Kim Ruehl Talks with Rodney Crowell About Writing and His New Album, ‘Tarpaper Sky’
For decades, Rodney Crowell has been one of the most prolific and consistently stirring songwriters in the Americana realm. He’s scored a number of mainstream country hits, but has more recently become a champion of high-quality collaborations. In the past decade, he’s made a solo album ceding production to Joe Henry, and joined forces with author Mary Karr and Americana legend Emmylou Harris for a pair of collaborative discs that have been hailed as among the best of the years in which they were released. (The latter took home a Grammy and an Americana Music Award in 2013.)
Now, he has rolled out another solo album, Tarpaper Sky. Self-produced in collaboration with engineer Steuart Smith, the album is heavy on songs about home – going home, leaving home, and pining for home. In fact, it was while he was at home in Nashville, fresh from a stint on the road with Emmylou, that Crowell was kind enough to get on the phone with me one Saturday morning, to discuss the new disc and other matters.
Kim Ruehl: Let’s start talking about Tarpaper Sky – your first non-collaborative solo record in, what, six years?
Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I have a solo one. Never said that much before. Yeah, there’ve been six years. This is 2014, isn’t it? Sex and Gasoline was 2008.
KR: What made you decide to make another solo effort?
RC: My book Chinaberry Sidewalks was a solo effort, so I did get one solo effort in there.
KR: How was that different from songwriting for you?
RC: The only thing similar is work ethic. Actually writing a book takes more concentrated effort. You’re a writer, you know what it takes. You’ve got to get up and go to work every day. But I do that writing songs, anyway, if I’m home. It doesn’t work so well on the road, but over the years having raised some children, I became a morning-time worker, so I’m up working if I’m home.
KR: Writing a book like that, it takes a lot longer for people to hear it. Are some songs like that, too – they take years to hear?
RC: I don’t know. There are songs on Tarpaper Sky that took me 20-plus years to write, so some songs took longer [than the book]. It took me ten years to write Chinaberry Sidewalks. It took me 23 years, I think, to write “Fever on the Bayou”.
KR: In what way? Were there lines you were working on?
RC: I didn’t have a last verse. Couldn’t find the last verse. The first couple verses borrowed so heavily from Louisiana Cajun swamp music. Those words like jolais and creole and such things… the last verses were always too trite and clichÃ© to mean anything. It wasn’t until, in conversation, someone said the word Franglais, and I thought That’s Cajun. The Cajuns butchered both French and English together and I said, Ah my last verse needs to be that butchered Cajun patois. And voila, there you are.
KR: were you working on this at the same time as Old Yellow Moon?
RC: Loosely. When we were making Old Yellow Moon I was entirely focused on that, although I started Tarpaper Sky before Kin. But, then I got to be around a couple of beautiful women. I put aside my needs for theirs.
KR: That Mary Karr project was interesting. What did you learn from working with her?
RC: Well, it was a conversation, you know. One of the things about my and Mary’s collaboration was constant conversation. Most of those songs were born out of that conversation. In “If the Law Don’t Want Me”, she was talking about her sister and her boyfriend. We said let’s put that in a song. The kind of conversation you can have with Mary Karr is very fruitful. The process we went through, that I was very keen on and Mary was very open to, we were trying to figure out how to let the poet’s voice speak wherever we could. The words stand on a page to be read, in a poem. They don’t have to sing… so there’s that intimacy between the one reader and the poem. Words work in a different way in songs sometimes, because of the chord changes and the vowel sounds. Some words don’t sing. So, we were very conscious – or I was – of trying to let the poet’s choice work wherever we could. The example of that is the opening song. The opening line I had when I was playing guitar and singing was, “When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint.” And Mary said, “No, your feet aren’t tough as nails, they’re tough as horns, like a hoof, like cattle.” I [thought she was] right about that, that’s the right choice. It doesn’t sing well, though. It doesn’t sing like that “A” vowel. [sings] When our feet were tough as horns. When our feet were tough as nails... but, in the long run, we went with “horns” because that was the poet’s choice and I much prefer it. It is the right word. That kind of thing. I learned a lot about that.
KR: Horn is a great word to sing, though.
RC: Ninety-nine out of a hundred songwriters wouldn’t choose that word because of the vowel sound. You can’t do as much with the vowel, but it’s a great word to sing, you’re right. When I sing it live, I always sing that song and when I get to “horns” it propels me through the rest of the song.
KR: You’re such a writer and you did this collaboration with Mary Karr and Emmylou… I wonder, did ideas come out of that that maybe didn’t spark a song for those projects, but turned into a song for your own work?
RC: Not really. Mind you I had seven songs from before I started with Mary or Emmy. Some of the songs that Mary and I were writing overlapped with some of the writing that became Tarpaper Sky. But, I think what I learned in the beginning of making Tarpaper Sky carried over very much into Kin, because I was recording [Tarpaper] without headphones and we did most of Kin without headphones. I’d gotten such great results just unplugging the headphones when we were in the room playing. When we got making Kin, I carried it over and the first thing I did [was] unplug the headphones. We recorded the first session with Norah Jones. We were talking and I said, “I can’t use headphones anymore.” She said, “I never could,” so we just kept that all the way through. So my answer to your question was that it was less in writing and more in the performing part of things.
KR: Is that you trying to separate your producer brain from your performer brain?
RC: Exactly. I’m not interested much in production anymore. Everything that really stands the test of time with me – the great Ray Charles records that I love, the Howlin’ Wolf records that I love – they weren’t produced; they were performed. The producers back then just got the musicians together and got out of their way and let them perform. So, I’ll spend the rest of my career chasing performance. I’ve produced enough in my day.
KR: But you produced this record.
RC: Yeah, but insomuch as it was produced. Tarpaper Sky wasn’t produced, it was performed. It’s all live. It’s all what happened in the studio. We added some background vocals and that’s it. This is really what happened. We had a really great engineer and I credit him with producing the audio. Steuart Smith and I had an ongoing conversation, so we sort of take credit for the arrangements. What little production there is, it’s not really a produced album. It’s just a performance of a bunch of songs.
KR: Would you say that’s the biggest way your job has changed over the years?
RC: Well, writing has been satisfying for me since day one. I became a real songwriter pretty young. There are songs I wrote in my 20s that I still perform, that I can stand by. But as a recording artist, it was a slow process for me. It was a slow dawning. It wasn’t until I was really 50 years old that I felt I had anything to show as a recording artist, felt I had some great songs. Since then, I’ve been committed to finding a way to perform so that if my kids have anything to hold up as a legacy, it can start with that.
KR: What do you think makes a song good?
RC: Oh shit. Can you describe what makes a song like “Pancho and Lefty” good? Pure poetry, originality, wonderful melody, succinct rhymes, no soft rhymes. Blue doesn’t rhyme with black, don’t try to convince me that it does. What makes a song great? “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Kris Kristofferson. Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. I mean, come on. I can’t say what’s good but I know when it is good. [sings] Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. They want me to go to rehab, I say no, no, no. Is that poetry? Maybe not, but it certainly is great songwriting.
KR: Why did you call this album Tarpaper Sky?
RC: Because it sounds good. It’s a great image. I like how it sounds. And it’s a line in the song. Plus I grew up with tarpaper skies. You could see the sky through the roof at my mother and father’s house because it was so poorly built and it was rotting out down in the semi-tropical climate of east Houston, so that’s where the line comes from.
KR: Well, thank you Rodney. Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
RC: God, I wouldn’t presume to tell anybody what they ought to know, or even what I think they ought to know.