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Let the Picture Paint Itself

The Houston Kid hits his stride a quarter-century into his recording career

 "The Houston Kid was my first record," Rodney Crowell says, "and Fate's Right Hand is my second record."

That's a hell of a thing to hear from someone with more than a dozen albums to his credit. Especially when those titles include 1981's Rodney Crowell, which featured such enduring originals as "Stars on the Water," "She Ain't Going Nowhere," "Shame on the Moon" and "'Til I Gain Control Again," and 1988's Diamonds & Dirt, the first album ever to yield five No. 1 country singles. Press him on the point, and he'll backpedal, but only so far.

"Yeah, I say that half jokingly," Crowell concedes, "but I'm half serious too. I'm finally putting out the records I want to put out. Before, my records always seemed schizophrenic to me, as if part of me were trying to be a real artist and part of me were rolling out something that might get on the radio. About ten years ago I put out a couple records that really galled me, the ones for MCA in the mid-'90s."

Hometown boy Crowell has chilled out.
Hometown boy Crowell has chilled out.

He clearly believes that he began a new, far better career when he released The Houston Kid in 2001 and followed it up this year with Fate's Right Hand. He's not measuring the albums by commercial success, either -- after all, he scored nine Top 10 country singles between 1988 and 1992 and hasn't had a sniff of the Top 40 since then. Nor is he judging them by the quality of the songwriting, considering that he's proud of all the songs he's written.

"My reservations about my earlier records are not about the songwriting," he insists. "They're about the performances and production. Some songs I wrote in my thirties and forties are damn good songs. I'd love to have another crack at ''Til I Gain Control Again' or 'Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.' I developed quickly as a songwriter and slowly but surely as a producer, but the last thing that came into focus was the performing. These last two records present me as a more realized recording artist."

Crowell is right to make a sharp distinction between his work as a singer and as a songwriter. Even though these two activities are usually joined by a hyphen, they involve different skills. The singer has to cast aside all second-guessing and plunge into the moment, while the songwriter is required to second-guess each word, each note and each example from life as he assembles the jigsaw puzzle of the song. The singer must commit fully to the present, while the songwriter must retain a detached perspective.

In fact, the two tasks are so radically different that it's a wonder anyone ever thought to link them together. But the myth of Bob Dylan was so potent in the '60s and '70s that it was assumed that anyone who could write a good song was automatically a good singer. Crowell bought that assumption, and because he has a handsome tenor voice, it was easy to believe he was an accomplished singer. But he suspected something was missing; he sensed the hesitation and detachment that often crept into his vocals.

"I like how I sound now," he claims, "but when I listened to my records from the mid-'80s, I really didn't like how I sounded. My voice used to be thin and reedy. I was always surprised when people said, 'You're my favorite singer.' I'd say, 'You need to get out more.' Now people point out the writing and the subject matter, but to me the biggest difference is the singing. Now I don't wince at anything I do. People say they like Diamonds & Dirt, but to me that vocalist sounds pretty insecure. Now I feel more confident and relaxed; my voice has deepened."

Crowell has a point. The Houston Kid and Fate's Right Hand are his best-sounding records. But he overstates the case by dismissing all of his earlier work. Though he's recorded his share of clunkers (But What Will the Neighbors Think, Street Language and Jewel of the South), many of his earlier albums hold up quite well. Rodney Crowell from 1981 and Diamonds & Dirt rank with The Houston Kid as his very best, while 1978's Ain't Living Long Like This and 1994's Let the Picture Paint Itself are flawed gems like Fate's Right Hand.

Crowell turned 53 this summer, and there's now a splash of gray in his wavy brown hair. But when he appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in September, he looked lean and fit in a green shirt and blue jeans. He led his road band through "Riding Out the Storm," the best song from his new album, and then through "Big River," a tribute to his ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash, who had died just eight days earlier. Crowell's tenor has deepened enough to reveal a hint of Cash's baritone, and his ramrod posture and take-it-or-leave-it attitude reminded one of Cash as well.

It was Cash who inspired The Houston Kid. One of Crowell's most vivid memories from growing up in Jacinto City was the day he went fishing with his dad in the summer of 1956, when he wasn't quite six. As they drove a borrowed 1949 Ford down a dirt road into the Piney Woods, a song came on the radio that changed his life.

