That Haunted Feeling

Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

For nearly a quarter-century, Rodney Crowell has been hailed as a songwriter’s songwriter whose finely detailed, character-rich songs have been recorded by such respected country, pop and rock artists as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt and the Grateful Dead.

He’s even had chart-topping success of his own over the course of 11 albums, peaking in 1988 when his breakthrough “Diamonds & Dirt” collection spawned a record five straight No. 1 country singles.

Through it all, however, the Texas native was haunted by the feeling that he still hadn’t delivered the kind of landmark album that would deserve a place on a shelf with the best works of his personal heroes, including Cash and Bob Dylan.


He’s had the germ of an idea for such an album in mind for close to half his life--a work that would draw on his childhood years as “poor white trash” in east Houston, the only child of an alcoholic musician father and a loving, abused mother. But lack of major-label support, coupled with his own trepidation about embarking on such a project, kept Crowell from ever truly swinging for the fences.

Until now.

His new album, “The Houston Kid,” tells his story through a batch of largely autobiographical songs that unearth both the heartache and the humor he finds in his life, looking back through the prism of three or four decades’ distance.

“The Houston Kid,” which came out earlier this month on Sugar Hill Records, is by far the most consistent and deeply personal album Crowell has ever recorded, rife with penetrating yet often noncritical observations about his parents and people like them, whose inadequacies often wreak havoc on those they love.

Crowell feels so strongly about the album, which he financed himself, that he is frequently rerouting his travel plans to talk to interviewers about it face to face rather than over the phone. It’s part of the extra mile he’s willing to go to demonstrate that “The Houston Kid” is far more than just the latest Rodney Crowell album. (In addition, there’s a companion film documentary he’s assembling, as well as a memoir he’s started writing.)

What took so long?

“Man, when somebody started writing checks for me to make records, I was like, ‘Yessuh . . . I’ll do everything I can to make you happy,’ ” he says.

“The problem with that is that it took having nothing left to lose for me to finally have the scenario where I could do what I’d always wanted to do: to make a record where I could sit down with [anyone] and say, ‘This is me. I’m proud of this, and this is what I’m capable of doing.’ ”



Spousal abuse. Domestic violence. Dysfunctional family.

Those topics are central to “The Houston Kid,” but you won’t find those terms in any of the songs.

Catch phrases make for wretched song lyrics, and the man who wrote such contemporary country classics as “ ‘Til I Gain Control Again” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” treasures clear, evocative lyrics.

Here’s some of the fittingly unvarnished language Crowell uses to write about his father in “The Rock of My Soul.”

The rock of my soul didn’t have much charm

With the lack of education on a red dirt farm

He was fond of disappearing on an eight-day drunk

Coming home smelling like a lowdown skunk

“My parents were really good people, but they were crazy,” Crowell, 50, says after settling in at a corner table at a Santa Monica restaurant, barely two hours off a plane from Nashville.

“It was lack of education, insecurity and the fact that both were sons and daughters of sharecroppers. Wife-beaters. It’s domestic violence now, but where they came from it was wife-beaters. Old drunk wife-beaters,” he says. “My grandfather was a deacon in the church, led the singing, and he was a drop-dead alcoholic and a wife-beater.”

He tells the story as a story, not as a shameful or boastful confession from his life. It’s the perceptive artist, not a long-ago wounded child, who speaks easily, compassionately, even humorously about his parents’ shortcomings, recalling them lovingly, if wistfully, three years after his mother’s death and 13 years after his father’s.


He hasn’t eaten all day, but still orders light--just a bowl of tortilla soup and a margarita--so he won’t spoil his dinner with his wife of 2 1/2 years, singer-actress-painter Claudia Church, who’s in L.A. studying acting.

They’re looking for a place to live--they’re eyeballing Santa Monica and Venice--which will make L.A. home to Crowell for the first time since he called Redondo Beach home in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, after leaving Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band to launch a solo career.


The oldest song on “The Houston Kid” is “The Banks of the Old Bandera,” which he wrote in 1976, but the seed for the project was planted about 20 years earlier.

