HARMONY ON A HICKORY WIND
By Norman Warwick
Stars On The Water became one my favourite songs by Rodney Crowell (left) songs as soon as I heard it, notwithstanding the hatful of great songs he has become known for since. The track has a hypnotic dum de dum guitar introduction, the opening lyric pointing to something or some place on the shoreline and its use of the title in the optimistic refrain that was the chorus telling us that, pretty soon, there´d be stars on the water. It gets me every time, even when I hear it these days, despite my being familiar with the song for a number of decades now,
Rodney Crowell (born August 7, 1950) is, of course an American musician, known primarily for his work as a singer and songwriter in the country music these days known as Americana. Crowell has had five number one singles, all from his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt. He has also written songs and produced for other artists.
He had come from a musical family, with one grandfather being a church choir leader and the other a bluegrass banjo player. A grandmother played guitar and his father sang semi-professionally at bars and honky tonks. Crowell was only 11 when he started playing drums in his father’s band. In his teen years, he played in various garage rock bands in Houston, performing hits of the day mixed with a few country numbers.
Emmylou Harris had recorded one of Crowell’s songs, Bluebird Wine, on her Pieces Of The Sky album and subsequently made a request to meet him. After he sat in with Emmylou at her gig at the Armadillo World Headquarters in early January 1975, she asked him to play rhythm guitar in her backing group, The Hot Band. He accepted and left the following day to join Emmylou in Los Angeles.
In 1977 as a side project, he formed a musical group, The Cherry Bombs, together with Vince Gill, Tony Brown and others but a year later, he signed a solo deal with Warner Bros. Records and in late 1978, released his debut album, Ain’t Living Long Like This.
His debut album, as well as his following two albums, But What Will the Neighbours Think and Rodney Crowell, were not commercially successful despite garnering a huge cult following. Crowell himself criticized his debut album for not translating onto vinyl the same clarity and energy he felt in the studio. His single Ashes by Now from But What Will the Neighbours Think, despite being what I consider to be one his best compositions reached only No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980.
Though he had already several country hits by artists covering his songs (including Ain’t Living Long Like This, another of his best songs, recorded by Waylon Jennings). Leaving Louisiana, by the Oak Ridge Boys, was also a hit but was perhaps one of Crowell´s more lightweight songs that enjoyed commercial success but didn´t garner more considered acclaim from the critics.
Even today, I still feel that for some reason he has never been taken quite as seriously by the intelligencia as were Townes Van Zandt, for instance and Mickey Newbury, notwithstanding several covers by Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Reed and others.
Crowell got his first big taste of pop song-writing success with Shame On Tthe Moon, recorded on the 1982 album The Distance by Bob Seger (right) & the Silver Bullet Band. Glenn Frey joined Seger on background harmony on the song. Appealing to a broad cross-section of listeners, the song spent four weeks at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart, topped the adult contemporary chart, and placed in the Top 15 of the country chart in early 1983. The song’s dark, poetic and hypnotic style helped boost Crowell’s cult status.
The album Rodney Crowell was released in 1981 by Warner Bros. Records and was his last album on that label before switching to Columbia. The first Colombia album Crowell to be self-produced reached No. 47 on the Top Country Albums chart and No. 105 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. My favourite Crowell song, Stars on the Water was released as single from the album and reached No. 30 on the Hot Country Songs chart, Crowell’s highest charting song up to that point.
It would be some fifteen to twenty years later that I was walking through a Northern town in the UK in the company of a British musician I had the utmost respect for. We were talking about songwriters, as always, and when I mentioned Stars On The Water by Rodney Crowell as an example of a great song,……..it was as if the night had exploded. My mate said he wouldn´t even call it a ´proper song´ and although he was saying that to deride my taste and / or judgement rather than to denigrate Rodney Crowell, we somehow ended up in a pretty serious argument (all arguments are when you´ve had a pint or two) with each of us desperately scrabbling for some objective evidence to support our subjective claims.
