Beloved singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell chats about his new book, Word for Word, new recording discoveries, and his love for her audience.
Cowboys & Indians: We love your new book, Word for Word, which combines your commentaries and memories with the notebooks in which you wrote your original song lyrics. But we couldn’t help noticing that all of your spiral notebooks were roughly the same size, and even the same type. Did you always shop specially for that kind of notebook for you to do your songwriting in?
Rodney Crowell: [Laughs] No, no. It just looks that way, the way it’s printed. I mean, if you saw the 30 or so notebooks that I have hung onto over the years, there’s every size from little pocket journals to even big bound books. And no, they’re all different sizes. I just wish I would have saved all of the airplane barf bags that I wrote stuff on. That would have been insightful.
C&I: When you were collecting this material, and writing the stories behind the stories you tell in the songs, were there things that you’d forgotten that you were pleasantly surprised to uncover?
Rodney: I was surprised by some of the photographs I found. Like, photographs that I didn’t know I had of Willie Nelson and me at a ’50s costume party where I tried to dress like Fonzie, and he was dressed as himself. Well, Willie was active in the ’50s, so he could come as himself.
C&I: There are moments you describe in the book that are — well, to use an overworked term, magical. Like the time you got fired from a Nashville gig for playing one of your original songs on stage, only to be immediately approached by music company executive Harry Warner — who really liked the song — and then finding yourself in RCA’s Studio A the very next day with Chet Atkins.
Rodney: Actually, what I didn’t write about is, Chet Atkins was there by himself. And I went over and he said, “Come on, I’ll show you how we do this.” And he explained the mic chain to me. I’m sitting there. and of course, I’m not retaining what he’s telling me. I’m just going, “Chet Atkins is teaching me something, and I can’t grasp it because I can’t focus.”
C&I: Well, that’s perfectly understandable. After all, you walk into the studio as an unknown — and Chet Freakin’ Atkins starts talking to you.
Rodney: [Laughs] Yeah. I know. Later on, when I did learn what a mic chain was on a recording console, I said, “Oh, so this is what Chet was trying to teach me.”
C&I: OK, let’s flash forward. You won the Top New Male Vocalist in 1988 from the Academy of Country Music. But you received your first Grammy in 1990 — Best Country Song, “After All This Time.” What do you remember most about that night?
Rodney: What I remember was, I sang that song on the telecast. And all I remember is Miles Davis sitting in the front row right in front of me, and basically turning his back to me. And three rows behind is Bette Midler, who’s smiling at me. And I’m looking at her and I’m looking at Miles Davis, who is ignoring me blatantly. And I’m on national television singing “After All This Time.” And I have this voice going on in my head, saying, “Stay focused on Bette Midler, stay focused on Bette Midler.” But I couldn’t. It was Miles Davis. It’s like, “If I can’t win over Miles Davis, then I don’t belong here.” Probably Miles Davis was the hardest person in the audience to win over, and I failed miserably. That’s what I remember most about that night. What a lesson.
C&I: While you’re on concert tour, do you ever flash back to that Nashville gig where you got fired for not sticking to playing covers? Like, do you shy away from playing new material?
Rodney: I’ve been lucky, in that my audience is not a superstar audience. It’s an audience that keeps me working. They seem to be pretty forgiving about my insistence on playing new songs when I go out to perform. I mean, I’ll play hit songs from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, but I subscribe to this notion that if I can’t hold the audience’s attention with the new art that I’m making, I need to step down. And I think the audience gets that somehow through some sort of osmosis or something. They think, “We’re going to support him through this. We may prefer ‘Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight’ to this new piece that he’s got, whatever it is. But we’re going to stick with this guy because we know he means well.” My gratitude for the audience that has stuck with me knows no bounds. Because God knows I’ve done everything I can to run them off.
Head over here to learn more about Rodney Crowell and his new book.