"There are really only two things in life," Rodney Crowell says. "What you make of it and what it makes of you. And I think that for the most part it's what I make of it, but there are times when, as in the song 'Fate's Right Hand,' there's a real examination of what happens when it all just overwhelms you. And what happens when the silly oversexed kid that you were grows up."
Crowell took a long, clear-eyed yet sympathetic look at that youth on "The Houston Kid," the 2001 album that marked his return to recording on his own after a 7-year hiatus, but the new album, he says, is altogether different.
"'The Houston Kid' was sort of a memoir about where I was. But on the new record, these songs are more about the question, where am I? I didn't necessarily set out to write them that way; I don't usually point the songs. But they just started to come about."
The result is a set of songs that show the artist both looking within himself for understanding and engaging the outer, external world. From the title track, a driving piece of free association that recalls Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to the incisively self-aware "Riding Out The Storm," which tells of an encounter with a homeless man, to the powerfully healing "Adam's Song," Crowell maintains that duality of vision to produce a tightly knit, yet musically varied collection.
"You look inside in order to look out at the world," Crowell explains. "If you just look out at the world without looking inside, it's not whole. I've lived a long time, and I have some experience. I have something to say, and I have the wherewithal to say it, and I'm not shy about saying it. But the one thing that I know is that when I try to articulate my experience to you, I can't try to manipulate you with my experience."
"I can show you the man in me (the title of one of "Fate's Right Hand's" songs) and say, you know what, sometimes I'm insecure and sometimes I look in the mirror, and I don't like what I see. I can't try to manipulate you with that. I can only show you that. And then you're free to have your own response to it.
"So I always try to walk that line where I'm revealing what I have to reveal without attaching to it what I think a listener's reaction should be. And in order for me to best be able to do that, I've got to take my own inventory first - really run a check on where I'm really coming from. And if I go in there and I get centered on where I'm coming from, I just kind of naturally connect with the world from that real interior space. And to me, at best, they're one and the same."
For Crowell, making albums like "The Houston Kid" and "Fate's Right Hand" represents an affirmative change from the lifestyle and creative processes that put him on top of the charts in the late 1980s.
"One thing I don't enjoy about my older work," he says, "is that the albums all have moments where I'll really enjoy where I am, and then I'll throw something in there that I won't do now. I got on radio by accident, and that was sort of huge, and it threw me out of my innocence. Then I started chasing it a little bit, and when I started chasing it, I really got pissed off at myself. Because I started seeing the results of making music that I thought somebody wanted to hear as opposed to just trying to give expression to the natural flow."
"It's understandable that I would do that, but it also really threw me off, and it took me more than five years to recover from that. I just think I'm a much more fully realized recording artist now than I was 10 years ago."
What prompted him to take that hiatus was, he says, quite simple. "I got divorced (from Rosanne Cash) and became a single parent," he says with a wry laugh, "and I had to shut it down. Because I knew that a nanny and a housekeeper couldn't raise my kids for me, and I had two of my children living under my roof."
"The light went on when one of my daughters said to me, 'I know you've gotta do what you've gotta do, Dad.' Those were her words, but what she was saying was, 'I need you, I'm lost.' Well, I was as lost as she was, so it was a chance for us to help each other find ourselves. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
"Now, my singing and playing got pretty rusty during that period, and the few times that I would go out and play, I would be frustrated because I didn't feel like I was sharp. But what it did was give me an opportunity to slough off the meteoric radio stuff and really focus in on reinventing myself - putting myself in a position where now my heart lies in the next three or four records that I make. I want those to stand as my legacy. I think songs that I wrote leading up to this time in my creative life are really a good thing about my legacy, but I think that now I'm a more realized artist. And I like that. I want to continue to do that until I've exhausted the energy that feels it."