Crowell, just 5 1/2, was on a fishing trip with his father and grandfather when Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” came on the radio of his dad’s ’49 Ford and hit him so hard that it put him on the path for a life in music.

He gigged for years in Texas honky-tonks in his father’s band--not, he realized later, because his father saw a chance to bond with his son, but so he’d have one fewer band member to pay at the end of the night.

Crowell left Texas for Nashville in the early ‘70s, chasing what turned out to be a false promise of a recording contract.


Stranded, he met maverick singer-songwriter Guy Clark, who introduced him to the music of such country music outsiders as Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Billy Joe Shaver. He also found his way into Harris’ acclaimed group, where she tapped his talents as a guitarist and a songwriter.

Others quickly followed her lead, from the likes of Waylon Jennings and George Jones on up through recent hits by Tim McGraw and Lee Ann Womack, whose recording of “Ashes by Now” is a Top 10 country single.

Signed by Warner Bros. to a solo contract in 1978, he left her band and formed his own, the Cherry Bombs, whose membership included Vince Gill and Tony Brown, now president of MCA Nashville. This was also when he joined country’s royal family by marrying Johnny Cash’s daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash. They divorced in 1992.

Brown went on to produce “Diamonds & Dirt”--his first gold record as a producer--plus two more albums Crowell recorded in the mid-’90s for MCA.

“I have a legacy of really fine songs, and I don’t hesitate to say so,” Crowell says. “But at the same time, as a recording artist, I thought I was spotty. I think the reason is that I always wrote with my heart, but often when I was making records, my brain got involved and derailed the whole thing. And I would be frustrated with [the results] too.”

Much of that frustration came from albums that tried unsuccessfully to repeat the success of “Diamonds & Dirt.”


“The two he made with us at MCA, I must admit, were attempts to try to make him fit into the mainstream,” Brown says. “There were pieces of magic on several cuts, but they weren’t like this [new] one. This is Rodney back in true form.”

Crowell’s old pal Clark--who shares the stage with Crowell and Nanci Griffith at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday--concurs.

“I like [‘The Houston Kid’] better than anything of his I’ve ever heard,” Clark says. “[It’s] a lot simpler, a lot cleaner, and there’s a lot less ‘stuff’ on the record. . . . It’s got more of the real Rodney.”

It is not, however, totally Rodney Crowell.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Is this autobiographical?’ ” Crowell says. “I have evolved into this understanding that yes, this is autobiographical, and the autobiography is about the environment that the Houston Kid comes up in. . . . It’s just not necessarily all [about] me.”

It’s also not, he says emphatically, country music.

“I’d call it a folk-rock record,” he says. “I’d be embarrassed to call it country. Country music only exists on record now, on old recordings. It doesn’t exist anymore, such as we used to know it.”


Oddly enough, the only subject that makes Crowell seem the least bit ill at ease is songwriting.


“Talking about songwriting,” he says, shifting in his seat at the dimly lighted table and gently nursing a second margarita, “is like doing card tricks on the radio.”

Still, he confesses that since he’s been writing consistently from memory for “The Houston Kid,” rather than inventing scenarios that seem to make good song fodder, he’s now firmly committed to the first method.

“Most songwriters I’ve talked to have some sort of mystical belief that these songs we write are already fully formed,” he says, “and that it’s our job to get them through into this dimension that we’re in so we can see them.

“These songs are out there, and when you do a good job, when you’ve got your craft working, when you’ve studied it, and you get it all, they’re poignant and they live a long time. And I’ve found that the ones you just make up, they don’t last. You’ve gotta go hunting for those that already exist.”


Rodney Crowell, with Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark, plays Thursday at Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood, 8 p.m. $20-$35. (310) 825-2101. Also Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 15700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, 8 p.m. $30-$40. (800) 300-4345. Crowell also plays March 31 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 8 p.m. $16.50. (949) 496-8930. Also April 1 at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $18.50. (310) 276-2222.