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Visiting Rodney Crowell's Dark, Raucous Childhood

Feb 9, 2011 (Fresh Air)

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Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell has released nearly 20 albums in the past four decades and received awards from ASCAP, the American Music Awards and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which wrote that he "revolutionized the sound of country music with his Cherry Bombs band and with the records he produced for Rosanne Cash."

In 1988, Crowell produced five consecutive No. 1 hits off the album Diamonds and Dirt, including "It's Such a Small World," "She's Crazy for Leavin'" and "After All This Time," which won the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Country Song.

Crowell recently brought his guitar into Fresh Air's studio to play songs that relate to his memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, about his rough-and-tumble childhood in East Texas. Its subject matter sounds like fodder for a good country song: There was a hard-drinking father and a church-going mother and a good dose of honky-tonk music — with drugs, sex, fighting and love thrown in for good measure.

But Crowell's music has always branched away from traditional country themes. His lyrics often include autobiographical details and experiment with both form and function. On his critically acclaimed album The Houston Kid, he even plays with a Johnny Cash classic, rewriting "I Walk the Line" to make "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," which mashes Cash's original words over a modified melody, while interjecting Crowell's thoughts about the first time he heard the tune.

In Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell reflects on his time growing up as a "Houston kid" in the 1950s, when he often watched his parents fight, sometimes physically. Crowell tells host Terry Gross that he sometimes had to protect his mother from his father's fists — a matter he addresses in "The Rock of My Soul."

"My father, in the course of his life, he redeemed himself over the long run," Crowell says. "But then, you have to understand that my mother and my father both came from violent families. [They were] sharecropping farm kids from Western Kentucky [and] Western Tennessee. Violence was very much a part of my mother's upbringing — a little less so with my father's, but my father was an angry man when he was young. He was angry and frustrated and had no idea how to channel anger."

Though his parents never separated and never divorced, Crowell says his parents spent a lot of time apart: His father played music and drank at local dive bars, while his mother spent much of her time worshipping at a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal church.

"My mother was apt to fall out on the floor and start speaking in tongues," Crowell says. "Actually, it was a great performance. ... It was great theater. As a 5-year-old, I understood that, although it scared me and there was a little part of me going, 'I don't know about this. This seems over-the-top to me.' At the same time, I did understand that this was passion."

Going To Nashville

In 1972, Crowell left East Texas and moved to Nashville to follow his own passion: songwriting. He quickly fell into a musical scene, where he met fellow songwriter Guy Clark, who offered him some sage advice.

"He said, 'Now, look, you can be a star or you can be an artist. You can be an artist and then become a star, but I don't think it works the other way around. But they're both okay. Pick one and get good at it,' " Crowell says. "Well, I knew he was an artist, so I said, 'I want to be an artist.' "

Clark, whose songs have been recorded by Ricky Skaggs, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner, then sat Crowell down with some Dylan Thomas poems.

"[Clark] said, 'Listen to how good this is. You have to make your songs this good,' " Crowell says. "And it had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was being given to me, but eventually it gave me the intent that I wanted to try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness or museum-quality work. I'm not saying I've achieved museum quality, but if you're not swinging for museum quality or timelessness, then why bother?"

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