THE SORCERESS'S APPRENTICE
by Don Allred
One August night in '72, young Rodney Crowell arrived in Nashville, with
$15.00 to his name, eagerly obeying Jim Duff, the mentor who had bid him leave his
native Port Houston 's canal bar, rodeo dancehall, and Holiday Inn music
scene, to come sign with Columbia Records, thence to tour with Kenny Rogers and
the First Edition. Although Duff had already sold off the publishing rights to
Rodney's demo tape, and vamoosed back to Texas, things turned out okay. Rodney stole
his demo back from the publisher's office, and started playing for tips at a
local dive, Bishop's Pub. Which was also frequented by other resourceful young
songwriters, including Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
This fecund scene is pungently preserved in the 1976 documentary, Heartworn
Highways. A remarkable "companion album" (with more music than made it onto
the screen) will be released on March 15: it includes "Bluebird Wine," which
Rodney says is the first of his songs that Guy ever approved. (The late great
Townes was a harder sell, it seems.) Guy has denied wanting to be a taskmaster
or teacher of Rodney's; he's said he learned from Rodney. But Rodney seems
always to have felt the urge to both learn from and prove himself to some magical
figure. "Bluebird Wine" euphorically celebrates being discovered by a woman
who provides wine and creative inspiration.
Soon after writing "Blueberry Wine," he met Emmylou Harris, who had been
discovered and mentored by the late mad genius, Gram Parsons. In Rodney, still
known to few in Nashville, she found her own private Gram, her secret stash of
soulful, song-filled, ceaseless striving.
Eventually, Rodney pushed himself out of what he's called "the Great School
of Emmylou," and spent several frustrating years as a solo artist (he did have
hits, but usually when other people covered his songs: the stash wasn't secret
any more.) In the early 80s, he found himself schooling (and being schooled
by) Johnny Cash's young daughter, Rosanne. He helped her have hits, and he
even, finally, had five number one hits off his own album, Diamonds And Dust. This
strange winning streak proved to be a fluke, although he tried to come up
with a hitmaking formula (like he and Rosanne were developing in her product).
They both became sick of the whole hitmaking grind. They drove themselves and
each other to push beyond safe songwriting, and eventually they had to do that,
trying to make sense of their marriage's shipwreck.
In 2001, Rodney made an album with his own money, rather than feel compelled
to try and please a major label "benefactor" one more time. He cannily shopped
it to a well-heeled, intelligent indie label, Sugar Hill. This album's title
was his old nickname, The Houston Kid, but it was really a mix of his own
early close calls, with some of the lives he saw to the end: in his neighborhood,
and his own likely (and immediate) future, if music hadn't provided some kind
of stability. The Houston Kid was highly acclaimed and deservedly so. It was
masterful, with no sense of anxiously overselling good material, as he'd tended
to do previously. In 2003, he released Fate's Right Hand, in which he tries to
provide solace and sense to troubled friends, while struggling with the
paranoid compulsions of "The Man In Me." (Def. not Dylan's "la, la, la,
la"-inclusive song of the same name, and R.C.'s own Man feels closer to Hyde than one
inclined to "hide to keep from being seen," like Mr. D.'s
2005's The Outsider is more overtly political, to put it mildly, but
certainly redeems the cliché aspect of "the personal is political." Viewpoints shift, and fall away, but the people in these
songs are connected , whether they want to be or not. The first track, "Say
You Love Me," is a raw-eyed ("up all night and the night before," and the
beat's still up), alternate-futures-riffing prequel to several songs to come.
Already, he's getting in bar brawls with bigots. Whereas in "Don't Get Me Started,"
he's already started, but keeps barely pulling back from the brink of his soapbox.
And the slightly creepy china doll imagery of that "Glasgow Girl" (to come) gets graphic here.
"Say you love me!" he barks, leading right into the "Give it to me" of "The
Obscenity Prayer," and keeping its greedy yuppie from seeming too 2-D,
even if his partay platform's not as enlightened as Rodney's (or yours or
mine, of course). "The Outsider" has many a quirky, riddle-me-this lyrical phrase,
which could be irritating, if they weren't seen and raised 'round ever
corner by the music, in a Princely way. "Beautiful Despair" is another peak: he
raises a glass, up a lattice scale, to his sense of sub-Dylanness, his minor yet faithful
muse. But , despite the consolations and vitamins of philosophy (Epictetus, and even or especially an Epicurean poptaste),there's plenty outcroppings and undertoads of not-so-beautiful lowercase
despair, frustration, headbutting, buttbutting limitations (his and everybody's),
overshadowed by the Situation. This really comes through in (after repeated
listenings to the whole album) in the chorus of "Ignorance Is The Enemy,"
despite the gratingly recited verses, which are more like Public Service
Announcements. The chorus is more like a sooty "Rose In Spanish Harlem," crossed with
Gram Parsons' "In My Time Of Darkness," although Rodney's not seconding GP's
call for vision and speed; he's got all he can handle.
Rodney's mellifluous Everlys to Beatles twang is as reliable as ever, which
helps make the Visitor to his reworking of "Shelter From The Storm" even more
startling (in the context of the album), than it is amidst the middleaged haze
of Triple A radio. "Shelter"'s words have always seemed to flirt, if not
dally, with grandiose self-pity, but suddenly here's Dylan's fantasy sorceress in
the eerie flesh: none other than Emmylou Harris, now trading verses with
Rodney. He sounds a bit spooked, understandably (she keeps changing keys on him,
yet they can still harmonize!) You can tell he couldn't stop singing if he
tried, and he doesn't. (P.S.: I'm told that the reissued version of the Heartworn
Highways DVD includes a song not on the CD: it's actually "Rachel," although
the mistitle, "A Young Girl's Hungry Eyes," is certainly appropriate, cos
although Rachel is "the woman behind her man," while Rodney is but "a child behind
the wire," when she gets him behind closed doors, it's like it says on the DVD.
You can also hear this on Gary Stewart's Out Of Hand/Your Place Or Mine
twofer CD, along with some other good early-Crowell covers: Gary adds a little
forced gasp to the end of each line of this un', but he's ably supported by Rodney
and yes Emmylou, and "Rachel" is hungry still.)