Crowell's life of chances comes through again – June 2023
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Crowell's life of chances comes through again  Print

By Brian Baker, June 2023

Rodney Crowell's career is littered with butterfly-effect decisions that, in retrospect, represent life-altering milestones along the singer/songwriter's star-crossed path. If the Houston native hadn't moved to Nashville at age 22, he wouldn't have been discovered by Jerry Reed or met his greatest influence and hero Guy Clark or enchanted Emmylou Harris, who consistently recorded Crowell's songs and even hired him as her Hot Band guitarist.

Nor would Crowell have formed the Notorious Cherry Bombs with his future producer Tony Brown and eventual Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, and he certainly wouldn't have become Rosanne Cash's husband, collaborator and producer (and Johnny Cash's son-in-law). He might never have become the songwriter's songwriter, whose compositions have been covered by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, the Oak Ridge Boys, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Crystal Gayle, Keith Urban, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Bob Seger and Foghat, among many others, and he likely wouldn't have launched his long and coveted solo career which has resulted in 17 studio albums (including "Diamonds & Dirt," which produced an astonishing five consecutive chart-topping singles), and a number of retrospective compilations and collaborations, a couple of Halls of Fame inductions and his fascinating memoir, 2011's "Chinaberry Sidewalks."

Rodney Crowell - You're Supposed To Be Feeling Good

Just as all of the above actually dominoed into reality, Crowell's latest album, "The Chicago Sessions," has a similarly fateful origin story. On a pleasant Nashville night, Crowell was homeward bound with his car radio tuned into National Public Radio, which by purest chance played "I Know What It's Like" from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's sophomore solo album "Warm." Crowell was profoundly moved by the song.

"So it's a beautiful sounding record, and I'm alone in my car with nothing else to distract, and I bought it immediately," says Crowell. "NPR sold me a Jeff Tweedy solo album, and I did a deep dive. I was a Wilco fan, but I became a Jeff Tweedy fan because of 'Warm.'"

Months later, Crowell found himself aboard a Cayamo Cruise ship for a songwriter's excursion and realized Tweedy was one of his musical shipmates. He took the opportunity to express his ardent admiration for Tweedy's "Warm" work, and Tweedy's gracious response included an idea that Crowell did not take seriously at first blush.

"He said, 'Aw, man, you should come up to Chicago sometime and record,'" Crowell recalls. "It just seemed like a neighborly suggestion, like he was just being a nice guy. I just took it as something I might say; 'Come around the house, and we'll drink some tea.'"

Even though recording in Chicago, with its historic reputation for birthing great albums, was on his bucket list, Crowell dismissed Tweedy's invitation as the kind of "we-should-work-together" conversation nugget that gets thrown around when disparate musicians gather in a common venue. Once he got home, his daughter ,Chelsea, demanded in no uncertain terms that he take the necessary steps to accept Tweedy's offer.

"I don't remember how she got wind of that conversation, but she accosted me and said, 'Jeff Tweedy invited you to record in his studio. You need to get your management to talk to his management right now,'" Crowell recalls. "I dutifully said, 'Well, okay.' Next thing you know, it's all organized."

A lot of early reviews of "The Chicago Sessions" draw a line between the new album and 2001's "The Houston Kid," Crowell's autobiographical masterpiece, which are not significantly linked beyond high songwriting quality. Crowell notes that he began working simultaneously on the songs for "The Houston Kid" and the first draft of "Chinaberry Sidewalks," and since no such theme was explored on "The Chicago Sessions," his conclusion is that the connection between the albums may be his sense of "relaxed confidence."

"'The Houston Kid' was definitely memory-based, and 'The Chicago Sessions' was obviously not memory-based, but at least six of the songs were written during the nice Covid lockdown that I had," he says. "Lockdown for me was a joy, because I was back in my home studio just knocking around, making a racket, recording stuff all by myself. It was fun. There's probably something monastic about me. I've noticed that I'm probably equal parts extrovert and introvert; I'm happy on a stage, and I'm happy at home, alone, working as a writer."

While sequestered, Crowell felt the creative freedom to attempt anything, playing every instrument himself, even making drum sounds with pots and pans in an acoustically friendly bathroom. When arrangements were finalized for Crowell to travel to Chicago and record with Tweedy, there was plenty of material to consider for inclusion on the album, but more importantly, Crowell was still juiced from the home recording process.

"By the time Jeff and I got together, I was still in the same mindset, so we just took what I was doing at home into Jeff's studio, and his studio in Chicago is just very conducive to playing around," says Crowell. "I moved from my little retreat at home to Jeff's retreat in Chicago with some great musicians, and we were off and running. I think Jeff was charmed by the recordings I had made by myself; I sent quite a few to him. He picked out the songs, and I was like, 'Great, I don't have to.'"

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