Crowell notes that his limited resources have often forced him to produce his own albums, so the opportunity to work with a producer of Tweedy's caliber was a gift of inestimable value.
"Man, to have Jeff Tweedy and his gentle guidance and his humor and his Play Station up in The Loft was just great," says Crowell. "My boy Jedd Hughes, the guitar player I brought up there, was wide-eyed working with Jeff Tweedy. And Jeff was wide-eyed at his discovery of Catherine Marx, who's one of my favorite piano players in the world, and Zachariah Hickman, who was playing bass with me at the time. It was just the perfect party. I brought my friends, and Jeff brought his friends and his son, Spencer, and we made a very innocent record. I think the songs were good, and I think I was at my best simply because I wasn't wearing too many hats."
Crowell is also quick to credit engineer Tom Schick for his intuitive methodology, which goes hand in hand with Tweedy's hands off/radar on approach to production.
"I had complete confidence in Jeff, but also in Tom, the engineer" he says. "Once I got a sense of how he worked in that studio, I went, 'This is gonna be fun. This is some organic recording.' We overdubbed a few background vocal parts, and I think Jeff overdubbed a banjo on one tune, and that was about it."
As a result of Tweedy's production Zen style, the chemistry between Crowell's band and drummers Spencer Tweedy and John Perrine and Crowell's consistently brilliant narrative songwriting, "The Chicago Sessions" stands as another crown jewel in Crowell's estimable catalog. There is an immediacy and an intimacy to the album that gives the listener the sensation of witnessing these songs as they were being created. Crowell notes that the first time the band heard the songs was when he played them in the studio, and the arrangements were worked out on the fly.
One of the songs that Crowell recorded during lockdown actually predated his 1978 solo debut album by two years. He wrote "You're Supposed to Be Feeling Good" in 1976, and Emmylou Harris recorded it for 1977's "Luxury Liner." Crowell played acoustic guitar on his own composition.
"She made a good record of it, and people who are familiar with the song have challenged me on the changes I've made," says Crowell. "I had the line, 'Honey, does it blow your mind that the prophets would lie,' which I've changed to, 'Did you ever wonder why it comes down to one big lie.' The first is poetic in a way and probably, from my perspective, overdone, but my real reason (for the change) is it afforded me a more compelling melody. You can be a longtime fan and argue with me about the change, but I know I did the right thing. It made the song more singable."
As previously noted, part of the process was selecting the songs to appear on "The Chicago Sessions," which fell to Tweedy. Out of the 18 or so demos that Crowell sent to Tweedy for consideration, the producer chose 10. Two wound up being replaced, but not because Crowell took issue with their selection. The first was dropped when Crowell was as divinely inspired as the entire project.
"I suggested that Jeff and I write a song ourselves, seeing as how we were collaborating, and we're both songwriters," says Crowell. "I started 'Everything at Once' and sent it to him, and we just traded back and forth. That bumped off one of the songs he had picked."
Tweedy's second pick was scrubbed when Crowell decided this would be the perfect time for him to cover Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall," a song he had wanted to play himself since first hearing it in its nascent stage from Van Zandt himself in the early '70s. Crowell and Van Zandt had been sitting in the kitchen of Guy and Susanna Clark playing songs for each other when Van Zandt uncorked his eventual masterpiece.
"I pulled out this dumbass song I wrote at age 22 - I honestly don't remember the song, but I can tell you it was adolescent shit - and Townes gives me the stinkeye and pulls up his guitar and says, 'Here's something I just wrote,' and played 'No Place to Fall,' and put me properly in my place," says Crowell with a laugh. "It also put me in a place where I intuitively understood, 'Oh, this is the level you've got to swing for.' It was a pivotal moment for me as a songwriter. Whereas Guy Clark was very supportive and afforded me an ongoing discussion about how to do it, Townes just punched me in the face with a beautiful song. And I got it. I always wanted to record the song, and my version is exactly how I think I remember the moment he played it for me."
"So kind of at the last minute, I called Jeff on my way to Chicago and said, 'Hey, man, let's do this Townes Van Zandt song, 'No Place to Fall,'" Crowell recalls. "Jeff said, 'We can't go wrong if we do that. Let's do it.' That bumped another one off."
So between the two tracks that were replaced from Tweedy's original set list and the songs that missed the initial cut for "The Chicago Sessions," Crowell proposes an interesting next step.
"Maybe I need to go back to Chicago and record one more record with Jeff to finish up the songs that happened during lockdown."
Maybe? Not a chance. Have your management call his management. Right now.