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Rodney Crowell's "Outsider" casts a critical eye

By Brian Baker, October 2005

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With these two tracks as his launching point, Crowell well on his way, but the album's theme of social and political awareness (on both sides of the current political divide) had not fully revealed itself to him.

"It took a little while longer for it to start to talk to me," says Crowell. "It's like writing a song. What I do with the songs is let them talk to me and tell me what they want to be. It's gotten to be the same way with the records. I'll start working on the writing, and I'll just wait, and it'll explain to you what it wants to be. Then it's just a matter of throwing out what doesn't belong."

The album's focus remained rather nebulous for Crowell until he wrote the title track, the last song he composed for the album.

"I was still trying to understand exactly what it was. There's some sarcasm in the record and some political observation that I needed to write 'The Outsider' to come to terms with that," says Crowell. "I didn't want to contribute to the so-called polarization of American culture than the news media was already doing. If you pay attention to the verses, it gives voice to the left and the right, the yin and yang, conservative and liberal, with equality. Once I had that, I felt better about myself. With the soapboxes I get up on, my rule of thumb is 'show, don't tell.' I realized that in some cases I was up on a soapbox, but I was making really sure that it was show and not tell."

Crowell fully understands that some of his songwriting devices may be misconstrued on "The Outsider."

On "The Obscenity Prayer (Give It To Me)," he sings from the perspective of the privileged class as they implore the heavens to allow the status quo of their personal gravy train to continue while disavowing any responsibility for the state of the world resulting from their need for material comfort. He's not the first to use this first person perspective to make a salient point.

"I am adopting a point of view," says Crowell. "Randy Newman always did that so much, and I always thought that was very bold. I admired it, and I experimented with that style of writing on that song."

Another track that highlights Crowell's dissatisfaction with the current situation is the swaggering "Don't Get Me Started," a diatribe reluctantly delivered by a barroom philosopher.

"Those are actually my gripes against corporatization, where politics and corporations run roughshod over everyone," says Crowell. "In order to deliver that message with that kind of didactic spew, I gave that guy some self-awareness and made him aware that he's a drag when he's been drinking. I tried to create a humanness and a self-awareness in the narrator that makes him human and not some guy that spits from the soapbox, 'The rest of you guys are f***ed up and crazy.'"

One of the highlights is Crowell's duet with former boss Emmylou Harris on Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm." Crowell claims no credit for the genius of the pairing or even the idea of doing the song.

Producers from NBC's "Crossing Jordan" contacted Crowell and asked for the whole package: Crowell and Harris singing together and trading verses on a Dylan song, preferably "Shelter From the Storm." The results speak for themselves.

"We sat down and started scratching our heads," says Crowell. "That arrangement was born out of necessity. Every time Emmy sings by herself, we changed keys, which kind of freaked me out. It was almost like an early Johnny Cash record...There it sat in the can, finished, and when I started cutting songs together for 'The Outsider,' a couple of tracks I finished did not fit and there was 'Shelter From the Storm' glaring at me. An Irish friend of mine heard it and got up in my face and said, 'Mate, you're a fool if you don't include that.' I said, 'Okay, man, sold.'"

At the end of the day, "The Outsider" is simply Crowell's next thought-provoking and illuminating album and a work that satisfies his need for integrity and honesty. Although he doesn't like every album he's ever put out, he stands behind his body of work as a writer. He's noted in the past that he wrote "'Til I Gain Control Again" when he was in his 20s, proof that he became actualized as a writer much sooner than he did as a performer.

And while he appreciates the fans that have provided him with a satisfying career, he doesn't cater to their need to relive his past glories. On recent tours, he often gives his band a break and offers up a handful of the songs that have cemented his reputation in a solo acoustic setting, which placates the fans that want to hear those songs and addresses his contention that his early songs were often better than their presentations.

"My popularity is growing a little bit right now, and some of the people are coming back," says Crowell. "There's a lot of new fans, but a few people coming back want to hold me to 1989, and I just ain't gonna do it. First of all, the notion of 'oldies' drives me around the bend, and secondly, the most important thing in any artist's life is what they're doing now. I really stand behind this statement: If I can't find relevance with the work I'm doing now, I'm going home."

By that yardstick and by the grace of God, the very relevant and very honest Rodney Crowell is a long, long way from home.

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