"I know eleven hundred and one of them old country songs," says Rodney Crowell, a dark-haired, puckish man who right now is country music's golden wordsmith. "But you can't reiterate that sentiment. You can't say those things poetically today. Life is just so much more vague now than when Hank Williams was writing songs. Things were clear and innocent then. Act that way now and you'd be a country rube."
Which was a mite close to the reception Crowell's debut album, "Ain't Living Long Like This," received in 1978. It sold less than 50,000 copies -- a real flopperoo in the music biz.
But already this year, three tunes from that album have sold over 1 million copies for other artists: the title track for Waylon Jennings; "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Day Light" for the Oak Ridge Boys; and "An American Dream" for the Dirt Band and Linda Ronstadt.
"For some reason," says the 29-year-old songwriter, "I'm real hot in Nashville right now. Five years ago I couldn't get arrested."
Crowell's appeal -- 41 of his compositions have been performed by other artists -- is twofold: He's a writer of unusually sophisticated lyrics; and his songs allow the usual moon-spoon-June country singers to appeal to broader audiences.
You can hear it in Willie Nelson crooning: Somehow I learned to listen To a sound like the sun going down . . .
Or in this almost moralistic passage on trust and fidelity: In this modern world we're livin' in The rules ain't like they've ever been Speakin' of spreadin' it thin That's what you do When you're flashin' your soul . . .
In another vein, he can echo strains of classic folk tunes, as in the cleverly titled "The One About England": Merry England lives just south of Nottinghill In some dreams of Shakespeare like some Pisces will . . .
"I think the function of the troubadour these days," he says, "is to be something along the lines of what young Bobby Dylan was doing -- telling the truth. I'm all for making money and getting rich. But we need a dose of street mentality, words and symbols that make sense. We're getting too remote from things." Dead on a course so full of crossroads Full of runarounds, little loopholes Dodging taxes, running outta gas Don't blame the White House when we can't live fast
These are the opening lines on Crowell's new album, "But What Will the Neighbors Think," from a song called "Here Come the '80s." He sings them in a moaning voice filled with confusion and anguish -- with a vocal sensitivity that's almost as expressive as his lyrical sensibility.
You can hear when he sings that he grew up among "poor people who worked all week, whose only salvation apart from church was to go out drinking and dancing on Friday nights.I mean, we were white trash for real. When I was a kid, the roof leaked. We grew up on the poor side of Houston along the ship channel. My daddy was a construction worker who played in a hillbilly band on weekends."
In high school, he wrote the class graduation song. He spent three years at Stephen F. Foster College in Nagadoches, Tex., "makin' music and smokin' dope." In 1971 he headed for Nashville. Four years later, in the middle of a happy hour at the Steak 'n' Ale, Jerry Reed heard him sing a song called "You Can't Keep Me Here in Tennessee." Corwell pronounces it TIN-asee.
"So Jerry puts me on his payroll, a hundred bucks a month writin' tunes, which at least paid my rent." Eventually he was teamed up with Emmylou Harris, for whom he played rhythm guitar, sang harmonies and wrote songs.
"One of the things I learned in college," he says, "was that you can learn a lot of tricks to use in songs from reading books. You take Kurt Vonnegut. aHe'll be carrying you along and then there'll be a paragraph that sums up the last 15 pages. That's a song.That's what songwriting is all about. The next step is to try to hear where music and language fuse into one."
You can feel the sand and the heat when Linda Ronstadt sings: I beg your pardon, momma, what did you say My mind was driftin' on some Martinique day It's not that I'm not interested you see Augusta, Georgia is just no place to be Just think Jamaica in the moonlight Sandy beaches, drinkin' rum every night . . .
"Now, I'll tell you a secret," says Crowell. "I wrote that before I ever went to the islands. It was just a fantasy vacation, which I guess is one of the tricks of writing."
He's since been there. His wife Rosanne's father -- Johnny Cash -- owns a house on Jamaica.
"When I got there," he says, "it was nothing like my song. I was a rough place. I guess some things are best as fantasies."