for STARS ON THE WATER
Norman Warwick counts on Rodney Crowell
When I recently read the name of Tina Eves Benitez as the by-lne for an article, about Rodney Crowell, in American Songwriter (https://americansongwriter.com/) I knew I was in for a treat. One of my favourite journalists was writing about one of my favourite song-writers. This was going to what Goodreads call a good read !.
Before I even started reading, though, I found myself drifting back a qyarter of a century or so to a late evening stroll along the then only recently re-gentrified docksides of Preston. I always thought of this as a hard town where it was necessary to carry a Gary Hall swagger and a watch-me walk and a shading of dust on your cowboy boots. Gary had been the front man of The Stormkeepers and if my memory is watching my step I think this must have been just after he had signed as a solo singer-writer for Roundtower, after three great albums with the band that deserved so much more success. I guess our High Noon stand off would have been a few weeks before he flew over to America on a recording mission that would change a few lives.
Gary´s waist-length hair was swaying in a gentle evening breeze that was jingling the mast top bells of the berthed yachts and fluttering the flags from various countries. We had enjoyed a pint and a beef-burger at a waterside pub and were wandering back to Gary´s house, when he suddenly pulled us to a halt. He had hardly taken part in any conversation since we had left the pub, preferring instead to listen through his I pad to some of the best of the Americana song-writers around, claiming he was preparing for his upcoming recording sessions stateside.
So what´s the best song Rodney Crowell´s ever written, Gary demanded in his I´m not taking no for an answer tone.
Ian Johnson, of Stampede Promotions, who had known Gary longer and better than I, knew well enough by now to keep schtum, but oh no, I dived in, because I loved Rodney Crowell´s work. To be fair, even I was surprised at the answer I gave but looking back immediately, and looking back nowack now, I remember that I gave the answer unthinkingly and absolutely subjectively.
I am not sure how any of us are supposed to qualify songs and put them in some sort order of,….what, I mean what order are supposed to put them in?
So I answered, Stars On The Water, I love that song.
The wind fell still, the flag fluttering fell silent and suddenly I was aware that Ian had turned away and that Gary had stopped walking and turned to look at me. I was heading for a world of pain.
¨WHAT? ARE YOU MAD’ DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MUSIC?
Well I hope so. I mean you´ve been picking my brains about Americana song-writers for nearly twelve months now.
Of course, all of the above remained unsaid. I knew there was a country song still out there, self-penned by the late Jim Croce, called You Don´t Mess Around With Jim and I su8ddenly feared there might be a more recently written one out there, too, called You Don’t Talk Back To Gary Hall.
So, very carefully, and very, very politely, I explained and amplified my answer, at least up to a whisper level, and said I thought the song had a great arrangement, good production values, a well-constructed linear narrative and presented an evocative image of a parochial lifestyle, with an irresistible chorus.
Gary (left) was apoplectic, and had he been wearing his holster I think he would have drawn his gun and killed me dead. Instead, to keep these cowboy analogies going, he stood back and listened to my ramblings and excuses and apologies and as they say on those mean streets of Preston, he let me dig my own hole.
In the end, he put up his hands and called a truce and told me to listen to the track he had been listening to when he asked the question.
Beginning to think I might after all escape with my life I was beginning to wonder what Crowell song had so inspired him and what could be so good as to so reduce Stars On The Water, a song that provided a number one hit for Jimmy Buffet and was also recorded by George Strait.
It transpired Gary had been listening to Border Radio by Dave Alvin. I had never heard it until then but it remains as beautiful and evocative now as it was on that first hearing whilst sitting on the dock of the bay
I remember wondering where Gary had got hold of this. As far as I knew Ian and I shared a pretty eclectic taste in Americana and I had given Gary tapes and tapes of John Stewart, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Ian had given him a similar amount of tapes by the likes of Ian Tyson and Emmylou Harris.
I was aware of Dave Alvin and liked some of his stuff and though I hadn´t heard this particular song it was, I had to admit, beautiful
The storm blew over and we got back to Gary´s place for coffee in big mugs.
