TITLES, BLACK ON WHITE: Houston, Texas, 1957
Long aerial shot of the Houston Ship Channel. On the shore, we see a jumble of tall conical smokestacks, round squat oil holding tanks and wharves. On the water, the barges and tugboats appear like toys.
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Medium aerial shot of dockworkers coming out from one of the wharf sheds. Camera tracks one white male who gets into a 1949 Ford. Auto begins to pull out of parking lot.
Rodney Crowell's song "Telephone Road."
Auto drives slowly through Houston's East End. Camera pans along the buildings on Telephone Road, past icehouses, a Prince's Drive-In, numerous honky-tonks, a group of prostitutes standing in front of a bar, storefront churches. Auto turns down a residential street, two rows of wooden shacks, most of them in need of paint. People are sitting on the porches. At many of the houses, the front yards are filled with old cars and other machinery, some that work, most that don't. There's a bar ditch running along the side of the street. Camera catches a glimpse of a Harris County mosquito truck blowing DDT onto the trees in front of the houses. Up the street from the truck, a young teenager on a moped pulls up to a younger boy who is water-skiing in the bar ditch.
The present. Rodney Crowell is sitting by a fountain, next to a palm tree on the outdoor patio of Taco Milagro at Westheimer and Kirby. He could just as well be sitting in Los Angeles or Miami. There's no real sense of place here -- very unlike the poor white working-class Houston that Crowell evokes on his upcoming album, The Houston Kid, a song cycle about his hometown that's due in stores in February.
Crowell is in town to film part of a documentary that will be released along with the CD. Think of Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball set in Texas, and you have some idea of what the Crowell documentary will look like. Directed by Dave Johnson, the film includes Crowell performing songs from the CD, interviews with Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Bob Seger, and lots of footage of the Houston area. It is an attempt to convey the sense of place that inspired the songs on The Houston Kid. That place is Houston's East End, where Crowell grew up in the 1950s.
What the automobile plant was to Detroit, the Ship Channel was to Houston. It drew hundreds of thousands of people like Crowell's parents to Houston after World War II.
"I grew up among the disenfranchised, uneducated, rural poor, where domestic violence was a way of life," says Crowell. "The blueprint for that life came with the search for work in the city. But that blueprint also brought a wealth of characters who felt they could rise above their economic situation. That drive is especially [strong] when you're young. It can turn into robbing gas stations or other crimes. It could turn into a reckless, passionate form of country music."
El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio and even tiny Luckenbach have served as locales for many a great country song. For years, in fact, country music was practically required to be rooted in a particular place, largely because the audience itself was rooted. You had to communicate place so the audience could relate. But until Crowell's project, few country artists had rooted their music in Houston.
Crowell taps into the characters he grew up around. There is Crowell's father, portrayed on "Rock of My Soul" as a churchgoing, broom-pushing, whiskey-drinking, wife-abusing redneck. "The rock of my soul didn't have much charm," sings Crowell.
It's that rural sharecropping blueprint, Crowell says. It's a father who teaches his son that a man must be true to his word. The same father who takes his six-year-old son to Magnolia Garden in Channelview to see Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The same father who has "gone crazy as an outhouse rat" on the song "Topsy Turvy," breaking windows with a baseball bat and giving his mother a black eye.
Crowell was between labels when he started The Houston Kid; he envisioned an uncompromising, cohesive album that would tell the story about who he was and where his music came from. Crowell financed the project out of his own pocket.
"When my mother died in 1998, it freed me to write about these [things] for the first time," says Crowell. "With the exception of "Banks of the Old Bandera,' which was written in 1976, the songs on this album took me two years to write. This record allowed me to strive for my own self-respect. I wanted to create something unitary out of my own vision."
The result is brilliant. Aside from his father, the album boasts other characters, including the small-time robber on "Highway 17," the cracker gigolo on "I Wish It Would Rain," the AIDS-infected twin and his homophobic brother on "Wandering Boy," and minor players like Spitshine Charlie and Peg Leg Bill on "Telephone Road."
And then there's the mythological Johnny Cash. On the radio-friendly "I Walk the Line Revisited," Crowell tells the story of a predawn trip, on a two-rut wagon road, to an East Texas fishing hole with his father and grandpa. Cash's "I Walk the Line" suddenly bursts out of the '49 Ford radio and yanks Crowell by the neck. "I never will forget that day. I know the time and place / It sounded like the whole thing came right down from outer space," sings Crowell. Then the song shifts gears, and Cash's inimitable voice is heard, reprising his signature song to a different Crowell melody and rhythm.
"It's a true story," says Crowell with a smile. "Hearing that song changed my consciousness. I couldn't even get the words out of my mouth to ask my dad what that was. It made me aware of music for the first time. I think, in many ways, it formed my desire to become a songwriter.
"So I get Johnny into the studio, and I'm teaching him the song. I was coming from such an innocent enthusiasm that I wasn't paying attention to his reaction. All of a sudden, I looked up and he's fixed me with that scowl of his. And he growls at me, "Son, you've got a lot of nerve changing my song like that.' Up to that moment, I was a complete innocent. I got insecure real fast. Then I got up some macho bravo and said back to him, "Yeah, and you're just the guy to do it.' "
Needless to say, the song works spectacularly. On one level, it's a demonstration of how songs can mutate over time, sometimes completely changing the ways we hear them. On another level, it's an example of how Johnny Cash, a mythological figure in American music, has run through Crowell's life. For Cash is also the grandfather of Crowell's children and his ex-father-in-law by virtue of Crowell's former marriage to Rosanne Cash.
Or in the words of a great Crowell song, "It's Such a Small World."
A final question: As one of the great songwriters in American music, a guy who learned his craft swapping lyrics with Texas masters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, how does Crowell know when a song is well crafted?
"When I can't wait to play it for my children or my wife, Claudia, or Guy Clark," he says. "Claudia is a fan, but she's also honest. My daughters are young women with wide-ranging tastes. And Guy, well, if I get a rise out of him, I'm okay.
"I've had an opportunity to play a lot of these songs live before I recorded them. I look for a response from the audience. There can be five great lines in a song, but if there is one weak one, I can't look you in the eye. It's when I can sing the entire song without flinching that I know I've got a keeper."
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