In 1981, Crowell put his career on hold to produce several album´s by his wife Rosanne Cash’s albums, and their working partnership achieved some success.
Two years later Crystal Gayle (left) had a number one country single with his song ‘Till I Gain Control Again from her first Elektra album, True Love. The song had first been recorded in 1975 by Emmylou Harris and appeared on her Elite Hotel album of that year. I´m not sure that Crystal brought to the song any of the gravitas that Emmylou invested in it, and this may have been an early indicator of why the feeling grew that Crowell was a writer of good disposable country songs rather than songs ´intended for light years of travel.´ The song is still in the playlists of many artists on today´s Americana scene, nevertheless.
In 1984, Crowell returned to working on his own music career and recorded what was to be a new album for Warner Bros., Street Language. That album, a pop-sounding effort co–produced by David Malloy, was rejected by Warner Bros, and was rejected by the label and never released. Warner Bros. requested a more Nashville-friendly record, but Crowell negotiated a release from his contract and moved to Columbia Records.
After producing Rosanne Cash’s Rhythm & Romance, Crowell signed to Columbia Records in 1986. His first album for that label was reworked Street Language, co-produced with Booker T. Jones and featuring a blend of soul and country music. The album did not chart.
Although best known as a songwriter and alternative country artist,(Americana was still a few miles down the highway) Crowell enjoyed mainstream popularity during the late 1980s and early 1990s. His critically acclaimed album 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt produced five consecutive No. 1 singles during a 17-month span in 1988 and 1989: It’s Such a Small World (a duet with Cash), I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried, She’s Crazy For Leavin’ (later recorded by Guy Clark), After All This Time and Above and Beyond (which, rather than an original writing was actually a cover of Buck Owens‘ 1962 hit).
Crowell’s After All This Time won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Country Song. His follow-up album, 1989’s Keys to the Highway, produced two top 5 hits in 1990, which were Many a Long and Lonesome Highway and If Looks Could Kill.
Crowell continued to enjoy success as a songwriter throughout the turn of the century. He reached the Top Ten in the country charts in the decade with Song for the Life by Alan Jackson, Making Memories of Us by Keith Urban, Ashes By Now (another of his songs that stands comparison with the best of singer writer material) by Lee Ann Womack, and Please Remember Me by Tim McGraw.
In 2001, after a brief hiatus from recording, Crowell released The Houston Kid on Sugar Hill Records, his first studio album since 1995’s Jewel of the South. Many songs on the album were semi-autobiographical, and the album included a duet Crowell had recorded and released as a single in 1998 with his ex father-in-law Johnny Cash (right), I Walk the Line (Revisited). Crowell followed up this effort with Fate’s Right Hand in 2003 and The Outsider in 2005, both of which appeared on Columbia Nashville, a division of Sony Music. Leading critics and Crowell consider these three albums his finest work as a solo artist.
2004 saw the release of The Notorious Cherry Bombs, a reunion of Crowell’s 1970s road band, including Vince Gill and Tony Brown. The future Keith Urban hit Making Memories of Us was included on this disc. In 2005, Crowell served as producer for established Irish singer-songwriter Kieran Goss on the album Blue Sky Sunrise.
In 2007, Rodney Crowell was inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame and the following year Crowell released his next album, Sex & Gasoline, on Yep Roc Records in 2008, ending his relationship with Sony Music. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. Crowell figures prominently in musician-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin‘s book The World in Six Songs (left) for which he was interviewed, and three Crowell songs, Shame On The Moon, I Know Love Is All I Need and I Walk the Line (Revisited) are featured in the book.
In 2009, Crowell wrote Wynonna Judd‘s title track to her album Sing: Chapter 1, which also was released in 2009. The song was given several electronic dance music remixes, and sent to dance radio as Judd’s second release from the album. In August 2009, the single reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart.