All Music say of Gary Hall that he was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, Hall was raised in his parents’ hotel in Lancashire and worked in various bands in Preston as a teenager. For six years from 1986, he worked with his band the Stormkeepers, playing around 500 gigs and recording his first three albums with them. In the nineties Hall split his time between England and America, making his solo debut in 1993 with What Goes Around. In 1995 he went to Nashville to record Twelve Strings & Tall Stories, on which Hall, Cathryn Craig and the British guitarist Mark Wilkinson tried to capture the feel of his live show. Traces of his musical heroes – Van Morrison, Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley – could be heard in songs such as ‘Walk Slowly Through This Life’ and ‘The Queen Of Broken Dreams’. During the same year Hall also produced Porch Songs for his fiancée, Cathryn Craig. He subsequently launched a new version of the Stormkeepers and recorded the album Return To The Flame. In the late 90s Hall worked on two albums by Liverpool-based singer-songwriter Susan Hedges, who returned the favour by joining the Stormkeepers on their 2002 self-titled album.
The Stormkeepers were a superb banmd, with great instrumentalists and two wexcellent vocalists and writers in Gary and Mike Weston King who went on to achive critical and popular acclaim as half of a dueo called My Darkling Valentine.
The album Gary subsequently recorded in Nashville turned out to a collection of ten or twelve self-.penned tracks all of which stand today, more than twenty five years later, in my playlist of all time Americana,
Having reconciled all those memories I turned to Tiná article.
She wrote that, while living in Hermosa Beach, California in 1976, Rodney Crowell found himself on the wrong side of the law when the police arrived at his door one day and took him to jail. Temporary incarceration was the penalty for neglecting to pay a number of fines for ignoring the area lease laws for his dog Banjo, leaving the singer sitting in a cell alone, without a pen or paper. It was there where Crowell began “writing” the words for his 1978 hit “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
´The incarceration was a gift because it brought forming into almost instant focus a song that’s performed more than anything by a lot of different artists, so kudos to me, being 25 or 26 at the time, getting taken to jail and realizing ‘wow, I can work on this while I’m in jail. Don’t come get me too quickly.’”
Without writing tools, Crowell composed the song, narrating his experience within the four walls
He slipped the handcuffs on behind my back /
And left me reeling on a steel reel rack /
They got ’em all in the jailhouse baby.
“I had to remember it when I got out, but that was actually a lot of fun,” laughs Crowell. “It was me literally lying on a steel reel rack composing in my head and trying to figure out how to access the memory. It was a good exercise. I don’t recommend it, but for that particular moment in my life, it was a perfect storm.”
The track, later covered by Waylon Jennings in 1980, was Crowell’s second No. 1 hit and an example of the anecdotal tales he recalls in his latest book Word For Word.
Documenting parts of his earlier life and his days in music over the 50 years since he first moved to Nashville, Word For Word gives more context to 150 of Crowell’s songs through 50 pages of prose written by Crowell, all stories behind the songs, including “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight,” and “Til I Gain Control Again,” and a collection of his songs covered by everyone from Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Etta James, and the Grateful Dead, and those that became more well-known once covered, like Bob Seger’s take on “Shame On The Moon”, Tim McGraw with “Please Remember Me,” and Keith Urban’s rendition of “Making Memories of Us.”
Word For Word also features previously unseen photographs, handwritten song sheets, and other visuals from Crowell’s life of songs, along with a foreword by author Daniel Levitin and commentary from his ex-wife Rosanne Cash.
“I’ve written a lot of songs, and it just popped into my head that I should have a lyric book,” says Crowell, “but I didn’t want it to just be lyrics. I wanted to write some backstory to make the narrative not one singular pathway.”
Pulling from files of artifacts from his catalog and lyrics stored in his computer, compiling Word For Word was an easier feat for Crowell since archiving his materials while working on his 2011 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. Over a year, Crowell centered in more on the stories to accompany the select songs.
