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Acclaimed artist Rodney Crowell chats about ‘Tarpaper Sky’: Salvation and a song

Rodney Crowell releases 'Tarpaper Sky' April 15.
Rodney Crowell releases 'Tarpaper Sky' April 15.
David McClister

It might be easier to just call insightful songwriter Rodney Crowell the “bionic man.” Because the discerning musician sees things that no one else sees, hears things that no one else hears – and writes things that no one else writes.

These few lines from “God, I’m Missing You” from Crowell’s soon-to-be-released album “Tarpaper Sky” offer ample proof. “The night's down to nothing / The stars have withdrawn / The horizon splits open / That silvery dawn / The ghost of your breathing / Won't leave me alone / God, I'm missing you.”

Crowell’s loyal followers aren’t the only ones that know of his lyrical genius. The tunesmith has had songs covered by everyone from country legends (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Straight) to current country stars (Keith Urban, Tim McGraw) to rockers (Bob Seeger) to blues icons (Etta James) – even electronic artists (Royksopp).

The celebrated artist offers the latest resounding evidence of his melodic brilliance with the April 15 release of the new record. Crowell’s new self-produced effort comes on the heels of the Grammy Award-winning “Old Yellow Moon,” his critically acclaimed collaboration with Emmylou Harris which was also named 2013 Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

“Tarpaper Sky” resonates with Crowell’s intensely unyielding themes – vivid characters, heartbreak, and the relentless exploration of life’s lessons. The lyrics and message behind another “Tarpaper Sky” tune, the bittersweet “Long Journey Home,” starkly sum up the stellar new release – “the simple life tastes sweeter now, you have no need to roam.”

The newly crowned Grammy winner for Best Americana Album of the Year chatted with me recently about the new album and his intuitive musical storytelling. Even though he was fresh off of his Grammy win, Crowell wasn’t about to lose his seasoned perspective.

“Well, you know, the one thing that I've learned as an artist about writing songs and making records, when I get it right for myself, generally speaking it’s right for others. But by the same token, although I enjoy having won a Grammy – and the fact that there were 20 years between the last time I won a Grammy – I've long since operated under the notion that the carrot is best out in front of me. I think self-congratulation is poison (laughs).”

“It substantiates a premise that what I do and my reasons for doing it are worthwhile. And that substantiation now and again is good fuel to the fire. But we all know those logs burn rather quickly, which brings us back to the carrot metaphor.”

“Enjoy the log while it’s burning and the warmth that it brings for that particular time and the substantiation. People are validating why I think it’s important to do this, but then it’s back to work time.”

Just don’t expect the talented tunesmith to change his approach to songwriting because of a little recognition from the music industry. “I work from the notion that anything that I'm creating – a record, a song – if I start trying to figure out what it’s gonna be before it tells me what it wants to be, then I'm putting an intellectual process ahead of a transcendental process, really.”

“Creating art, it’s a mystery and it’s a mystical process. Now if I start thinking, ‘We made this record. I wrote that song.’ and then I grow fearful to do it again because of how successful or unsuccessful it was, then I'm in an intellectual process as opposed to that heartfelt, creative process. All the good stuff comes from your heart. The brain is a good editing tool and that’s about it.”

The perceptive songwriter may just be right, but Crowell’s “good stuff” doesn’t need much editing. And it's frightening to consider that his best work is yet to come. “One’s masterpiece belongs in the future,” he offered. “That’s sort of a ‘whistling past the graveyard’ kind of thing. It’s kind of like ‘Ooooohh, my masterpiece is out there.’”

“The truth of the matter is I've made some really good records. I made a record called ‘Sex and Gasoline’ (2008) that I thought, ‘Oh man, I've really achieved something that I’ve been yearning to achieve for a long, long time. And there it is. I found it! I found it! Yeah, this is good.’ And it probably went as my least noticed record.”

“Then I've made other records that I go, ‘Oh, this is really short of what I envisioned.’ And it’s celebrated to the heavens (laughing). You know what? I have no control over that. The only thing I have control over is my work ethic and my willingness to stay sharp – to keep the tools of my craft sharpened enough so that wherever inspiration comes from, it might find me worthy of a good visit now and again.”

“So therefore I keep working and I look at it this way. I think of Picasso. Not that I think of myself as a Picasso, but I think of the archetypal artist. I think of Guy Clark or Bob Dylan, artists that I admire.”

“What they do is they get up every day and go to work. The most important thing about it is the day’s work. And then if there is true information and it’s really a gift, then the opus, as you call it, begins to collect itself and grow as a result of one day’s work after the next. I read something that Picasso said; ‘An artist’s relevance must be judged by the peak and the valley.’”

From the perspective of Crowell’s long-time followers, the brilliant artist has given them nothing but peaks. But much like mountains as disparate as Everest and Kilimanjaro, Crowell’s works have magnificent dissimilarities. Take for instance the differences between his biggest commercial triumph “Diamonds & Dirt” and the Grammy-winning “Old Yellow Moon.”

“My contribution to those two records is the place in my development as an artist. ‘Diamonds & Dirt’ as a younger man, my natural expression was more broad stroked. It does seem to me that the kind of inspiration that visits a younger artist tends to be more broad stroked. And the more broad stroke approach to the big love song and such things is more commercial.”