Vintage Books published Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, (right) in 2011. Chinaberry Sidewalks focuses primarily on Crowell’s relationship with his parents’ marriage and his own early years growing up in Houston, Texas. The book is described as ´a tender and uproarious memoir, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of a dirt-poor southeast Texas boyhood. The only child of a hard-drinking father and a holy-roller mother, acclaimed musician Rodney Crowell was no stranger to bombast. But despite a home life always threatening to burst into violence, Rodney fiercely loved his mother and idolized his blustering father, a frustrated musician who took him to see Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash perform. Set in 1950s Houston, a frontier-rough town with icehouses selling beer by the gallon on payday, pest infestations right out of a horror film, and the kind of freedom mischievous kids dream of, Chinaberry Sidewalks is Rodney’s tribute to his parents and his remarkable youth. Full of the most satisfying kind of nostalgia, it is hardly recognizable as a celebrity memoir. Rather, it’s a story of coming-of-age at a particular time, place, and station, crafted as well as the perfect song.´
In 2012, Vanguard Records released KIN: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr. Karr wrote the lyrics and Crowell set them to music. KIN was Karr’s first foray into song writing. Crowell performed four tracks on the album; one as a duet with Kris Kristofferson. A variety of other artists recorded the other songs on the album, including Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris.
On February 26, 2013, Crowell and Emmylou Harris released Old Yellow Moon (left) on Harris’ long-time label Nonesuch Records. The album reached Number 4 on Billboard‘s Country albums chart and Number 29 on the Billboard Hot 200 charts. In 2013, the album won the Americana Music Awards’ Album of the Year award and Crowell and Harris were named group/duo of the year. On January 26, 2014, Crowell won his second Grammy Award when Old Yellow Moon won the Grammy for Best Americana Album.
Crowell released his first album on New West Records, Tarpaper Sky, on April 15, 2014. Crowell co-produced the record with his long-time collaborator, Stuart Smith. In the fall of 2014, Crowell was hired as music director for the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light.
In 2015, Crowell provided background vocals on It Doesn’t Hurt Right Now, a song he co-wrote with Jewel for her album Picking Up the Pieces as well as on Holy War, a track which appears on I Am the Rain, a 2016 album by Chely Wright. On December 20, 2016, Crowell released a music video for the song It Ain’t Over Yet, which features guest vocals from Rosanne Cash and John Paul White as well as harmonica from Mickey Raphael. The song appears on his album Close Ties, which was released in 2017. The album also features a duet with Sheryl Crow titled I’m Tied To Ya.
The vocals of Emmylou Harris (right) are beyond compare and she has always had the gratitude of the country music industry and its fan base for being such an intrepid discoverer and interpreter of other artist’s songs. These days, too, her own song-writing is recognised as avoiding over-complication and following a narrative line. She is also unafraid to attribute her mentors and on her third album on here Nonesuch label there are eulogies to Gram Parsons and to the glorious Kate McGarrigle.
There was a time after the death of Gram Parson (left) (and listen to their version of Love Hurts to learn how ethereal their vocal were) there was still perhaps ´walking in his shoes´ and it is perhaps true that she has done more than anyone to keep his flame alive. It should be overlooked, though, that she has done for others many times over what Gram did for her, which was to recognise her talent and help her polish it into being the jewel it is today.
Perhaps these two artists, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, because they enjoyed so much success on the main highways of country music are less lauded than they deserve by those of us fans who traipse the Sidetracks & Detours, whispering secrets to each about the great unacknowledged artists we have heard along the way who never have achieved commercial success because they are TOO good ! What utter and conceited nonsense. Emmylou Harris have written some of the songs and recorded others that those of us who follow our art through the darkness all have on personal audio media. The fact that rest of the world seem to love their songs too, if not as forensically as we do, does not denigrate the greatness of the work.
From their earliest associations, Harris was a supporter of Crowell as a songwriter, opening her debut album Pieces Of The Sky with Crowell’s Bluebird Wine . He accepted her offer of a place in her Hot Band and served a three-year spell in as guitarist and vocalist. Right through to the 2013 rekindling of their collaborative efforts on Old Yellow Moon, theirs has been a partnership forged in country music heaven. These eleven songs lyrically and thematically encapsulate their decades-long friendship, one that has seen them through their own fair share of hardships and time apart.