Anecdotes also reveal Crowell’s tendencies to revise his lyrics over time, referencing a friend’s story about a woman from Oklahoma City who visited the National Gallery in Spain and saw a man painting on a Guernica, and yelled to a guard to stop him. The guard responded, “That, señora, is Picasso, He works here.”
“No doubt my friend’s account, which is most likely untrue, is a variation on the famous Leonardo Da Vinci quote, ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned,’” writes Crowell in his introduction. “That excerpt, I’m not ashamed to say, applies to some of the records I’ve made. As a songwriter, however, I’m far more comfortable with the Picasso (right) yarn than the Da Vinci declaration. Revision is, for me, an open-ended part of the song-making process.”
photo 9 crowell Rewriting or revising songs is neither a maddening nor enlightening exercise for Crowell. “Redirecting my narrative instincts toward writing prose sentences and paragraphs, and what I learned through revision, and through having an editor work with me, has made me a far more thorough songwriter,” said Crowell. “I learned that perfection does not necessarily equal inspiration. Some of my earlier songs that I wrote when I was in my early 20s … now if I got that youthful burst of inspiration, I would do a better job of it.”
Technically, there’s still something in capturing those first bursts of inspiration, for a song, he added. “The longer I work at it, the more I’m aware that my inspiration comes from hard work,” says Crowell. “It’s more than lightning in a bottle, and that lightning, you cannot argue with it. I look at Dylan and his early 20s when he was writing, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and leading to these bursts of inspiration, the likes of which rarely visit anybody. As we go on, we just have to keep working.”
Recounting memories, some of Crowell’s prose may be slightly loosely based, but it’s all part of the essence of the stories, and his songs.
“When it comes to fact-checking, I accept the re-sculpting of the memory,” laughs Crowell. “What I tried to hold on to is the truth of the story, and what it means, not necessarily whether all the details are true, because God knows I’m gonna embellish. I’ve been embellishing my whole life.”
I don´t know if the song is included in Word For Word but I would be interested to see whether or not Crowell´s account ´of ´the song, Stars On The Water, that caused a furore between me and Gary Hall sounds to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I don´t know much but this I do know, …whenever I hear that song with its lines like
When it’s midnight down in Mobile
Moonbeams on the bay
They come from miles around
to dance the jukebox down
And dig the good time sounds they play
All across the harbour
Night lights shinin’ in
It looks just like stars on the water
Of course, the lyrics I so love were actually written by George Strait (right) , so I´m not too sure what Gary and I were arguing about so fiercely. It would be fiar to say that Gary asked me what I thought was Rodney Crowell´s finest song and I just quickly answered with what was (and still is) my favourite Rodney Crowell song. So,… ok, it was a collaboration, but that didn´t detract in any way from my love of the song.
I am in fact aware of a strange contradiction in my attitude to all this discussion of what is best, what is favourite and who wrote what. My view on all this might be best summed up by something Hugh Moffatt (I think) once said to me in an interview, that ´we must intend what we write for live years of travel´, and when we have done so , according to Roland Barthesian theory, the author ´dies´ and the song belongs instead to the people.
There´s one other issue that should be spoken about to settle all this waffle. Music is an unconditional love: I care very much and not at all about who wrote the song. Some music is irresistible and I still love some of Gary Glitter´s songs,… I know, I know, Do You Wanna Be
Ain´t Living Long Like This is a great song,……but throw me Stars On The Water any day. Like all love affairs, music is one of mixed emotions.
As for Gary Hall´s music, with and withpout The Stormkeepers?
His songs are always well crafted with sometimes startling lyrics. Long Way From Home Tonight, recorded with The Stormkeepers, is a great example of both those traits.
On the other hand, that first album he recorded in Nashville, What Goes Around , includes the brilliance of Her Devls Kept Dancing and the superb She´s Out There Somewhere which is a strong vehicle for his massive voice and perfectly delivered vocals.
Actually those two songs illustrate Gary´s perception and compassion and the yearning that his agent. provocateur manner cannot disguise. Chuck oput his discography and buy any one of his albums, and don´t tell him I said so, but you might well find a song as good as Stars On The Water.