“As I've paid close attention to the craft and tried to live day-to-day as an artist with appreciation for developing the craft, I've become more singular. I’d say my contribution to ‘Old Yellow Moon’ is I bring more singularity.”

“And I'm a far better singer on ‘Old Yellow Moon’ than I was on ‘Diamonds & Dirt, which is funny isn’t it, that the more commercial of the two, I think that my abilities as a singer were somewhat lacking.”

“A few years ago I became a really good singer from my perspective. And even a few more years after that, I started to really develop as a guitar player. So I'm able now to perform. As a younger recording artist, at the time of ‘Diamonds & Dirt,’ I needed production to get it across because of insecurity, skills that weren’t fully developed.”

“Now I can sit down and play the guitar and say, ‘Roll tape’ and we’ll play a song until we get it right, and that’s my record. And that’s what I'm doing. I'm not interested in production. I'm interested in documenting. About 10 years ago, I started working on documenting myself as a performer more than producing records.”

Crowell’s soon-to-be released “Tarpaper Sky” is a shining example of his documentary skills, maintaining the glorious imperfection of the recording by using “live-to-tape” for the stellar album.

“I'm writing down ‘glorious imperfection’ (laughing). Good word. I am. I'm writing it down, ‘glorious imperfection.’ Here’s what you’re talking about, if I may. Playing it live like we did, getting to the headphones and playing all together. That’s the record. We added a background voice here and there. We did most of the background voices as we were playing.”

“What you have is performance not production. And in performance is glorious imperfection. In production, it generally winds up being perfect. Not much hair on perfection, you know what I'm saying (chuckles)?”

It’s readily apparent after spending a few minutes with Crowell that much of his discerning brilliance is innate. But the celebrated artist readily admitted the influence of another recent Grammy-winner, legendary songwriter Guy Clark.

“There are a few artists who I've been drawn to that I try to import what they know. But you have to be really careful about that. I was lucky. Guy Clark was my friend and he had some years on me.”

“Guy would be grumpy and scoff, people said ‘Guy Clark is Rodney’s mentor’ and it is true. But Guy would scoff at that and say ‘F**k that. I ain’t nobody’s mentor.’ And you know, that’s the way Guy is and I love that about Guy.”

“But by the same token, being my friend I was able to learn from him just from osmosis. Just by paying attention. Guy wasn’t gonna stop and go, ‘Hey, you might want to think about this.’ We would end up writing songs together and I would go, ‘Oh man, he just threw out a line that most everybody around here would slit their wrists to come up with.’”

“Guy Clark is the single best self editor that I know of. He edits himself. Who’s the guy who edited Hemmingway, the famous guy? I forget his name but I think it was Maxwell Perkins. And it’s like Guy Clark is his own personal Maxwell Perkins.”

As Crowell’s loyal legions know from these lyrics from “Time To Go Inward,” Clark isn’t the only tunesmith to elicit a little envy from fellow songwriters. “Time to make the most of the time that I've got left / Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel / Time to go inward would you believe that I'm afraid / To stare down the barrel of the choices I have made / The ghost of bad decisions make mountains out of everything I feel.”

But though he’s garnered awards without end and the unquestioned respect of his professional peers, Crowell isn’t ready to give up dreaming. “No, no, no. No can do (laughs). That’s a big ol’ metaphor. It would read well on the page but you can’t sing it. No and it’s not what I strive for.”

“I'm not trying to stress some sort of extra dose of humility I might have because I have a real high opinion of myself (laughing), but the man who has found his work needs to ask for no other blessing.”

“I've been lucky enough to find my work and I've been doing it my entire life except for a brief stint as a dishwasher and for a little while I had some odd jobs. I worked on a ranch and had a paper route and some things, but I've had the blessing of my work and I don’t think I need anything else.”

Truth be known brother Crowell, as long as you keep writing those straightforward tales of life and love, we won’t be needing anything else either…

You can catch Crowell’s outstanding live show on the following dates:

April 25 Eddie’s Attic Decatur, Ga.
April 26 Holly Springs Cultural Center Holly Springs, N.C.
April 27 Jefferson Theatre Charlottesville, Va.
April 29 The Harvester Performance Center Rocky Mount, Va.
April 30 Rams Head Tavern Annapolis, Md.
May 1 The Hamilton Washington D.C.
May 2 World Café @ The Queen World Wilmington, Del.
May 5 City Winery New York, N.Y.
May 7 The Sinclair Cambridge, Mass.
May 8 Narrows Center For The Arts Fall River, Mass.
May 9 The Flying Monkey Performing Arts Plymouth, N.H.
May 10 The Opera House Boothbay Harbor, Maine
May 12 The Sportsmen’s Tavern Buffalo, N.Y.
May 13 Kent Stages Kent, Ohio
May 14 Grand Valley Dale Ballroom Columbus, Ohio
May 15 20th Century Theatre Cincinnati, Ohio
May 17 Gathering In The Gap Festival Big Stone Gap, Va.
May 18 Mountain Stage Charleston, W.V.
June 14 Sounds of Texas Theatre Series Conroe, Texas

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