Although she stepped out bravely on her own in 1975 following the death two years earlier of early champion, and sometime musical partner, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris seemed to be seeking to fill an immense void. As if through divine intervention, Rodney Crowell arrived to do just that, helping Harris pick up musically where she and Parsons had left off. Crowell´s earthy vocals were less ephemeral than Gram´s had been and his voice with Emmylou proved an ideal pairing, one which remains fully intact throughout The Traveling Kind. While both artists time and again have proven themselves able collaborators with a number of others, together they exude a quiet confidence and sense of ease that elevates their combined efforts to another level entirely.
That ´quiet confidence and sense of ease´ was very noticeable throughout a short interview I conducted with her at the beginning of the nineteen nineties and I wrote at the time of her ´regal bearings.´ I have all her albums, as a solo artist, group leader and duet vocalist and I love them all. Her taste for a song has always been impeccable and her voice is gorgeous. Nevertheless, to use a Strictly Come Dancing I prefer her when she is ín-hold, ballroom parlance for being in the hands of her partner. Her recording or concert harmonies, when working with recording partners like Gram Parsons, Crowell, Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton show that she works with and is respected by the best and that her vocals somehow taken on even more beauty. She has the ability to follow harmonies down sidetracks and detours and with the lightest of touches to elevate almost every song on which she joins in.
On the opening title track of The Traveling Kind (right), a gently sauntering acoustic ballad bearing allusions to the late Parsons and others lost too soon, Emmylou´s and Rodney´s voices mesh in a manner so effortless it almost feels like one. Shadowing each other’s every vocal nuance and subtle phrasing, they show why theirs is a pairing so revered within Americana circles. Going beyond mere duet singing, Crowell and Harris possess a level of ´emotionality´ that allows every song, every feeling to come across as intensely personal and autobiographical. Knowing their respective back-stories, it would be near impossible not to attempt to read into every single line. But the reality is more that both are such exceptional songwriters and performers they can make even the most mundane lyric seem immensely intimate.
Another song from The Traveling Kind, that again hints and the loves and losses suffered by both Harris and Crowell is the sweet No Memories Hanging Round. Where lesser artists might rely more on the maudlin elements, Harris’ keening vocals help imbue the lyrics with a lived in quality. We believe she knows exactly the feelings she’s singing about rather than playing a part.
When she sings, “You lost her / I lost him / two old hearts just won’t love again” the sentiment behind the phrase, while ultimately universal, can’t help but feel intensely personal. Doubling the line, Crowell adds even more gravity and nuance to the phrase to the point that, when they sing, “’Cause I want her / and I need him / two old fires just won’t burn again” it transcends mere lyrical delivery and feels to be something of an emotional catharsis, one which only the intervening years could have facilitated.
Fortunately it’s not all sadness and longing. While certainly inherently melancholic, the majority of The Traveling Kind is deceptively upbeat, relying on tempo and arrangements to mask the lyrical sadness. The coolly strutting, almost, The Weight Of The World features some of the album’s fieriest playing, electric guitars and keyboard simmering and slashing above a strolling bass line. “Did you guys record that?” Crowell asks with a laugh as the band resolves into the song’s closing chord, knowing full well the performance to have been one worthy of documentation.
While mainstream country music may be suffering a crisis of identity, having too firmly embraced contemporary pop and losing sight of its musical roots in favour of an idealized lifestyle aesthetic, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris (left) serve as stark reminders that the flame of country music still burns brightly within a select few.
And while the shadow of Gram Parsons continues to loom large over nearly everything she has done, with and without Crowell, together they have long since proven themselves as equally influential and fine a pairing.
Were there ever any doubt, The Traveling Kind rightly sets the record straight. It echoes of harmonies on a hickory wind !