Even after spending more than four decades outside of Texas, Houston has always lived deeply inside Rodney Crowell’s bones. From his seminal 2001 album The Houston Kid to “East Houston Blues,” which appears on 2017’s Close Ties, Crowell has essentially formed his musical identity around the sounds and sights of East Texas. In his time away from Texas, Crowell has emerged as one of Americana’s most iconic songwriters, all while carrying Houston’s torch.
As of late, though, Crowell has been a little worn down. In June, he was forced to cancel a spate of tour dates as he entered physical therapy to treat a ruptured disc in his spine. “It was ouch-ish, but even stranger was that my lower leg was just just dead,” Crowell tells the Press. “I’ve been in physical therapy and working on it, now I’m back and feeling pretty good. I’d been spending a whole lot of time out on the road and not getting much exercise, but I am now.”
He’s also back out on the road in support of Close Ties, and will make a stop at Houston’s Heights Theatre on June 30. The city is, of course, always top of mind for Crowell, but especially in the past few years, when he really dug into the work of iconic bluesmen, including Houston’s own Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Probably my most intense study of music in the last five years has been country blues,” he says. “They say write what you know, and East Houston was close to my bone. “East Houston Blues” just fell out of me. I had already covered Houston pretty well, and I wasn’t really trying to go back and reclaim what [The Houston Kid] was.”
When Crowell first moved to Nashville, his first friend there — none other than equally iconic songwriter Guy Clark — also had a major connection to Houston, albeit a Houston that a hardscrabble east side kid really knew about. “Guy had gone to the University of Houston and had lived in the Montrose area and knew a little of the art world,” says Crowell. “Early on when I got to Nashville, I had long conversations with Guy about the artistic nature of Montrose, and there was an artistic scene there by the time I was in my early 20s, I was thirsty for that. I spent the rest of my life in search of artistic scenes.”
Outside of his own deeply personal solo work, Crowell has been an extremely successful songwriter, writing for the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. Unfortunately, though, it’s unlikely that Crowell would have had that kind of success if he was trying to start out right now. “It’s harder than ever for a songwriter to get paid,” he says. “I was once a wealthy songwriter, but in the past 12 years, our income stream has shrunk by 75 percent. That has to do with the Millennial Copyright Act of 1998, which was put in place before lawmakers had any idea what the internet was actually going to provide in terms of entertainment, and songwriters got screwed.”
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As a result, Crowell thinks that top-tier songwriters might not be able to do their best work because there’s no way to make money writing music that doesn’t have potential to make an impact on country radio. “Commercial country music to me has gotten so formulaic that I can’t pay attention to it, and I can’t contribute to it,” he says. “Somebody in that crew might remember a song of mine and record it now and again, but I have nothing to add to it at this time. The older I get, the more complex and emotionally intense life becomes. It’s really hard for me to find any need to talk about tractors. I grew up around tractors, and it’s not a glamorous thing.”
Crowell prefers to find his inspiration in poets, namely C.K. Williams, Rimbaud and Rumi, along with frequent collaborator Mary Karr and fellow Houston native Hayes Carll. “I completely respect anybody’s right to create any kind of art, music, dance, film that they need to in order to put food on their family’s table,” he says. “I respect that wholeheartedly, it’s just that I’m drawn to other things, other forms of expression that captured me early on. Poetry, if you will. I really am drawn to poetry. I have stacks and stacks of books of poetry.”
Ultimately, it is the poetry of the pine thicket that compels Crowell’s art, no matter how many artistic scenes he seeks out. “To me, where I came from is a very poetic place,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I go back. I perceive it through this poetic lens. The town is ugly. There’s a vericose vein that runs from Galveston up, and that’s a bulging, ugly blue vein. You move out of there a little ways, it’s backwards culture and I don’t mean that in a degrading way. But the pine thicket is beautiful. It’s a wonder just how thick and never-ending the pine thicket is once you get in there.”
Rodney Crowell performs at the Heights Theatre on June 30.