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Rodney Crowell: "The Houston Kid" is the comeback kid

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2001

Can "The Houston Kid" make Rodney Crowell the "comeback kid?" After all, it's been five years since Crowell released his last solo album.

Whether it does or not, at this stage in his long career, Crowell, 50, most certainly is content with the results.

Crowell says in an interview from his Nashville-area home that he was searching for "self respect" in making the album.

"Seriously. I needed to make a record that I liked you know. I was the audience for this one. Just truthfully, evaluating my career as I'm wont to do - I''m probably my harshest critic. My legacy as a songwriter was pretty solid. I was proud of it. I had done good work."

"I had felt that my recording artistry was just pretty spotty. I thought at times there were spikes (resulting) in things that were pretty good."

With "The Houston Kid," "I didn't feel that anything had the net potential of anything when I started. I took a hard bite on that and didn't let go until I had my own self-respect with it. That was my own clear cut idea I had when I was making this record."

The 11-song album contains a mix of country, acoustic-based songs, bluesy spoken word and a touch of rock. In other words, pretty much the type of musical potpourri associated with Crowell.

"The Houston Kid" also is a combination of character-oriented songs, usually about down-and-outers suffering from drugs or pulling off crimes and relationship-focused songs.

And that was no accident either, according to Crowell.

"I was looking for to establish myself as a storyteller as opposed to just a pop performer. I always felt underneath it all that was where my heart lies."

"I had discovered awhile back that memory was a poignant source of storytelling for me. When I actually got the process right - writing songs from memory, basically real life events, true stories - they are more poignant. They were of more interest to me."

In fact, many songs on "The Houston Kid" are based on people Crowell knew growing up in Houston. An only child, his parents had moved around before finally settling along the channel in Houston in a section called Jacinto City. Crowell grew up in a working class family where his father delivered ice.

"It was actually built on the battle grounds where Texas won its independence against Mexico. It was a post-World War II housing project, a low-income housing project. It housed the menial construction workers and labor force that worked along the ship channel. Houston has its own hand dug, 50-mile long ship channel that created a blue collar outlet. My parents were sons and daughters of sharecrop farmers (with a) seventh grade education. They went there post Depression because there was work to be had. This section of Houston was made up of migrants, people coming off the (unemployment) lines to find gainful employment along the ship channel."

"This section of Houston came with a lot of violence, a lot of great people and a lot of crime."

"That culture consumed music with great authenticity, namely Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and Chuck Berry and Elvis. We kids of the '60's (had) The Beatles and the Stones came along and Dylan. Things really got cooking."

Crowell, writing a book about his time in Houston from 1955-65, has "very positive" thoughts about the area.

"There was a wealth of characters surrounding me. I have very fine memories of it because of the absolute humor. Dire circumstances sometimes create great humor. I look time at that particular time in my life with a particular kind of gratitude. There's gratitude in my attitude."

"I was down there recently, and it's not that different. Television is the difference."

Why the focus on Houston and life from four decades ago?

"I had to explore writing love songs and looking for the new slant on love songs. I've done that yada yada. Hey gag me with another love song. I just didn't want to go there. And also when I was writing 'Banks of the Old Bandera,' I snapped on pretty early on. Writing memory is very poignant when you get it right. As an artist, I'm more concerned with poignancy. If I went to the movies, I prefer 'Fried Green Tomatoes' to 'Armageddon.' Give me poignancy. I don't need that other crap."

If you want stories of working class life in Houston, check out such songs as "Telephone Road" and "Topsy Turvy."

"Telephone Road" describes childhood memories. Crowell got the impetus to write the song because of friend and fellow Texan Guy Clark, who wrote a song about Crowell's family, "Black Diamond Strings."

Crowell says Clark misplaced the location of ice houses. "That was when I got the idea," says Crowell. "I got to write a song about Telephone Road. ' It was so vivid in my recollection. It was from that conversation with Guy."

"Topsy Turvy" is definitely autobiographical. "That's specific about being an only child in a domestically (violent) household. I needed a striped suit to referee that one."

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