"The chugging rhythm of a freight train came out of the glowing dashboard," he says, "and a guitar that sounded like sandpaper started strumming. Then this voice that sounded like Abraham Lincoln started humming those long, low notes. It was Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line.' And a hallucination overtook me; it knocked me out of my body and took me to another place. I can still see the headlights ahead of us, and I can still hear that song. I was filled with a longing to know where that song came from, and that longing has sustained me ever since."

The moment was so important that it became a song called "I Walk the Line Revisited," which was the centerpiece of The Houston Kid. He even got Cash to sing the chorus. In similar fashion, the title track from Fate's Right Hand is based on another childhood encounter with a seminal song. This time it was the spring of 1965, and the 14-year-old ninth-grader was visiting his friend's house in east Houston.

"I remember so vividly the first time I heard 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' " Crowell says. "My friend David Warren had a copy of Bob Dylan's new album, Bringing It All Back Home, and he said, 'You've got to hear this.' 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' was the first track, and we listened to that one song at least 50 times before we heard the rest of the album. Dylan later said that 'Maybelline' inspired him to write 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' and Chuck Berry said 'Maybelline' was inspired by 'Ida Red' by Bob Wills, so it can all be traced back to country music in Texas.

"Dylan was like a laser beam on that song. Even as a 12-year-old kid, I knew this was something extra-special. It hit me the same way Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line' had hit me when I was five. It hit me the way Elvis Costello's 'Pump It Up' hit me when I was 26. I was waiting to hear Rockpile at Dingwalls, a club in London, when that song come blasting over the PA. All these songs were more than great songs; they were unprecedented in some way. In each case, you could say, 'Nothing like that has ever happened before.' "

If The Houston Kid was inspired by Cash's example of singing stories about the reality of growing up poor and uncertain in the South, Fate's Right Hand was inspired by Dylan's example of frenzied, word-drunk commentary on the world around him. To write the new album's title track, for example, Crowell stuck a blank tape in his cassette player, played a repeating rockabilly vamp and let the words pour out. After 45 minutes of improvisation, he had an overflow of rhyme-filled observations on modern life and his own adolescence; all he needed to do was edit and polish. On several other songs he took a similar approach.

So these last two albums are distinguished by Crowell's return to his greatest songwriting inspirations. And they sound different. The brittle new-wave-meets-country sound that Crowell pioneered in the '80s has been replaced by something warmer, more relaxed, more confident. He gives much of the credit to his engineer and co-producer, Pete Coleman.

"I call Pete my lab-coat limey," Crowell says with a chuckle. "He's one of those Englishmen who really know the studio, because they train their engineers better over there. He's from the Glyn Johns school of engineering; he made all those records with Mike Chapman, Blondie and the Knack. Better than anyone over here, he knows how to make a dry record sound big, and the key is mike placement.

"A dry record sounds better," Crowell insists. "I'm not a fan of reverb. I listen to my records from the '80s and go, 'My God, how much reverb can you put on one record?' We got seduced by gated reverb on snares back then; Pete weaned me off of those and taught me a lot about sonics. A dry record sounds more human; putting the voice in a hallway doesn't make sense. I'm telling stories in these songs, and I can't tell you a story from down the hall; I've got to be close to you."

It also helped that Crowell financed the recording sessions himself -- emptied out his bank account, in fact -- and offered the masters to various record companies only after they were completed. This had two advantages. For one, he could follow his own instincts without a lot of unsolicited advice from record company suits. For another, it meant Crowell had a financial incentive to work quickly and efficiently. Without enough money to fuss over the tracks, he didn't.

But the biggest single change has been the vocals. On many of his earlier albums, you often felt that the singing was an afterthought to the writing of the song, as if you were hearing a story told for the fifth or sixth time, long after the teller had lost interest in it. On these two new albums, however, you feel as if you're hearing the story in the same moment that the teller remembered it. This is a trick, of course, for these songs were written and rewritten long before the recording sessions, but it's an essential trick, and it's one that Crowell has finally mastered.

"I never liked my voice till Pete recorded it," he insists. "You don't know what a private hell that is -- to be a singer and not like your own voice. You don't know what a relief it is to finally like it. I like how I sound now."

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