Singer, songwriter, producer
In 1988 Rodney Crowell began to emerge from his image as a songwriter and producer for other country stars. After releasing four relatively unsuccessful albums for Warner Bros, and Columbia, the talented Crowell finally found his niche with the release of Diamonds and Dirt, a work that scored four consecutive Number One country singles and garnered numerous award nominations. Since then, Rodney Crowell has achieved a dream he long held dear—to perform his own songs and be recognized as a singer and entertainer in his own right.
As Alanna Nash noted in Stereo Review, Crowell had been “one of the most respected songwriters and producers in the business for at least a decade.” The list of stars Crowell has assisted with songs or production work is impressive: Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sissy Spacek, Bob Seger, and Crowell’s second wife, Roseanne Cash. Unfortunately Crowell watched in frustration as these other performers scored Number One hits with songs he had composed and often recorded himself on his own albums. In Behind Closed Doors: Talking With the Legends of Country Music, Crowell told Nash that he has finally overcome the dissatisfaction that plagued him before he became known as a singer. “I want to know how to enjoy the successes I do have, no matter how big or small they are,” he said. “I think that’s the key. That’s the ultimate thing to me.”
Crowell was born in Houston, Texas. His family was full of musicians—his grandfather played banjo, his grandmother was a guitarist, and his father made pocket change as a sideman in the city’s numerous honky tonks. “My dad had [musical] talent, but he went for something else,” Crowell related to Nash. “He went for that construction job, where he could make some money, and that kept him there. So he never did really pursue his dream to be a singer, or a country music star. But I know that he really wanted to, had circumstances been different. So I think he enjoys it through me.”
By the time he was 11 years old, Crowell was playing in his father’s band, banging drums in Houston’s portside bars. Unlike his father, however, Crowell was determined to earn a living as a musician, and he was strongly influenced by such rock and roll artists as Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Crowell originally wanted to play pure rock music, but he gravitated to the country-rock style just as the movement was gaining strength. In the early 1970s Crowell bid his family farewell and left
For the Record…
Born in 1950 in Houston, TX; son of a James Crowell (a construction worker and part-time musician); married second wife, RosanneCash, 1979 (divorced, March, 1992); children: (second marriage) Hannah, Caitlyn, Chelsea. Education: Attended Stephen F. Austin College, Nacogdoches, TX.
Singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist, 1965—. Moved to Nashville, c. 1970; performed on writer’s night at Bishop’s American Pub and worked briefly as a songwriter for Jerry Reed’s Vector Music Company. Joined Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, 1974, as songwriter, backup guitarist, and vocalist. Solo artist, 1977—. Signed with Warner Bros. Records, 1977; released first album, I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This, 1978. Had first Top Ten country hit with “It’s Such a Small World,” 1988, a duet with Rosanne Cash. Has written and/or produced songs for numerous country stars, including Rosanne Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bob Seger, and Waylon Jennings.
for Nashville with some songs he had written. “I wasn’t worried about keeping a job,” he divulged in Behind Closed Doors. “I didn’t mind moving to Nashville and sleeping in my car for a while. That was an adventure to me. The first time I moved to Nashville, in , I slept in my car for the first two months I was here. And I was having a ball. I wasn’t worried about security at all. The world was my oyster.”
Crowell supported himself by washing dishes in restaurants, and he also worked briefly for Jerry Reed’s music publishing company. By 1973 he was sharing living quarters and creative ideas with some other budding Nashville writers, including Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, and Richard Dobson. Also during that period, Crowell cut a demo tape that drew the attention of Brian Ahern, Emmylou Harris’s manager.
In 1974 Harris invited Crowell to join her backup group, the Hot Band. She also recorded several Crowell songs, including “Amarillo,” “Till I Gain Control,” “Tulsa Queen,” and “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.” Gaining exposure for himself as Harris became a major country star, Crowell told Nash in Behind Closed Doors, “I would have to say I owe one of my biggest debts of gratitude to Emmylou for taking me around with her, and letting me gather up a lot of experience for myself while she was forging her own career. With her generosity, and her belief in my talents that were, at that time, really way down deep, and not really surfacing, she thrust me into a situation where I could grow. She let me get in touch with my talents. A lot of people wouldn’t have done that. But she knew that there was a writer in there somewhere, and I think that’s why she did it.”
Crowell left the Hot Band in 1978 under the most cordial of terms. Ahern, in fact, produced Crowell’s debut album for Warner Bros., I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This. Though the album sold less than 20,000 units, it earned Crowell a cult following for its rock- and new wave-influenced country sound. Subsequent Crowell albums offered more of the same—hard-edged sentiments presented with musical twists and poetic turns of the lyric. “Ashes by Now,” a single from his second LP, went to Number 37 on the country charts, but what baffled Crowell was the success others had with his songs. Three works from his debut album sold a million singles for other artists, and a particular Crowell favorite, “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” was a Number One hit for the Oak Ridge Boys.
