Homeward Bound

With a book and a new album on the way, Rodney Crowell continues to celebrate the virtues of being po' white trash.

Say you're an impressionable kid growing up in Houston surrounded by a family of larger-than-life characters with wild senses of humor. They're poor, hard-drinkin' people who drive cars too fast, play Hank Williams songs in icehouses and take spur-of-the-moment trips to Galveston. And say your house has all the trappings of a Jeff Foxworthy anecdote: mosquitoes, roaches, near-tropical heat and humidity and open windows at night so that the neighbors' private conversations are audible. Your religious upbringing is somewhere between Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, a Pentecostal church where people take a fundamentalist approach to the Bible and speak in tongues. Your childhood is one in which a quarter tank of gas and $3 make anything possible.

Your name is Rodney Crowell, and after growing into adulthood and becoming a moderately successful country songwriter, you're coming home.

Crowell is now putting the finishing touches on The Houston Kid. The album, scheduled for release early next year, is based on Crowell's childhood experiences in this swampy section of Texas. Crowell is also a hundred pages into a book, The House on Norvic Street. Like the album, it's also about coming of age in Houston.

Local audiences will get a preview of Crowell's new record when he appears for two shows this week. He will also read from his book-in-progress. Crowell says living in Houston sparked his imagination.

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"We were poor white trash, and that's okay," says Crowell in a recent phone conversation. "My mother and father moved to Houston in the 1940s. They were the son and daughter of sharecroppers from Kentucky and Tennessee. They came to Houston to find menial work.

"We ended up at Wayside and Navigation, in the area where the Ship Channel really ends. Back when I was a kid in the 1950s, there were a lot of crazy characters around that only east Houston could produce. They make up the backdrop of my new album."

The Houston Kid includes a song called "Telephone Road," a nod to the street that "looms large in my life," Crowell says. "That's where the honky-tonks were where I played with my dad. It's a landmark for the east Houston poor-side-of-town nightlife."

Another song, "Rock of My Soul," is about Crowell's mother and father and their domestic violence. "Highway 17" is about old Highway 73, which became Interstate 10. "Grandma Loved That Old Man" is about Crowell's grandpa, who was a night watchman at the Ship Channel. "Wandering Boy" and "I Wish It Would Rain" are songs about twin brothers from Houston. "One brother is dying of AIDS, and his only surviving family member is his twin, who is decidedly homophobic," says Crowell.

One of the more intriguing titles from the album is "First Time I Heard Johnny Cash Sing 'I Walk the Line.' " So, when was it?

"I heard it on the radio in my daddy's '49 Ford just before dawn," recalls Crowell. "It was awesome to hear it for the first time. There's no prototype for that song. It sounds like it comes from outer space."

Crowell calls the project "a pretty dark record, kind of folk and semi-acoustic." He says, "I describe it as folk rock and barefoot ballads. I just about have it all sealed up but can't tell you today what label it will be on."

Crowell's dad, James Walter (whom everyone knew as J.W.), was a truck driver who delivered ice by day. By night, he was a semiprofessional musician who played guitar, sang and fronted a country music band. J.W. Crowell and the Rhythm Boys played country covers in Houston icehouses and beer joints and at living-room parties. J.W. was an encyclopedia of early country, from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

In 1961 J.W. recruited young Rodney, who was then 11 years old, to play drums in the Rhythm Boys. J.W. came home one day with a pawnshop drum set and showed his son how to put the kit together and play a few basic licks. Rodney practiced for a week before he began playing in his daddy's band. For J.W., the motivation was simple: Adding his son to the band meant one less musician to split the take with. "He didn't pay me at all," recalls Crowell. "What did I know?"

Of those early days, Crowell has a vivid memory of being out on Wallisville Road at a "garage door, parking lot beer joint" playing with his dad. "A free-for-all barroom brawl broke out. My mother was a religious woman who hated fighting. She was working the door. As the brawl broke out, I looked at both my mother and father and thought, which one should I protect? At age 12, they should have been protecting me."

Crowell played with his dad for three years. In 1964 he quit the Rhythm Boys, took up the guitar and formed a rock band, the Arbitrators. By age 14 Crowell had already figured out that the guitar player was the one who attracted the girls. But as much as he enjoyed rock music, he still had a soft spot in his heart for country. He formed a second band, a country outfit, with two members of the Arbitrators as sidemen.

By that time the Crowell family had moved out of Houston. After the budding songwriter graduated from Crosby High School, he went to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches for a short time, then drifted back to Houston, where he hooked up with a local producer who engineered one of 13th Floor Elevators' records. The producer took Crowell and his partner, Donivan Cowart, to J.D. Miller's studio in Crowley, Louisiana, where the duo cut some tunes and then took the demo to Nashville. Crowell says he got a call from the producer, who said a contract with Columbia Records and an opening slot on a Kenny Rogers and First Edition tour were waiting. Crowell and Cowart immediately took off to Nashville and arrived there with $15 between them. Unfortunately, neither the producer nor the contract was waiting. Crowell and Cowart lived out of their car until they were able to pick up a few dollars by passing the hat at Bishop's Pub.

The bad part was that the producer had sold the demo to Surefire Music for $100 and a ticket back to Houston. The good part was that Crowell was now living in Nashville. He hooked up with a pair of former Houstonians, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, who introduced the neophyte to serious songwriting. Things soon fell into place for Crowell: He joined Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, married Rosanne Cash (producing three hit albums with her) and recorded one of the greatest country albums ever, Diamonds and Dirt.

Since Crowell began working on The Houston Kid and his book, he has been looking forward to coming back to Houston and doing research. "I want to make sure I got my dots connected properly. I want to check the correct height of the San Jacinto Monument and spend a few days in reverie.

"I'm not necessarily concerned that my recollection of the facts are factual. What is most important is the juice in the memory. When I really get it, it's poignant. That's what is most important as a writer."

Rodney Crowell performs Monday, December 13, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $25. Call (713)528-5999 for more information.

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