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.
"The song is about back-to-back suicides," Crowell says. "About the same time a friend of mine in New Orleans killed himself, my management company experienced Kurt Cobain killing himself, and there just seemed to be this rash of suicides for a short period.
"And I wrote that from this side, from feelings of disbelief and anger that people can choose to kill themselves." Crowell takes a deep breath. "I'm proud of that song in the way that it wasn't a labored piece of writing for me, it was just one of those that came out of ... well, I personally believe that these songs exist in their whole state in some other reality than the one we're in right now.
"And my job is to bring them in from wherever they are as close to how they exist. And if I do a good job of that, those songs last a long time, and they're poignant, and they have an atmosphere and a life of their own."
Crowell stops far short of claiming that every song on The Cicadas is one of those from-the-beyond efforts, but the listener would be hard-pressed to pick which ones are and which ones aren't. "When Losers Rule the World," co-written by Crowell and Ben Vaughn, kicks the album off in laughably cool fashion. "Through the Past," a Crowell-Stan Lynch effort, marries trad-country narrative history and rock balladry. And "Our Little Town," a protracted effort that required lyrical closure from Crowell's old hero, Guy Clark, is as winsome a union between folk homily and breezy melody as one could ask for.
The Cicadas also found compositional bliss in an outside-the-realm collaboration: T-Bone Burnett and Bono's neo-country lament, "Wish You Were Her."
"That song goes way back," Crowell says with a laugh. "A friend of mine, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, came to my house in the mid-'80s, and at the time I had a sort of music den, and on the walls I'd hung all the gold and platinum albums I'd received.
"And he played me 'Wish You Were Her,' which is off T-Bone's Behind the Trap Door, and I was so stunned by its brilliance that I got up and took all the gold and platinum records down and I put them in storage. That was 12 years ago, and I haven't done anything like that since. It taught me that I'm an artist, not a museum keeper. That song changed my life, and what I think about the end result of what I do. Ever since then, I'd intended to record it, and with the Cicadas record, this became the time and place."
That sort of personal wake-up call is perfectly epitomized by the whole Cicadas project, which, Crowell says, he anticipates being permanent rather than a one-off deal. The opportunities and power of the unit, he says, are exhilarating.
"I've never really tried to make music like this before," says Crowell. In fact, his new sense of experimentation is so far-reaching that he recently approached a rather unexpected artist for collaborative purposes. A voracious reader, Crowell was blown away by The Liars' Club, the acclaimed memoir by Texas-born author Mary Karr.
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"I'm about a year late on that book," Crowell says, "but it's one of the most poignant and uplifting things I've read of late." His voice drops and takes on the embarrassed, slightly confessional quality of a shy teenager asking Jenny McCarthy to the prom. "I love that book so much that I wrote [Karr] a letter seeing if she wanted to write some songs."
Crowell laughs, as though he'd never written songs before, and that no one in his right mind would consider working with him. "She hasn't answered," he says, his voice a verbal shrug. "I don't know if she would. But I thought, you know .... This is the first time I ever wrote a fan letter. And I said in it, 'Oh, and by the way. I think you could write songs if you wanted to.' I'm not attached to the outcome, but it would be fun."
The story reveals an endearing, little-boy quality about Crowell that's clearly at odds with his talent.
With that in mind, and given the obvious brilliance of the company he's now keeping with the Cicadas, here's a bit of advice for Ms. Karr in the event she attempts to cut a couple of tunes with the band: She'd better be good.