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."
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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.
And though he didn't know it yet at the time, Crowell had been fueled by that thought ever since he came roaring back out of self-imposed exile in 2000 with The Houston Kid, his autobiographical remembrance of his hardscrabble youth in Jacinto City and Magnolia Park that also served as his declaration of independence from big-time country music.
Crowell has a memoir in the works, a sort of expanded prose version of The Houston Kid. Though he says the project is somewhat stalled right now, it brings him back to town between gigs to "make sure everything's still the way I remember it," as he puts it, to retrace the footsteps of his youth. Literally. "My mother used to drag me what I thought was 40 blocks to the Emmanuel Temple Pentecostal Church on Wayside Drive," he says. "So recently I went back and walked it, and it was only 24 blocks. Walking up Wayside Drive from Avenue P up to past Navigation You know it's still a Pentecostal church, only it's a Spanish one now."
Texas myths have also been much on his mind, though in this case "myths" is a euphemism. "I've spent a lot of time writing about the San Jacinto Monument and the metaphor of it," he says. "Basically we built a 570-foot monument to a bunch of liars. Texas is all about the absolute beautiful poetry of lying. It saddens me to think that Texas has been overtaken by this greed, get-my-money lifestyle when we have this rich heritage of liars to draw from."
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He also recently relived a horrendous antibaptism that almost killed him 30-odd years ago. A few months back, he boarded the MV Sam Houston and took the Ship Channel tour to relive the time he fell in the Ship Channel when he was working at Todd Shipyard and got "the mother of all kidney infections." "I almost didn't get back from that and I wasn't in that water for a minute," he says. Riding the Sam Houston through the "absolutely polluted" Ship Channel's waters years later, Crowell says he could still romanticize the hell out of that misadventure, and hell, all of the side of Houston the Chamber of Commerce seldom touts. And in looking at the city with a detached writer's eye, Crowell says that he has fallen in love.
"When you're putting yourself into that receptivity to try to reconstruct memory, you start to develop a romantic relationship with a place," he says. "So I love Houston."
Or as he put it less pithily if more eloquently in the following "Beautiful Despair"-inducing public e-mail exchange with journalist Chet Flippo: "Hallowed be the Houston Ship Channel fifty miles of salt marsh bayou turned world's longest deep water shipping lane, host waterway to the most sludge pumping, poisonous gas spewing paper mills, chemical plants and oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere. The Houston Ship Channel on whose creosote-soaked banks new monied oil-boom tycoons rub chafed elbows with Mexican drag line operators and Coonass pile drivers in a payday Friday winner-takes-all beer and whiskey chugging contest. Piss on Enron, Houston's heart and soul is over on the east side where New Orleans rhythm, Fort Worth blues and Nashville heartbreak once spilled out of its honky-tonk and icehouse juke boxes onto an endless sea of oyster shell parking lots. That's right cat daddy, Houston Texas, land of hot toddies, cold watermelon and lying sons-of-bitches who'd rather gut you with a Barlow knife than listen to a sappy song. Not a bad place to come from."
Thank you, Reverend Crowell. Hallowed be your name, too.