On his new album Triage, Rodney Crowell draws on 50 years of poetic witness and intent to explore the ley lines connecting personal discovery and global obligation. It’s a view of the planet from the soul out that perpetuates Crowell’s Texas songwriter pedigree while allowing for continued growth in an artist still deeply moved to challenge his own abilities. Concerning his health, his family, and the causes he chooses to champion, Crowell meets each adversary with the same attributes he hopes to see flourish– love, responsibility, and truth.
AI- As I understand it, the rumblings of this album or the literal beginning started in December of 2019, and I dare say that the hallmarks of America’s divide and suffering were destined to be all over it even before COVID-19.
RC-Yeah, I suppose that’s true from my perspective. Although mind you, I’m very conscientious of expressing myself in such a way where I only put forth my sensibilities (laughs) and God forbid I should contribute to the divide! I certainly don’t wanna do that!
How did that project change once the pandemic had brought its full weight to bear? Obviously, there were concerns about being in the studio together, but you ended up writing and replacing some of the songs you’d originally intended to include.
I’ll say I did! On October 9th, 2020, I was out takin’ a long walk. The hills around where I live have some nice hiking. I came back home and the next thing I know, I wake up in an MRI with three hours of my life gone from me that I can’t put my finger on at all! The diagnosis was this thing called transient global amnesia, which I’d never heard of, never thought of, and as it turns out in my local hospital, they get two of them a month! That’s on an average! And 98% of the time, it never happens again. But there I was, waking up and was like, “Whoa! What happened to me?”
The interesting thing is they held me overnight, and my daughter sent me a text of a photograph of a sunflower growing on a raft on the Thames River in London in the mid-50s. [That] triggered me to write “Transient Global Amnesia Blues”, which was the last song to go on the album. I’m certainly glad that happened. I don’t think I want to do it again, (laughs) but I got a good song out of it! I felt like, man, it was worth waiting to get that!
I tell you– sharks, alligators, politicians, I don’t think anything scares me as much as losing my memory! As wretched as some of those memories might be, there’s so many good ones to go along with it! How do you look at that going forward, particularly as a songwriter and a performer?
Should it happen to me again? Well, it’s daunting from the perspective of if that happened once, it could happen again! I could be driving a car and that could happen, you know? So from that perspective, man, I’m on guard! But from another perspective, it doesn’t do me any good to worry about it. So the days go on. In a few days, I was back to normal. I do my work and do the best I can and just try not to worry about it.
The lead single for Triage, “Something Has To Change”, I got to tell you, I love that trombone solo! Whose idea was that? Who heard that and was like, “That has to be on there!”
Well, man, I did!
That was inspired!
Yeah, yeah, it was! We had your traditional, usual guitar solo in there– and I was yawning! I turned to Dan [Knobler], my co-producer, and said, “We gotta have somethin’… Why don’t we add a trumpet? You know, Louis Armstrong?” And from that, I said, “Hang on, the timbre would be too high. What about a trombone?” And Dan, he comes out of that school of NYU record production and he knows all of those jazzers up in New York City, so I said, “You know a trombone player?” He said, “I know just the man!” I called [Raymond James Mason] up– this was during COVID and I had to send him the files and he did it in his own home studio– and all I said is, “Stick a plunger in your trombone and play like Louis Armstrong in 1926!” And that’s what came back! A brilliant young musician! Yeah, everybody comments on the trombone solo! I’m dining out on that right now!
A line from that song, “Am I ready for times such as these? Emphatically, no.” I think that sums up everybody’s experience, but talkin’ about that recording, having to send files, the remote recording, and collaboration, even before the pandemic was a thing people were doing out of necessity or just to save time. But now, I think it’s really changed the way people are gonna make records going forward. What about you?
To some degree. I don’t think that I’ll ever lock in entirely to sending files. Everything about “Something Has To Change” except the trombone solo was done with a group of musicians and all of us playing together live. That’s my preferred way. There are tracks on the album such as “The Girl On The Street” that [were recorded] mid-pandemic, and we had to send the files around. It came back in a way that we’d talk on the phone or talk via text to a musician and say, “Hey, try this,” and in one way, it’s really expressive for whoever has received the files for what they want to play. But then on another level, when we’re there workin’ together, sometimes the ideas are just, “Oh man, you just played that note– what if you did this?” Or vice versa, somebody says to me, “Hey, two takes back, you sang this a particular way, you know? The phrasing?” I said, “Oh yeah, well, I forgot!” And so that particular person-to-person interchange is something I really enjoy about recording. So sending files around, I’m sure it’s here to stay, but I don’t think it’ll ever become my preferred method!
I want to segue off from that just a little bit. I recently spoke to Vincent Neil Emerson about his new album and working with you. I think it’s fantastic from top to bottom! What draws you to an artist in the capacity of a producer?
Certainly, in the case of Vincent, I was drawn to the poet. I recognize that this is a real writer and his narrative is uniquely his own. His choice of rhyme and the way he puts his songs together, I could tell and I said, “Hey, you’ve paid attention to Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. Yeah, man, I can help you!”
