By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
After listening to The Outsider, the latest addition to the rejuvenated Rodney Crowell's stellar trilogy of 21st-century albums, I can say that without a doubt, somewhere out there a pulpit is missing a first-class preacher.
Topics of the Ship Channel-area native's sermons include false idols ("The Obscenity Prayer"), self-reliance and positive thinking ("Dancin' Circles Round the Sun"), resigning yourself to your limitations ("Beautiful Despair"), fear ("Things that Go Bump in the Day") and know-nothingism ("Ignorance Is the Enemy," the only tune on which this preacher gets a little too preachy). He even sends his flock out with an (extremely) cautiously hopeful benediction in "We Can't Turn Back Now."
And coming out of one of the most religiously charged election cycles ever, it's fitting that this is Crowell's most political album yet, most notably though by no means exclusively on the anticorporate, Congress-bashing "Don't Get Me Started." "East Timor's genocide to the core," he snarls on the song. "The Indonesian legions come and give 'em what-for / when the coalition army doesn't come to your aid / you might as well face it there's no money to be made."
Crowell says that like much of the rest of the record, that song was born overseas, where he toured for much of last year. "It was an election year and I was an expatriate, touring in Northern Europe -- Scandinavia, Ireland, England and Scotland," he says over the phone from his home in the hilly Nashville burbs. "So I wrote most of this record from my experiences there -- lots of long conversations deep into the evening in pubs."
"Beautiful Despair" is the fruit of one such boozy heart-to-heart. Crowell was at a post-gig party in Belfast when a drunken barrister turned to him and told him he drank because he would never write as well as Bob Dylan. "Don't Get Me Started" came from another, less pleasant and more one-sided drunk conversation. "There was this girl from Derry and she caught me in Belfast. I had on a T-shirt that said 'Security' across my chest and she knew I was an American songwriter, so she came up to me and did one of those finger-knuckle things, started rappin' on my chest. She was saying things like 'What is it with you fucking Americans and your security?' And I said, 'Hold it, hold it, hold it -- my daughter gave me this T-shirt! The only reason I put it on was 'cause it was clean!' And I didn't really get her turned around until she exhausted herself, and then I said, 'Okay. Now listen to me.' "
Crowell places the had-it-up-to-here narrator of "Don't Get Me Started" -- which is an elaborate answer to the Irishwoman's rant -- in another pub. "I wanted to rant, but I also wanted to give the ranter a little bit of self-awareness," he says. "So I set it in a bar and made him say, 'Hey, I'm a drag when I've had a few drinks, you know?' While I was careful to give him ownership of the fact that he was ranting, it's certainly my beliefs. To me, the presidential election was a smokescreen, a diversion. From my point of view, the engine room for what's wrong is in Congress. That's really the connection between the people and government."
Crowell played the song at a third pub -- the Mucky Duck -- on his last trip through town, and he recalls a drastic audience reaction. "Man, I felt like Moses," he says. "I just saw the room divide in front of me."
Clearly, songs like that aren't going to win this onetime country chart-topper much airplay on corporate-owned country radio. (At least under his own name; Crowell's "Making Memories of Us" is a current smash for Aussie heartthrob Keith Urban.) Crowell doesn't care -- he gave up on being a country artist long ago, or maybe it's more accurate to say that country gave up on guys like him. "The last three records I've done don't have anything to do with country music as we know that delivery system," he says. "What I've come to really realize is that country music, as we know it now, is about celebrating being a redneck and having fun. Country music is no longer for someone who lives the examined life. So now it would be unfair for me to expect for country music to be the right delivery system for the messages and the music I am making now So -- I don't. I get into these discussions with writers who talk about the shortfalls of country music -- how there's no voice for this liberal mind-set. And I don't even call it liberal; I just call it common sense. But you know what, the system isn't set up for that, and I don't even think that it should be."
Country music is clearly not for guys who sing about the thoughts of long-dead Romans such as the slave-turned-sage Epictetus, who gets a star turn on "Dancin' Circles Round the Sun." Crowell discovered Epictetus -- not to be confused with Cledus T. Judd -- in a self-help book called The Art of Living, and has since adopted much of his Stoic philosophy. "His view was pretty much that 'what other people think about me is none of my business,' " Crowell says.