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A Bug to Be Different

With the Cicadas, Rodney Crowell exits Nashville's cocoon

Rodney Crowell is one of those guys who was probably never meant to be a Nashville high roller in the first place. Sure, he's penned huge hits for dozens of top-echelon country stars, was ushered into patriarch Johnny Cash's kingdom through his former marriage to the Man in Black's daughter Rosanne, played in Emmylou Harris's legendary Hot Band and, as a star in his own right, recorded the classic Diamonds and Dirt, the first country album ever to sport five number-one singles.

But for all the gold and platinum Nashville hides he could hang on his wall, Crowell always seemed, well, incongruous in that Grand Ol' environment. Maybe it's the fact that his name is Rodney, or that his handsome visage is almost preppy; jokesters claim he and Radney Foster rarely appeared in public together for fear they'd be mistaken for the men's doubles champions at the Martha's Vineyard Tennis and Regatta Club.

Still, it's interesting that Crowell has formed the Cicadas -- a gem of an adult-album alternative-pop band whose self-titled Warner Bros. CD is a start-to-finish masterwork -- and turned his back on Nashville proper. After all, for the last 20 years, mainstream country music has been as much about hype as about the music -- which most critics dismiss as dime store pop songs dressed up in Hoss Cartwright hats and prop fiddles anyway. But the pop songs found on The Cicadas are far more authentic and instinctively brilliant than anything being regurgitated on Music Row; it's as though the ghosts of Buddy Holly and Gram Parsons smiled down on the sessions where they were made.

That Crowell grew up in Houston listening to the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Big Joe Turner alongside Hank Williams probably says a great deal about his desire to transcend the rigid parameters of contemporary country music.

"The idea of the Cicadas was to make 'American music,' " Crowell explains by phone from Los Angeles. "We wanted to make adult, alternative rock music, and it was really important to me that the lyrics be of substance. So, hopefully, the audience for this music will be people who just love good songs."

Although Crowell could easily have pitched the idea of a solo pop album to virtually any major label in the country -- even in Nashville -- he was tired of life as a commodity.

"I'd been a solo singer/songwriter/performer for so long that I just wanted to find a way to loosen it all up," Crowell explains. "Because the solo, Nashville kind of thing just holds no appeal for me anymore, and this does. I'll tell you what, it's a lot more fun to be in a gang."

It should be pointed out that Crowell casts no barbs toward Tennessee; he's simply a guy who knows what he wants and has both the track record and integrity to pull it off.

"Well, truthfully," he says, "the way country music is today, there's not a creative outlet for what I want to do. It's for me a backwards frontier. And to go into this new area and frame the music that I want to do and do it this way is really forward for me.

"It's not that I'm sour on country music; it is what it is, and it does me no good to pass judgment on the business of it or the artists or anything. But for me to move forward, just as an artist, I needed to go this way."

"This way," then, was for Crowell to immerse himself into the Cicadas: an actual, all-things-equal collection of old friends and touring partners that includes vocalist/drummer Vince Santoro, bassist Michael Rhodes and multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Steuart Smith.

"Actually," says Crowell, "all the guys who are in the Cicadas are guys I've played with for ten years plus. So it occurred to me that the way to loosen the whole thing was just to join the gang and stop being 'the guy.' "

If it seems less than fresh for Crowell to surround himself with the very folks who've been his touring band and studio players for the past decade, one listen to The Cicadas reveals what a true group effort the whole thing is. Santoro shared lead vocalist duties throughout the record (his unison wails with Crowell on "Tobacco Road," the old John D. Loudermilk standard, will surely leave people listening in amazement); Smith co-produced the album; and Crowell, who normally composes all his own material, took on a variety of writing partners.

"This record is a collaboration across the board," Crowell says. "And by that I don't just mean the songwriting. There is that, certainly, but the arranging, the vocals between me and Vince, the feel throughout -- it's all a thing."

Crowell's joy in his newfound freedom is clearly shared by his fellow Cicadas. Indeed, The Cicadas is a record remarkable for its start-to-finish consistency; it takes a while to listen all the way through because, time after time, one is tempted to replay songs for the sheer joy of hearing them again. The first single, "We Want Everything," an aching, haunting, angry song of loss, is already up and running on both AAA and Americana stations -- and it doesn't escape Crowell's attention that the Cicadas hit would be anathema on mainstream country stations because of its subject matter.

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