Crowell's life of chances comes through again

Brian Baker, June 2023

Rodney Crowell's career is littered with butterfly-effect decisions that, in retrospect, represent life-altering milestones along the singer/songwriter's star-crossed path. If the Houston native hadn't moved to Nashville at age 22, he wouldn't have been discovered by Jerry Reed or met his greatest influence and hero Guy Clark or enchanted Emmylou Harris, who consistently recorded Crowell's songs and even hired him as her Hot Band guitarist.

Nor would Crowell have formed the Notorious Cherry Bombs with his future producer Tony Brown and eventual Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, and he certainly wouldn't have become Rosanne Cash's husband, collaborator and producer (and Johnny Cash's son-in-law). He might never have become the songwriter's songwriter, whose compositions have been covered by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, the Oak Ridge Boys, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Crystal Gayle, Keith Urban, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Bob Seger and Foghat, among many others, and he likely wouldn't have launched his long and coveted solo career which has resulted in 17 studio albums (including "Diamonds & Dirt," which produced an astonishing five consecutive chart-topping singles), and a number of retrospective compilations and collaborations, a couple of Halls of Fame inductions and his fascinating memoir, 2011's "Chinaberry Sidewalks."

Just as all of the above actually dominoed into reality, Crowell's latest album, "The Chicago Sessions," has a similarly fateful origin story. On a pleasant Nashville night, Crowell was homeward bound with his car radio tuned into National Public Radio, which by purest chance played "I Know What It's Like" from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's sophomore solo album "Warm." Crowell was profoundly moved by the song.

"So it's a beautiful sounding record, and I'm alone in my car with nothing else to distract, and I bought it immediately," says Crowell. "NPR sold me a Jeff Tweedy solo album, and I did a deep dive. I was a Wilco fan, but I became a Jeff Tweedy fan because of 'Warm.'"

Months later, Crowell found himself aboard a Cayamo Cruise ship for a songwriter's excursion and realized Tweedy was one of his musical shipmates. He took the opportunity to express his ardent admiration for Tweedy's "Warm" work, and Tweedy's gracious response included an idea that Crowell did not take seriously at first blush.

"He said, 'Aw, man, you should come up to Chicago sometime and record,'" Crowell recalls. "It just seemed like a neighborly suggestion, like he was just being a nice guy. I just took it as something I might say; 'Come around the house, and we'll drink some tea.'"

Even though recording in Chicago, with its historic reputation for birthing great albums, was on his bucket list, Crowell dismissed Tweedy's invitation as the kind of "we-should-work-together" conversation nugget that gets thrown around when disparate musicians gather in a common venue. Once he got home, his daughter ,Chelsea, demanded in no uncertain terms that he take the necessary steps to accept Tweedy's offer.

"I don't remember how she got wind of that conversation, but she accosted me and said, 'Jeff Tweedy invited you to record in his studio. You need to get your management to talk to his management right now,'" Crowell recalls. "I dutifully said, 'Well, okay.' Next thing you know, it's all organized."

A lot of early reviews of "The Chicago Sessions" draw a line between the new album and 2001's "The Houston Kid," Crowell's autobiographical masterpiece, which are not significantly linked beyond high songwriting quality. Crowell notes that he began working simultaneously on the songs for "The Houston Kid" and the first draft of "Chinaberry Sidewalks," and since no such theme was explored on "The Chicago Sessions," his conclusion is that the connection between the albums may be his sense of "relaxed confidence."

"'The Houston Kid' was definitely memory-based, and 'The Chicago Sessions' was obviously not memory-based, but at least six of the songs were written during the nice Covid lockdown that I had," he says. "Lockdown for me was a joy, because I was back in my home studio just knocking around, making a racket, recording stuff all by myself. It was fun. There's probably something monastic about me. I've noticed that I'm probably equal parts extrovert and introvert; I'm happy on a stage, and I'm happy at home, alone, working as a writer."

While sequestered, Crowell felt the creative freedom to attempt anything, playing every instrument himself, even making drum sounds with pots and pans in an acoustically friendly bathroom. When arrangements were finalized for Crowell to travel to Chicago and record with Tweedy, there was plenty of material to consider for inclusion on the album, but more importantly, Crowell was still juiced from the home recording process.

"By the time Jeff and I got together, I was still in the same mindset, so we just took what I was doing at home into Jeff's studio, and his studio in Chicago is just very conducive to playing around," says Crowell. "I moved from my little retreat at home to Jeff's retreat in Chicago with some great musicians, and we were off and running. I think Jeff was charmed by the recordings I had made by myself; I sent quite a few to him. He picked out the songs, and I was like, 'Great, I don't have to.'"

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.

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