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

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2001

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Crowell does not look back upon the difficult family life and childhood with any sense of negativity.

"It was the only one I had. I don't look at it particularly difficult now. Given what my parents evolution was and how they finally dug themselves out of that dynamic that they had, they eventually came to a good place in their lives and individually. I don't see it as difficult so much. I have a certain amount of gratitude for how that was because I got some good songs out of it."

A bit of Johnny Cash - Crowell's father-in law for the years he was married to Rosanne Cash - shows up on "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," a tribute to childhood when the Man in Black's "I Walk the Line" inspired a small Houston boy.

Crowell recorded the song in 1996.

The story behind it "is just like it sounds. Early one morning in 1956, I was going fishing with my grandfather. I was sitting in the back (of his car). Out of that chrome, big fat radio, 'I Walk the Line' came on, and it just knocked me silly. I was just 5 1/2 years old. I thought this was the most authentic, original thing I'd ever heard of in my life. The 700 songs on the radio that had played before it, I didn't even hear."

"The experience was so vivid as I became a young adult and started writing songs, I've got to write a song about that experience. One day, I finally did."

"I had a chorus, a melody. This can't be one of those sing songy melodies. That's when I realized the words to the original worked with the chorus. I called John. I said, 'You don't have to do nothing but sing on it.'"

Cash came over, heard the song and was not too pleased apparently.

"Man, you have a lot of nerve changing my melody. I had been innocent up until that point. It was true. It was kind of like asking Da Vinci to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. I regrouped."

Cash did his lines, and Crowell was satisfied. "I think it's a pretty inspired performance."

This was not the first time Crowell released the song. At the urging of an executive at his former label, Warner, the song was put out on a lark as a single.

"I said, 'you guys could put this out. If you happen have a hit with this, I'm not going to give you a record to go with this. I don't want to use this song at this particular time to further some sort of career business.'"

Crowell says he told the Warner exec, "'Wouldn't it be great if someone put out a song, had a hit on it and didn't have an album?' Then, nobody played it, so it didn't matter,"

Crowell, who produced "The Houston Kid," sometimes with cohort Steuart Smith, wanted "a lot of live performance" on the album. "I just wanted to make sure it didn't have that slicked-off pop sound. That slicked off Nashville cleaned-up-to-the-point where it loses its soul. I really wanted to avoid that."

Crowell's music may have been in his genes with grandparents and other family members playing. His father was a musician on the side as well. At the age of 11, he recruited young Rodney to play drums in his band.

He went to college at Stephen F. Austin in Texas for a little while, but continued pursuing music. In 1972, he headed to Nashville, living like a pauper while trying to make a go of it and making acquaintences with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver and Micky Newbury.

By 1975, he became a member of Emmylou Harris' Hot band, often being compared to her late partner, Gram Parsons.

Crowell contributed numerous songs to Harris, including "Bluebird Wine" and "Til I Gain Control Again."

Harris became aware of Crowell by hearing a tape of his songs. She flew him to Virginia, where she was recording.

They hooked up again in Texas, and Harris gave him a ticket to Los Angeles where he lived for the next seven years.

"I liked everything about her," says Crowell. "She's a poet, and she's funny, and she's passionate, and she's loyal, and she's sweet, and she's beautiful. She's (like a) sister. She's a good soul. She's everything that people ought to be."

A few years after joining Harris, Crowell left to pursue his own muse. His first album was "I Ain't Livin' Long Like This." He also formed his backing band, the Cherry Bombs, which includes such notables as Vince Gill, Tony Brown, Emory Gordy Jr. and Richard Bennett.

Crowell's album sold little, but eventually led to recognition as a songwriter. Waylon Jennings had a hit with the title track. The Oak Ridge Boys scored with "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did the same with "An American Dream."

While songs Crowell released as singles may have been or eventually been hits for others, he barely made a dent on the charts. "Ashes By Now," his third single, for example, hit the lowly chart position of 78 on Billboard's country charts in 1980. The song is now a hit for Lee Ann Womack.

Much later, "Please Remember Me" didn't do much for Crowell, but it sure did when Tim McGraw recorded it.

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