Rodney Crowell likes to tell the story of how a song on his new album, The Houston Kid, brings his life and his music full circle. The song is called "I Walk the Line (Revisited)" (RealAudio excerpt).
"When I was five years old, I was going fishing before daylight with my grandfather and my father," he said. "My father had borrowed this 1949 Ford from this guy, and it had one of those huge radios … I was sitting there lookin' out the window, and "I Walk the Line" started comin' out of the radio, and it just floored me. I just recognized immediately that this was some kind of music I had not heard before unprecedented music. I always thought when I started writing that someday I was going to write about that.
"So one day back in about '94 I started writing, getting these verses. I sorta recreated that experience, and I kept looking for a way to write a chorus. I must have written ten choruses and they were all kinda cheesy, until one day it dawned on me that the words to the original would fit.
"I stuck 'em in there and it worked, and I got really excited and called up Johnny Cash," Crowell said. "[I] said, 'would you come sing on this song? You're gonna love it!'
"He came to the studio, and I was playing the song to him, kind of enthusiastic, and he pulled back and looked at me and said, 'Look son, you got a lot of nerve messin' with my melody.' So that kind of pricked my balloon," Crowell recalled, laughing.
"He did come in and sing on the song," Crowell continued. "He sang it well, and it was the right thing. I like it that the story starts from when I'm five years old and then to have it come to fruition and him come in and sing on it. You can't make that stuff up, and to me, that's what this whole record, The Houston Kid, stems from. In one way or another it's from real life, and that's why I think I'm more proud of it than anything I've done in a long time."
Rodney Crowell has had a 25-year career as a hit songwriter, but he feels that The Houston Kid, due Tuesday (February 13) on Sugar Hill, is a turning point in his work.
"I've always been able to stand by my songs," Crowell said, "but I used to make records for the radio, you know, tryin' to be a star. Now, I'm working more from the mindset that I'm an artist. It's a blessing and a privilege to be an artist, and I want to stay in that vein."
The Houston Kid contains eleven tracks based on true events and people Crowell knew in his time growing up on the east side of Houston in the '50s and '60s. "The Rock of My Soul" (RealAudio excerpt) gives a kid's eye view of a turbulent marriage, and "Wandering Boy" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Wish It Would Rain" are based on Crowell's imaginative extension of a story of twin brothers, one homophobic and one gay, that he heard when he was young.
"Banks of the Old Bandera," a vividly rendered reflection on growing up in the Texas hill country, dates back to 1976, and "I Know Love Is All I Need" came from a dream he had about his parents after he thought the project was finished.
"A lot of things went into it," he said. "I wanted to do a work I could be proud of, a piece of work that I thought I don't want to wax pretentious had a bit of literary quality in terms of storytelling. I wanted to make a statement as an artist."
Crowell has been a student of songwriting, both art and craft, since his days growing up in Houston where he formed his first band and subsequent moves to Nashville, Los Angeles, and back to Music City. Emmylou Harris began recording such Crowell songs as "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" (RealAudio excerpt).
Crowell himself had a hit with "Ashes" in 1980, and found commercial success as a performer with 1988's Diamonds and Dirt. The disc, reissued this month on Sony Legacy, included the chart-topping title track as well as four other #1 Crowell-penned hits.
"I have a stock answer about how songwriting works," Crowell says. "It's like doing card tricks on the radio. But I will say this about songwriting: First of all, you've got to honor the craft. You can be as gifted and talented as the day is long, but if you don't have the craft to organize it, you can't write."
And though some of the songs on The Houston Kid deal with dark subject matter and memories of a turbulent childhood, Crowell never doubted that it was the right record to make.
"I had to do it," he said. "And really, it was pretty easy. It was all there, ready to come."