Multi-Grammy winner Rodney Crowell’s latest full-length Close Ties, stretches back to the revered songwriter’s roots, mining memory and life experiences in a way that is not only deeply personal, but also incredibly honest and emotionally intimate. From the blues fueled opening track, “East Houston Blues” about Crowell’s childhood to “Nashville 1972” and beyond, Crowell’s narratives focus on a life lived thus far and all that encompasses: love, regret, lessons learned, wisdom gained, and hope. A few days before the album’s release Crowell graciously spoke about his vocation as a songwriter, Close Ties, and what’s ahead.
Over the course of your career, you’ve released well over a dozen albums, so was there anything you did differently with your latest, Close Ties?
Well, it was the first time that I worked with a female producer, Kim Buie. Before we even began the record, she and I had really in depth conversations about what we wanted to accomplish. Kim brought a unique perspective and was very helpful with figuring out what the tone and narrative of the record was going to be. We had such long conversations that by the time we went to record the album, we were of one mind.
The songs on Close Ties are very representative of your life; were they all written for the album or were some ones you had written awhile back?
I started the melody and my verse of “I’m Tied To You” way back in 1997 when I was in Ireland on a cultural exchange experiment with other songwriters and although I had tried for many years, I was never was able to unlock the female narrative. So when we hatched a plan to collaborate with Sheryl Crow on the song, I had to step up my game and get the female narrative of the song together because I wanted Sheryl to be proud of what she was singing. That song was twenty years in the making, but then others like “It Ain’t Over Yet” I wrote coming right up to the recording sessions and another, “Life Without Susanna,” I wrote maybe a year and a half before.
“I’m Tied To You” took a couple of decades to complete, but in general is writing something you have to work at?
Oh yes, of course. It’s not something I have to work at, it’s something I love to work at. Songwriting is my vocation, but it’s also a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I don’t think inspiration goes looking for a lazy artist; you have to be on the job every day to really accomplish anything. So, if I’m not on the road performing you can pretty much bet that I’ll be in my studio tinkering with my next group of songs that I am going to make into my next record.
I’m an album artist and when I write songs I write songs specifically for an album I want to make. Melody comes pretty quickly to me and generally speaking, it comes close to fully formed, but where I spend most of my time is really consciously working on language and lyrics, where I do a lot of revisions - something I didn’t do so much when I was a younger songwriter. In my 20’s inspiration would come and I would sometimes make the most of it and sometimes I would only get half of what that inspiration was really offering up because I hadn’t fully developed the craft. But now, after forty plus years of songwriting, I hear inspiration - and that comes as a result of dedication, which is not a very sexy thing to say, but it’s the truth. When I was younger I took the gift for granted and occasionally I got good songs that are still around today, but I could have written a lot of those songs a lot better if I only know then what I know now.
With age comes wisdom, isn’t that what they say?
So they say, though I’m not so sure.
To me, “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “It Ain’t Over Yet” reflect on that wisdom gained with age – or maybe I’m off the mark?
No, you’re right; those songs are giving voice to wisdom and ten years from now, I hope to have an even deeper version of “It Ain’t Over Yet."
My friend Guy Clark was dying - and I knew it - so the last five or six months of his life I was visiting him pretty regularly and I was writing that song, which was based on our nearly forty-four years of friendship. I was open to receiving the narrative flow of that song which was informed by my experience of talking to my friend who I knew was on his way to wherever the next destination is. But that song, or any song I’ve written and recorded, when you hear that song, that song may bring up whatever it brings up for you and if I’ve done my job as a songwriter, that song will belong to you and you will have your own personal relationship with it.
Indeed, those particular ones do.
Guy’s wife, Susanna, is the subject of “Life Without Susanna.” Having read last year’s book, Without Getting Killed or Caught, I came away with the impression that Susanna seemed like an enchanting woman. What made her so incredibly special?
She was a poet and a painter and a beguiling woman who became a muse. There was something about her, that silent siren call, that made you want to write something good enough to impress her, and if you did, you’d feel that you were moving forward. The down side of being so enchanting and inspirational was the fact that she was agoraphobic and eventually turned away from world spending the last ten years of her life shut away. “Life Without Susanna” is a love song to a friend, but I’m not shying away from telling the truth about how angry and frustrated I became in trying to get her out of that bed and back out into the world. It’s one of the most honest songs I have ever written.
The album is bookended by two tracks that premiered before the album was released, “Nashville 1972” and “East Houston Blues.” Why did you choose to bookend the album with those?
There were other songs I considered starting with, but I chose “East Houston Blues” because of its tone and tempo. One of things we discussed was how we were going to make a record that’s basically acoustic sounding, but has a real energy to it and we both agreed “East Houston Blues” set the tone for where we were going. For choosing to close with “Nashville 1972”, well, I’ll give that one to Kim. I never really had the idea that I was even going to record that song because I wrote it the way you sketch on a sketch pad, but well into the process of recording the album Kim said, ‘That’s your end piece’ and so, like a good soldier, I followed instructions.
We’ve spoken about the songs, but what about the title? Close Ties sums up the nature of the album quite perfectly.
I poured over my books of poetry for a long time looking for a title. You know, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came from a William Butler Yeats poem as did No Country For Old Men, but I finally gave up on that line of thinking and realized this record is about close ties - and that’s when the title was born.
Finally, what’s ahead for you? Is there anything you haven’t yet done that you want to?
I want to make a Christmas album about real emotion. I’ve written a collection of Christmas songs - some that include the season’s cheer, but many are dark, moody, and raw because the Christmas season is often a time of dysfunction. I also want to write another book and experiment with other forms of writing too - but I don’t want to give it away just yet because if I don’t do it I won’t have to live up the fact that I said I wanted to. So we shall see.
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