"I might be 36, but emotionally I'm 22. It's the truth," said singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, sounding as if he was about to let loose with a joyful holler.

It's the same giddy tone that fuels Crowell's current single "Let Freedom Ring," a rocking, Chuck Berry-ish anthem of personal independence that leads off "Street Language," Crowell's first album in five years.

It's also the kind of enthusiasm he shows when talking about being on the road for the first time in the same period. He and his band play tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

Crowell feels he has a new lease on life after making a dramatic rebound from the problems of recent years.

Though such Crowell compositions as "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," "Ain't Living Long Like This" and "Shame on the Moon" had been hits for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Bob Seger, Crowell's career seemed in a holding pattern.

His own records had reached few beyond respectful peers and critics, and his growing career as a Nashville producer was not providing him much satisfaction.

His personal life was in even worse shape. His marriage to singer Rosanne Cash was crumbling, with a serious cocaine problem being about the only thing they had in common anymore.

"Things had to get real bad to get better, " Crowell said recently in a deep Houston drawl. "We almost didn't make it, but we did, and the reason is we stopped to look at what we were doing wrong and what we were doing right. I guess the mark of a good marriage is how you deal with the downside."

The marital problems and Cash's drug addiction surfaced publicly in the songs on her 1985 album "Rhythm and Romance," and through her discussion of her recovery in interviews. Little was said about Crowell's part in all this, though.

"I was there note for note with her," he now admits. "We were both into heavy self-abuse. We both reached a low point in self-destruction. She was the first to recognize that there was a problem and the first to do something about it. But I did do something about it, too."

Crowell has chosen not to be as open about his personal life in either songs or discussion as Cash was a year ago, citing the lessons he learned from his wife's experiences.

"It's really come back to haunt her," he said. "That's all people want to talk to her about. I don't think it's important that I'm chemically free. The most important thing is I'm growing and have the tools to do it. I did make it through, and I'm very grateful I did."

Crowell is not in the least reluctant to talk about his renewed performing and recording career. In fact, the making of "Street Language" with co-producer Booker T. Jones, the organist with Booker T. & the MGs, and his current tour are his favorite topics right now.

Of working with Jones, Crowell said, "Booker is like your favorite house shoes. When you get into the studio with him, you enter into comfort. It raises all the other musicians up another notch. Everything about Booker is music. You can see eighth-notes circling his head."

He's no less enthusiastic about being on the road again for the first time in years, even though it means sacrificing time at his Nashville home with Cash and his three daughters (one from a previous marriage), and the relative financial security of production work.

"Let's face it, I'm a ham," he said, laughing. "Playing for people was always the reason for doing this. I'm out with a real kickin' band, and for me that's more important than promoting an album or having a video on MTV. I'm playing with a band, and that's what it's all about."

It's all part of having learned to live day by day, which he says enabled him to climb out of the hole he was in a couple of years ago.

"I think before I was guilty of looking too far out to the horizon," he summarized. "Now I tend to look at what I do for the satisfaction now as opposed to what it might bring in the future. That's how you stay straight--by living now, not in the future."

Crowell will also perform at the Palace in Hollywood on Thursday.

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