The artist had little time to reflect on his peculiar status, however. In 1979 Rosanne Cash asked him to help her with a new album being produced in Germany. The finished album was a disappointment to both artists, but they were able to persuade Columbia Records to give them more creative freedom on their next project. That work turned out to be Right or Wrong, the 1980 LP that more or less launched Cash’s career. By the time the album was released, she had married Crowell.
Crowell kept quite busy producing his wife’s albums and writing songs for other artists, but he also continued to release his own work. His Warner Bros, output includes What Will the Neighbors Think and Rodney Crowell. Though it also released the 1984 album Street Language, the company refused to market the LP, stating that it had no potential for producing a hit. Undaunted, Crowell took the finished product to Columbia. The album was not a big seller but drew favorable reviews for being musically adventurous.
By 1985 Crowell had come to realize that his marriage and his creative ability were both being undermined by his drug abuse. He and Cash both quit taking drugs, and their relationship improved measurably. “Drugs keep you from growing emotionally,” Crowell admitted in Behind Closed Doors. “And since I’ve been straight, I think my emotional growth is starting to catch up with me.” One discovery Crowell made paved the way to his stardom. “I had such a high opinion of myself as a songwriter,” he said, “that I failed to realize I needed to deliver that much as a performer. But with the time that I’ve had away from that, and with growing personally and spiritually and every other way that you grow as you get older, it became obvious to me that I wasn’t being really honest with myself about all of my talents.”
Crowell’s 1988 release, Diamonds and Dirt, literally put him over the top. He became the first country musician to amass four Number One hits for self-written songs from a single album. He also scored a major hit with “It’s Such a Small World,” a duet with his wife. Diamonds and Dirt marked a return to a more country-oriented style for Crowell, and he continued in this vein with his 1989 release, Keys to the Highway, an LP containing songs written in remembrance of his deceased father, James Crowell. Pointing out that Crowell’s “recent records indicate a maturing and more sharply focused self-image,” Nash wrote that the singer’s “long suits have always been the descriptive narrative and the ability to capture complex emotion in simple language.… Crowell continues to insist on eloquent, no-nonsense playing and on stretching his limits as an expressive, emotive vocalist.”
For his 1992 album, Life Is Messy, released shortly after his March divorce from Rosanne Cash, Crowell had “set out not to do anything in the same way,” he expressed in a Columbia Records press packet. “I took voyages into as many places as I could. I was digging for something deeper in myself in terms of how I dealt with realizing the potentials of the songs.” The dissolution of his 12-year marriage to Cash, he continued, “brought challenges on all kinds of levels—physical and emotional;” it also inspired “Alone But Not Alone,” a song termed “achingly beautiful” by Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly.
Spawning the Top Ten country hit “Lovin’ All Night,” Life Is Messy drew a lukewarm reception from Rolling Stone’s David McGee as well as Alanna Nash, who commented in Entertainment Weekly: “Crowell’s keening tenor… is a constant pleasure, but too many of his songs splinter into nebulousness with the occasional joltingly bad line (‘Life is messy/I feel like Elvis Presley’).” Tucker, however, lauded Crowell for his effort. Citing some of the singer’s influences as Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, the reviewer found that “as has been true since he released his first album in 1978, Crowell creates songs that tackle classic country themes—lovin’, leavin’, and honky tonkin’—without the musical and verbal cliches.”
As far as he has come from his Houston roots, Crowell has never forgotten the reasons he became a singer. “Music was a big part of both sides of my family,” he acknowledged in Behind Closed Doors. “It was a real escape valve. They worked hard all week long, and the way they celebrated and rejoiced in life was by making music on weekends. And the music was country music.” As for himself, Crowell says he no longer chases the elusive element of superstardom. “I can’t sit here and say I’m gonna be a pop artist, or I’m gonna be anything,” he told Nash. “I’m just gonna be a songwriter, a singer, and a performer. And I’m gonna do that as good as I can. I want to do something that is poignant and that expresses a reality that comes from your heart, as opposed to your mind. And then the results of that will be seen.”
I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This, Warner Bros., 1978.
What Will the Neighbors Think, Warner Bros., c. 1981.
Rodney Crowell, Warner Bros., c. 1982.
Street Language, Columbia, 1984.
Diamonds and Dirt, Columbia, 1988.
Keys to the Highway, Columbia, 1989.
Life Is Messy, Columbia, 1992.
Collection, Warner Bros.
Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking With the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Country Music, May/June 1992; July/August 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, May 22, 1992; June 26, 1992.
Rolling Stone, August 6, 1992.
Stereo Review, January, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records press material, 1992.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Crowell, Rodney." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/crowell-rodney
"Crowell, Rodney." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/crowell-rodney
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