Grammy award winner Rodney Crowell wears the mantle of stardom well. He has no need for swagger, bluster or self importance. Crowell belongs in the songwriting stratosphere with the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Jimmy Webb. Not only does he have incredible talent, he's smart. He's learned to step aside and let his songs do the talking.
The soft-spoken native Texan is currently on the road with Emmylou Harris, touring behind their brilliant record “Old Yellow Moon.” The two will take the stage at the Majestic Theater Saturday, Sept. 14, along with special guest Rhett Miller.
For years, Nashville-based Crowell made a good living writing songs like “Ashes by Now,” “Stars on the Water,” “Leaving Louisiana,” “'Till I Gain Control Again” and the 1989 Best Country Song, “After All This Time.” But nothing stays the same.
“For years and years and years and years I raised a family and sent 'em to school and fed everybody on my earnings as a songwriter,” he said during a telephone interview last week from his tour bus somewhere near Minneapolis. “But you know songwriters aren't getting paid like they used to.”
So, he's on the road with Emmylou. And, if YouTube videos are reliable, their audiences are loving every minute.
“We give them stuff from the 70s up until current day,” he said with a gentle laugh. “The two of us go back a long way. This works. We knew that years ago when were kids in our 20s running around.”
Harris drafted Crowell to be in The Hot Band when she was starting out. He also played with Vince Gill and others in The Cherry Bombs. Heady stuff for a kid from Jacinto City (near Houston).
After 40 years in the business, Crowell knows what it takes to make a good record – great songs and fabulous musicians.
The 12 tunes he and Harris selected include “Hanging Up My Heart” (Hank DeVito), “Invitation to the Blues” (Roger Miller), “Spanish Dancer” (Patti Scialfa), “Open Season on My Heart” (Crowell), “Chase the Feeling” (Kris Kristofferson), “Dreaming My Dreams” (Allen Reynolds), “Back When We Were Beautiful” (Matraca Berg) and “Old Yellow Moon” (Lynn Langham and Hank DeVito).
“The songs are timeless,” he explained. “Maybe it's because they weren't splattered all over the radio like 'Summer in the City' or 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' that were so specific to a time and place.
When it came to selecting artists to play on the record, Crowell said, “There are certain things you just know. It's like casting actors in a role. You know what their strengths are. Most of these guys are so good they don't have any weaknesses.”
The studio musicians on this record include Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Steuart Smith on electric guitar, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Bill Payne on keyboards.
Getting “the Stuarts,” as Crowell calls Duncan and Smith, was a given.
“You can't go wrong,” he said. “They are royalty.”
Duncan, who is a five-time Academy of Country Music Fiddle Player of the Year, has performed with George Strait, Dolly Parton, Reba McIntire, Lyle Lovett, Barbara Streisand and Diana Krall.
Crowell says Duncan has “so much musical soul. His genius lies beyond technical ability. He's just go so much musical soul. You know you're going to get a lot of soul and creativity.”
Steuart Smith, currently a member of The Eagles, has played for Dolly Parton, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Roseanne Cash and Trisha Yearwood.
As for Smith, Crowell notes, “He's a record producer's dream because he plays in such a way that supports the interior part of the melody and the arrangement of the song.”
Crowell has known Mickey Raphael since they were getting started in the business. Raphael has been a member of Willie Nelson's band for years, but he's also played with Elton John, Kenny Chesney and U2.
“I've known Mickey since 1973,” he said. “He brings something special to the table.”
Bill Payne, co-founder of Little Feat, has played with music legends like The Doobie Brothers, Bryan Adams, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.
“Billy Payne was very key to [recording] 'Old Yellow Moon,'” Crowell noted. “A lot of what we were searching for really came together when Billy got involved.”
Being involved with great musicians is important to Crowell. While Austin claims to be the live music capital, Crowell has other ideas.
“Some of my friends talk about Austin and they've got a little attitude about the corporate side of Nashville,” he explained. “I understand that. But the reason I live there is not because of the big record machine. The reason I still live there is there's the possibility of collaboration with world class musicians and songwriters.”
One of his longest professional – and personal – relationships has been with fellow Texas songwriter Guy Clark.
“I go back to 1972 with Guy,” Crowell explained, his voice fading to almost a whisper. “We came at it all the wrong way, but look how it ended.”
Crowell cut Clark’s song, “The Old Time Feeling,” as part of a 2-record set, “This One's For Him,” a tribute to Clark, which was released in 2012, produced by Tamara Saviano and nominated for a Grammy.
In November of 2011, Clark was honored with a birthday concert in Austin that included performances by Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Shawn Colvin, Rosie Flores, Jack Ingram, James McMurtry and The Trishas.
“That was a peak moment for me to see my friend recognized in that way,” he admitted. “It was wonderful.”
In addition to writing songs, Crowell also tried his hands at prose. His memoir, “Chinaberry Sidewalks” was released in 2011. The New York Times and The Washington Post gave the work glowing reviews.
“I was an innocent,” he said with a soft laugh. “I was just trying to paint on a different canvas to see if I could do it. I was lucky to have people who were real sensitive. In the hands of the wrong editor, it could have gone south really quickly.”
Crowell says he will probably “take another swing” at writing. For now, he's on the road, singing great songs with his long-time friends and making a living.
“Nobody's figured out how to monetize the Internet for a songwriter,” he observed. “I'm still a songwriter. Nothing has changed about that, but the business has changed.”
And then, our time is up. Ever gracious, Crowell issued an invitation for me to come back stage after the show.
“I was thinking we had talked before,” he said, recalling our 2011 interview prior to the release of the book. “I'm not kidding. I'd like to put a face with your voice. I feel like we just had a conversation.”
Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris will be in concert on Saturday, Sept. 14 at the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. Tickets range from $25 to $125. To order tickets, click here.
To learn more about “Old Yellow Moon,” click here.
To learn more about Rodney Crowell, click here.
To watch a video of Crowell and Harris doing "Chasing the Feeling" during a radio station performance,
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