Do you embrace that role of the mentor? I mean, having been mentored yourself, you’ve seen it from different angles, the best way to do it, maybe not the best way to do it. What about you when you find yourself in that role?
I certainly enjoyed it with Vincent because he was open to it. We didn’t have to formalize it. I could just be myself and share my experience with him and point out to him particular things that would make something stronger. Perhaps suggest a rewrite for a certain section of a song or that he really doesn’t need to record one particular song or another. He was always open to it, and to me, some of my experiences, some of the biggest mistakes that I’ve made in my career was when I wasn’t open to ideas that someone had for me at a particular time that later on, I recognized, “Whoa, I just missed the opportunity of a lifetime because I’m so thick-headed!” And Vincent, in our case, in our relationship, he was never thick-headed with me.
We were just open, and we went in there and made that record in a short period of time. One of the things about it besides it being well-written is it was well-performed by a very small group. We were all masked up and it was in September of 2020. We’re in a pretty good-sized studio in Nashville. I had the little ray gun thing to take everybody’s temperature and nobody could go in the control room but me and the recording engineer. Vincent, in the end, could come in, but it was almost like London in the early ’60s, you know, when they didn’t allow their artists in the control room (laughs)!
Another thing that you were involved with during the pandemic and is available now, the Opry Unbroken: Empty Room, Full Circle album, where you do a version of “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” with Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill. I am extremely fascinated with the idea of being in an empty Ryman Auditorium and performing. And I can’t think of two other voices that I would like to be surrounded by in that cavern than Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill! Can you tell me about that experience?
Yeah, it was good fun! Vince Gill… I don’t know, I guess people really realize how generous a performer he is and just what a good dude he is! As is Emmy! And I suppose on the other end of it, if they were speaking o’ me, they would say what a good dude I am! The three of us are really good friends for a long time. We go back as far as 1976 altogether. It was just comfortable bein’ on that stage! There was nobody else in there, but three old friends playing. We started out, we were gonna do certain things, but Emmy and Vince sorta triggered this thing where we just stayed on my songs! It wasn’t by design. It was just pretty much my friends on the other side of the stage!
Vince started doin’ another song of mine instead of one of his own, and that’s how that came about. It’s just the generosity of an old friend who loves you and gets an idea. And it’s not about “This is my song,” or whatever. It’s like, “Yeah, we’re just doin’ this!” It was good fun. It was the only time I’d performed since February . I think that was in late June, maybe a year ago that we did that. But Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris? Both sweethearts and dear friends of mine! So whenever I’m on a stage with them, it’s like family!
On Triage, you close out the record with “This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am”. I hope you don’t mind me sayin’ that song sounds like something you could have written for Johnny Cash back in 2001 and 2002. And I would imagine that it is not lost on you that you are approaching the same age he was when he passed and have also amassed such an amazing musical history and catalog– friends and family like you just mentioned!
Well, hmm. That’s interesting that you would think that might be something that I’d written for John. (Laughs) I’m tryin’ to imagine this voice singin’ it, and I suppose I can! Good to know! Thank you for that! I like your imagination! I hadn’t imagined it until now, but I will! John was 71, I think when he passed away. Long ago, we had a conversation, John and I did, I said, “When I was comin’ up, when I was young and in my early ’20s, pot was the thing, you know? And we’d smoke it and get sleepy and eat too much and go fall asleep and be dumb! When you guys were comin’ up in the ’50s, and you’re workin’ and tryin’ to drive 400 miles after a show…”
You know, those doctors were givin’ ’em amphetamine. Over the years, with too much amphetamine, you gotta go to the barbiturates in order to get sleep. These innocent performers… Elvis and John and Jerry Lee and all those guys were innocent! They didn’t know! “Well, the doctor says it’s okay!” And the next thing you know, it’s wrecked your health! So I told John, I said, “Man, it was a lot easier when I came up. It was a gentler diversion from what they were throwin’ at you guys!” And he said, “Yeah, we didn’t see what was comin’!” I think it contributed to John’s early demise. And it knocked Elvis out early! So that’s my take on that for what it’s worth.
When Triage arrives next month, you will have released five albums in the space of as many years– and that’s not even takin’ into consideration other small side projects or larger production efforts that you’ve been involved with. Clearly, you remain motivated as we hopefully come out of this pandemic ready to embrace the next phase of the music industry and touring. What do you see coming for you in the future?
I’m still very passionate about writing songs. And I’ve been doing it a lot! I’ve written a lot during lockdown, and I suppose we shall see! My hope is to stay productive and stay healthy and spend some more time here on the planet. And there’s another side of me. My banner-waving would be, “Hey, look, out my back door, it’s green!” When the sun’s out, I got a vegetable garden! This planet we live on is so generous and so life-giving. It sustains us so beautifully all around the globe– and I wonder why we think we can treat it like a trashcan! I’m hopin’ that in my own little way, that my work in some way contributes to the notion that above all, politically, whatever side you’re on, I don’t care. The one thing we do that should unite us and that we all share is a responsibility to take care of our home, which is this planet we live on. So I want to be a part of a positive change in that way. That’s really the reason, that’s the underlying motivation behind the making of Triage.