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Rodney Crowell Biography

Last updated: 08/30/2011 12:00:00 PM

My name is Rodney Crowell. I am a songwriter and recording artist. (A Grammy, an ASCAP lifetime achievement award, Rolling Stone Magazine announcing me some kind of can’t-miss star of the future after the release of my first album and the over-worked distinction of being the only guy to write, sing, and produce five consecutive number-one songs in the country music field are a few of the commendations that might decorate my calling card were I to carry one.) The place of my birth is Houston, Texas. The Crowell/ Willoughby blood-lines from which I sprang are of the Scottish, Irish, English and Cherokee blend found in the sharecrop farm lands of Western Kentucky and Tennessee. In the late depression era barn dance society of Paris, Tennessee and Calloway County, Kentucky, my father, his father, my mother’s mother and sister were fairly well known for their musical inclinations. The more industrious of this particular gene pool were recognized as the local purveyors of mirth and merriment. Assorted uncles were equally well known for their hard drinking and fist fights.

My mother and father met during World War II at a Roy Acuff concert in Buchanan, Tennessee. Eager to flee the farm, they married and eventually moved to Houston. In the late fifties, my father formed a musical outfit called J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires. The honky tonks and ice houses plentiful on Houston’s East Side gave my father a format for his particular blend of hard core honky tonk, Texas swing and Appalachian folk music. It was my colorful good fortune to be, at the age of eleven and twelve, the drummer of this illustrious musical combo. When the cute novelty of the child drummer wore off (truth is I couldn’t play very well), it was decided I would give up my seat in the Rhythmaires rhythm section.

At the age of fifteen, with two older guys and a girl drummer my own age, I formed a rock and roll band called the Arbitrators. In high school, I made most of my spending money playing teen parties and Legion hall dances with The Arbitrators.

Thanks to my college roommate, Donivan Cowart and his truck driving older brother, I began dabbling with the notion of writing my own songs. Donivan and I decided we were destined to take our place among the elite songwriters in Nashville. With a few bucks in our pockets we arrived in Nashville on an August night in 1972.

It was our good fortune to fall in with the misfit songwriters and self-styled characters who used Bishop’s Pub as a combination soup kitchen and open mic stage. Donivan and I averaged five or six dollars a night passing the hat after a twenty minute set. Food and gas money. Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robin and Linda Williams, Johnny Rodriguez, Lee Clayton, Skinny Dennis Sanchez, Steve Earle, David Olney, Richard Dobson, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Bronco Newcombe, Harlan White, Steve Runkle, Uncle Walt’s Band, Steve Young, a singing trapeze artist, a sword swallower and a guy named Johnny Dollar were a few of the regulars at Bishop’s Pub.

Guy and Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt and the legendary Mickey Newberry set the bar for what was considered real songwriting in early seventies Nashville. When Guy Clark took an unexpected liking to me, it became a singular goal in my life to write a song he would dub “a keeper.” After six months of failure, I wrote a song called “Bluebird Wine.” It caused Guy to raise an eyebrow in approval. With Guy’s approval, I then set out to win over Townes. This proved to be an extremely difficult task. In the end, I had to settle for a grunt and a “yeah but can you do it again” when I played “’Til I Can Gain Control Again” for the first time during an all night drinking and song swapping session. It was a great way to learn the craft of songwriting.

“’Til I Can Gain Control Again” and “Bluebird Wine” came to Emmylou Harris’s attention as she was preparing for her first album in late 1974. She recorded both songs. As a result of this rather fortunate turn of events, it was my good fortune to become a family friend and collaborator of Emmylou’s. When Emmylou formed The Hot Band in '75, I moved to Los Angeles as her rhythm guitarist, harmony singer and songwriter. Thanks to Emmylou’s rising star, I was able to hitch a ride around the world three times over. In the same way it was my great fortune to stumble my way onto the perfect situation to learn the art of songwriting, so it was, that with The Hot Band, I stumbled onto some of the best arranging musicians that Southern California had to offer. With Glen D Hardin, James Burton and Emory Gordy splitting their live dates between Elvis Presley and Emmylou in '75 and '76, I was given a crash course in the art of arranging music for the studio and stage. Thanks to my association with Emmylou, my reputation as a songwriter grew rather quickly. Warner Brothers Records signed me to a recording contract late in '77. It turned out to be my last year of touring full time with Emmylou.

Since leaving The Hot Band, I have ten solo records and a greatest hits package to show for my efforts as a recording artist. Along the way, I produced Rosanne Cash’s first five studio albums, a couple of Guy Clark’s and a handful of others. I was also lucky to have several hundred versions of my songs recorded by an assortment of artists ranging from The Grateful Dead to Andy Williams. . . . I’ve done alright.

In the late eighties and early nineties, I was a full time touring “act” with two buses and a high end payroll. As the single father of four girls, all of whom lived with me for extended periods after a divorce, I found it impossible to continue touring and parent my children properly. I called it quits. From 1994 until 2001, my live performances dwindled down to an occasional writers’ night at the Bluebird Cafe. It was the best thing I could have done. Not only did I develop a deep and lasting connection with my daughters, I also found a way to re-invent myself as an artist. The so-called down period of my career was in many ways the richest by far.

During this time, my wife Claudia and I spent a great deal of time learning how to live our lives together. We built a marriage from the ground up. Along the way, Claudia kept saying to me, “You haven’t the slightest idea how much people in this business respect you.” And I didn’t. Something in the sincerity of her words found their way into my budding plans for the future. Thanks to her, the idea that people might still be interested in what I had to say began filtering it’s way into what I wanted to do with the rest of my life as a songwriter and recording artist.

When I started work on my last record, The Houston Kid, the goal was to make a record my family could be proud of. As you might suspect, there wasn’t a lot of support for a guy who had been producing a few records and raising daughters. I had to reach into my own pocket to make the music I wanted to make. It was a great awakening. Spending my own money is how I learned to make Rodney Crowell records. The Houston Kid turned out to be the beginning of a new phase in my musical career.

Although different in subject matter, Fate’s Right Hand is a continuation of this new mindset. This time, a bank loan facilitated the making of the music. Support for the end result came in the shape of DMZ and Columbia Records. An indie label in cahoots with perhaps the grandest of all record companies. . . . . Why, it’s an American singer/songwriter’s dream.

Fate’s Right Hand is a quasi-spiritual look at the complexities of living the so-called examined life. Most of the songs are born out of vulnerability of some kind -- those things, if you will, that spring to life when we are least prepared.

In conversation, a friend of mine said she thought Fate’s Right Hand was a braver statement than The Houston Kid. “The simple fact is this,” she said. “The child will always get the sympathy vote. Who really cares if an adult has to deal head-on with the stuff that tests the foundation of their faith in themselves? It comes with the turf.” I have to agree with my friend, adulthood is harder than childhood. Fate’s Right Hand is an attempt to articulate the day by day task of dealing with the uncertainty of a clouded future and the sorrow of a botched past. There is certainly no instruction manual on how to whistle past the graveyard of poor choices. Ditto, no bread crumbs to lead you out of the dark forest of the unforeseen. In the end, adulthood is the complex matter of figuring out who and what to put your faith in. Yourself? God? Wealth? Fame? Beauty? Sex? Reality television? Politicians? The next wave of young artists? The newspaper? Athletes? Movie stars? The Twelve Steps? The Internet? Jesus? Allah? Buddha? Bono? The dearly departed? Space? The remaining Beatles? The United Nations? The Unknown????. . . .Hmmm? . . . . . . I just want to be remembered as a guy with a sense of humor.

Rodney Crowell