by the likes of contemporaries Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Crowell became an in-demand songwriter in the early to mid- ‘70s. Emmylou Harris recorded one of his songs and Crowell was eventually asked to join her backing group, The Hot Band in 1975. Three years later, he cut his first solo album for Warner Brothers and began to achieve the attention he so richly deserved. His songs were covered by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash, The Oak Ridge Boys, Bob Seger and many others. Producing his then-wife Rosanne Cash’s Rhythm & Romance album in 1985 brought him further acclaim with the album’s perfect blend of honest Country and solid Pop smarts. He then signed with
releasing a handful of perfectly crafted albums that brought him critical
success as well as Top 10 and Top 40 placings on Billboard’s Country charts. Since
then, practically every album he’s released has landed comfortably inside the
Country Top 40 charts while also being embraced by new generations of fans of
Folk, Country and Alternative Country (AKA Y’alternative).
In 2013, Crowell and Emmylou Harris released the album Old Yellow Moon. This long-awaited collaboration not only earned the duo critical raves, they also walked away with a Grammy Award for Best Americana album earlier this year. While most of his ‘70s and ‘80s contemporaries have turned to the nostalgia circuit, Rodney Crowell has managed to maintain a successful recording career that is built from a desire to continually hone his craft. Released on New West, his latest album Tarpaper Sky reveals an artist who is more honest and focused than ever before. From the beauty of “God I’m Missing You” to the rambunctious fun of “Frankie Please” (which opens with attention grabbing line ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park’), Tarpaper Sky is nothing short of a revelation. There is a beauty in the album’s stripped down production and heartfelt performances. Aided by his old friend and current Eagles guitarist Steuart Smith (who worked with Crowell from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s) , Tarpaper Sky offers up a multitude of great songs including “The Long Journey Home,” “Fever On The Bayou,” “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You,” and “Oh What A Beautiful World,” Tarpaper Sky is not a ‘comeback’ or a ‘return to form’ – because Rodney Crowell never went away. The album is, simply put, another milestone in Crowell’s musical journey that is nearly four decades strong and still fresh and exciting.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to send along a series of questions to Crowell, who graciously took time out of his SXSW schedule to reflect on the album…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Tarpaper Sky is just about ready to be released. How are you feeling about the project and the reaction you’ve received to it so far?
RODNEY CROWELL: I feel that my continuing growth as a recording artist is displayed on Tarpaper Sky. But there seems to be a little extra good will coming my way.
SPAZ: For those who have yet to hear the album, what is behind the title Tarpaper Sky? And how did you come to decide on that particular title?
RODNEY: Tarpaper Sky is the back half of a line in the song "God I'm Missing You" that Mary Karr and I conjured together, she coming up with the image of a sanded down moon and I the image of a Tarpaper Sky.
SPAZ: You seem to really connect with the songs emotionally, which is quite obvious in your vocal delivery. Do you tend to write from experience?
RODNEY: Well, writing is an experience that I will go to most any lengths to make sure it remains a part of my very existence. That, in itself, is an emotional statement.
SPAZ: While the studio shine of the ‘80s is missing, the songs are warm, melodic and just as strong as anything else you’ve recorded. How far into writing, recording or putting together a song do you get before you say “OK, this is a keeper!”
RODNEY: I don't know what you mean by "studio shine," but if I'm guessing correctly, I'd say that nowadays I spend more time making sure the song is well written and a lot less time worrying about whether or not my clothes and haircut might be considered hip. And, by the way, I've found that It could take ten years or more for some songs to prove themselves to be keepers.
SPAZ: You worked on this album with Steuart Smith. Did you plan on working with him on this album all along or did it happen by chance?
RODNEY: It was indeed my attention to work with Steuart Smith as well as Michael Rhodes, Eddie Bayers and Justin Niebank. It also turned out that a lot of very talented musicians wound up lending a helping hand.
SPAZ: This is a real honest and grounded album. What was your frame of mind going into this project?
RODNEY: Since 1999-2000, I've been steadily uncovering a preference for live studio performance over record production and during that time my frame of mind has been growing progressively more grounded. As a result, I've become a more realized recording artist.
SPAZ: “God I’m Missing You” is heartbreaking. Where did that song come from?
RODNEY: "Tarpaper Sky" started its life as a poem that Mary Karr was working on. I found a melody to fit what she had on the page and from there we settled down and raised us up a song.
SPAZ: And what about “Frankie Please”? You do realize that the opening line is going to bring that song a lot of attention!
RODNEY: I woke up one morning and wrote down that line. I carried it around for a good while before the song came out of hiding.
SPAZ: The album is immaculately produced yet still sounds very rootsy and loose. Was it hard to balance the two?
RODNEY: I'd say that the performances were immaculately recorded by Justin Niebank, Dan Knobler and Donivan Cowart. Justin certainly mixed the record beautifully. However I still maintain that Tarpaper Sky is more a performance than a production. Performance equals loose. Production, not so much.
SPAZ: What musicians did you work with on the album?
RODNEY: Those I've already mentioned and a host of others, among them Vince Gill, Ronnie McCoury, Shannon McNally, Will Kimbrough, Cory Chisel, Stewart Duncan, John Hobbs and Jerry Roe, to name but a few.
SPAZ: It seems that Country and Folk are two styles of music that never go out of style. Are you surprised by the amount of new artists in the Alternative scene that have gravitated towards the
RODNEY: I'm a fan of Blake Mills, Shovels and Rope, Robert Ellis, Hayes Carl, JD McPherson and, although I don't much care for the name, the Milk Carton Kids. All considered
Americana roots artists, I suppose. I'm, of
course, waiting for the next Lightnin' Hopkins,
Ray Charles and Howling Wolf.
SPAZ: You’ve got a core audience that has been with you for decades. Are you hoping that this new generation discovers your music through Tarpaper Sky?
RODNEY: If you consider the fact that an audience that doesn't grow will soon develop an expiration date, you can be sure I'm banking on a new generation discovering my relevance.
SPAZ: Are there any particular songs or performances on the album that standout for you?
RODNEY: It isn't in the albums best interest to choose one song or performance over another. However, I honestly don't have a preference.
SPAZ: What’s next for Rodney Crowell?
RODNEY: Writing another album with Emmylou Harris and continuing to study old Blues recordings in hopes that, like The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top and Delbert McClinton have done, I might find something inside myself trying to get out.
SPAZ: What do you have currently spinning on your CD, DVD and record players?
RODNEY: Blake Mills on CD. Booker T & the MGs’ Universal Language on vinyl and Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Blind Blake, Taj Mahal and RL Burnside's acoustic blues on playlist. Midnight Cowboy on the DVD.
Thanks to Rodney Crowell