Three former Houstonians who have been included in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Country Music defy all odds. To call Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett or Steve Earle "country songwriters" or "country singers" is the grossest simplification.
All three have a huge streak of the folk tradition in them, and too much integrity and orneriness to have ever stayed in the mainstream spotlight for long. Yet the breadth and depth of their artistic success is undeniable and their influence has been felt far and wide, but especially in Texas.
Fun fact: A little less streetwise than Crowell and Earle, only Lovett hasn't written a song called "Telephone Road."
Rodney Crowell: Rodney Crowell grew up in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonks of Telephone Road and Pasadena. His father was a part-time country bandleader, and he put young Rodney behind the tubs when he was 11 years old so he didn't have to pay for a drummer.
Crowell would go on to play in garage cover bands in high school, and actually attempted several semesters at Stephen F. Austin State College before striking out for Nashville one night on a whim.
While Crowell arrived virtually penniless, he was armed with the tools for success: A literary bent, a wide knowledge of country, rockabilly, and rock and roll, and balls the size of cantaloupes. He almost immediately fell in with Jerry Reed, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and Townes van Zandt, although there are those who say Townes liked to heckle Crowell. Crowell appeared in the Nashville segments of 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways.
Emmylou Harris covered several Crowell tunes, and he eventually joined her Hot Band and moved to Los Angeles for a few years, but was back in Nashville by 1977, playing in a project known as the Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill and Tony Brown. By 1978, Crowell released his first solo album, Ain't Livin' Long Like This.
His three albums for Warner Brothers produced numerous covers of Crowell's songs (Waylon Jennings's cover of "Ain't Livin' Long Like This" and the Oak Ridge Boys hit "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight"), but Crowell's third album for Warner Brothers, Rodney Crowell, was Crowell's first attempt at producing himself, and it not only contained Crowell's highest-charting tune to date, "Stars on the Water," it also resulted in Bob Seger recording Crowell's " "Shame on the Moon," which served notice that Rodney Crowell was not just a country songwriter and also earned him his first big bucks.
Crowell married Rosanne Cash in 1979 and began producing her albums and writing for her. He had considerable success as a songwriter, but didn't record again until 1986. Rhythm & Romance went nowhere, but 1988's Diamonds and Dust, a monumental album that produced five No. 1 singles in 17 months, made Crowell an international star. Keys to the Highway (1989) put Crowell into the Top 5 again with two tunes.
A rough patch ensued for Crowell, including his divorce from Cash in 1992, although he continued to write and record. But it wasn't until 2001's semi-autobiographical The Houston Kid that Crowell suddenly crossed over to become an iconic figure in the Americana genre. Critics flipped for Houston Kid, and Crowell followed with the stellar Fate's Right Hand and The Outsider, both strong efforts.
In 2008, the Joe Henry-produced Sex and Gasoline was nominated for a Grammy, and last year saw the release of Crowell's Ship Channel memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. He recently released Kin, an album co-written with noted memoirist Mary Karr.
Steve Earle: Earle left home at 16 and headed for Houston to hang around songwriters like Townes van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb to learn the trade. He eventually headed north to Nashville, where Guy and Susanna Clark took him in. Earle played bass for Clark during this transition period, and a fresh-faced Earle appears in the 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways.
Earle would labor ten years in the songwriting jungles of Nashville, penning hits for Connie Smith, Carl Perkins, Johnny Lee, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and others before he finally got his big break in 1986. Produced by Richard Bennett, Guitar Town hit Nashville like a sonic boom. The album brought several Grammy nominations and resulted in Rolling Stone naming Earle Country Music Artist of the Year.
Part of what became known as the Great Nashville Credibility Scare, Guitar Town arrived on the scene during the same period when Texans Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, North Carolina poet Mark Germino. k.d lang and Dwight Yoakam were signed to major label record deals. Guitar Town went gold, and Earle followed up quickly with Exit O and Copperhead Road, which also went gold. But by 1992, heroin had a deep hold on Earle, causing his behavior to be even more erratic than usual, and eventually landed him in jail.
Earle kicked the habit and came out of jail storming with the acoustic Train A Comin'. He followed up quickly with the rocking I Feel Alright that signaled Earle was hardly ready to go away quietly.
Taking more and more control of his career, Earle has released a string of topical albums since 2000 as well as an album of van Zandt covers, Townes (2009). He has also written a novel and a play, and has appeared in numerous films and television productions, including Treme and The Wire.
Lyle Lovett -- Although Lyle Lovett came up through the folk breeding ground known as Anderson Fair, he was a bit behind the curve vis a vis the other notable Houstonians of that period as far as getting to Nashville and making some waves. But with help from Guy Clark, who championed Lovett's original cassette of demos around Nashville, that all ended in 1986 with Lyle Lovett, which signaled another new and subtle performer was making waves in Music City.
Yet Lovett was never what anyone would think of as a country singer or writer. His vocal performances tended to have more in common with folkies like Vince Bell and Eric Taylor than with Randy Travis or Garth Brooks. Blues and jazz also figured deeply in Lovett's musical template, making his albums almost genre-less.
Lovett has won four Grammys, most notably for his 1996 milestone The Road to Ensenada. Along the way, he's done some amazing collaborations with artists as disparate as Asleep at the Wheel and Rev. Al Green.
Six Lovett albums have gone gold and several of them fared well on the Billboard charts without making much of a dent in the country charts, demonstrating again Lovett's appeal far outside the narrow boundaries of mainstream country radio.
Like Earle, Lovett has made his way into numerous films, most notable in several by Robert Altman.