RODNEY CROWELL is irrelevant.
No, he's not, really. Not by a long, dusty mile.
But that's a sentence that gives Crowell anxiety dreams, some 30 years into his well-regarded career. It's a sentence that fuels his creative fires and pushes him to make the most brutally honest music of his career.
Crowell is sitting outside a bagel shop near his home on the outskirts of Nashville, trying to nail down his place in the modern musical spectrum. "My intention is to find relevancy as an artist in our culture," Crowell says bluntly. He's poking the tabletop with his finger as he talks, emphasizing the seriousness of his quest. It has lead him to his latest recording, "The Outsider," part three of a carefully constructed trilogy about Crowell's rough Houston childhood, our fragmenting society, the last two presidential elections, his beliefs, his fears and his desire to make the world a better place. (The first two CDs in the trilogy are 2001's "The Houston Kid" and 2003's "Fate's Right Hand.")
These concerns of Crowell's -- whose 1988 album "Diamonds and Dirt" had five No. 1 country hits on it -- probably aren't ones that keep Kenny Chesney awake at night. Or Toby Keith. Or Martina McBride.
But that's not a fair comparison, Crowell says. "Modern country music is not a delivery system for what I want to say at this point in my career," he says, as if his songs are warheads in search of a missile. "It's not suitable for the political themes, the emotional themes, the dysfunctional themes that life presents us and that we process. And it's unfair of me and unfair of you to demand of country music that it be the delivery system I'm looking for."
And he's right. Even as his lyrical themes are far beyond what most commercial country music is grappling with these days, Crowell's music is not really country at all. It's soulful rock 'n' roll from a singer/songwriter perspective, flavored by Bob Dylan and Prince and Iggy Pop, among plenty of other influences. Best to file Crowell in the aging-introspective-rockers section, next to Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler and such. In retrospect, it's clear that country music is just one of the musical paths Crowell will walk on his search for self-discovery.
And his is an active search. In the past 27 years, Crowell, 55, has released 13 albums (not including hits packages) on five record labels, and when he says he has "bristled, clawed and scraped" in his fight for relevancy, you can see it in his face. Crowell's eyes seem sad and angry at once, even though he's quick with a smile when he's talking about a life filled with amazing musical peaks.
"I'm incredibly blessed," he says, shaking his head. "I'm lucky, and to say anything else would be . . . " He scans the sky for the right word. "Uncivilized."
That realization came to him in what he calls "a mild epiphany" a few years ago. "I was standing with a cup of coffee in my hand, staring out the window of the house I used to live in up on Laurel Ridge," he says. "I could see people driving to work and was thinking about how many people were going to work that morning to jobs they hate and how I've been making my living by making stuff up in my head ever since high school. And right about the same time I read something in the Essenes gospels, in language that was really beautiful, that said, 'The man who has found his work needs ask for no other blessing.' I found my work early."
We'll get back to those Essenes, but first, a little about Crowell's early work.
Born in Houston in 1950, Crowell played drums in his father's band at age 11 and founded his first rock band at 15. He headed to Nashville in 1972 and quickly fell in with kindred spirit "misfit songwriters" such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and Steve Young. "I was lucky I found those guys," he says. "It could have gone the other way, and I could have fell in with guys not nearly as talented."
Then came the big break, in 1974, when the young Emmylou Harris recorded the first two of many of Crowell's songs she would eventually cut, " 'Til I Can Gain Control Again" and "Bluebird Wine," and then tapped Crowell to join her legendary Hot Band. "That was the 'Great School of Emmylou,' " he says, smiling. "Working within her band, learning how to arrange songs, learning to collaborate with great musicians. That's something I still do, surround myself with great musicians. And another thing I learned from Emmylou was that when I'm on stage, I'm not a front man with a band around me. I'm a bandleader, inside a band. And if I'm doing my job, not only do I own center stage, but also I shine the spotlight on others who share the stage with me as equals. That's crucial."
In 1978, Crowell released his superb Warner Bros. debut, "Ain't Living Long Like This," and although his next few releases didn't sell well, they were mined for his songs, recorded by the likes of Bob Seger, Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Waylon Jennings. And he's still a go-to guy for a hit country song, as rising star Keith Urban recently spent five weeks at No. 1 with Crowell's "Making Memories of Us." Though Crowell struggled early in the country market as a recording artist, he became a hot commodity as a producer, working with Clark, Johnny Cash, Sissy Spacek, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Cash's daughter Rosanne. He produced Rosanne Cash's first five records and married her as well.
When Crowell signed with Columbia Records, he went straight for the commercial jugular, scoring big with such hits as "Crazy for Leaving" and "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried," off "Diamonds and Dirt." He immediately felt the corporate pressure to follow up with something even bigger. "Bigger than five No. 1 hits?" he asks rhetorically. "That's when I knew I couldn't please 'The Man.' It became about commerce, not art, on any level." His next two releases documented his crumbling relationship with Rosanne Cash, including the aptly titled "Life Is Messy."
"Yeah, I called it that, but if I could make 'Life Is Messy' all over again, I'd make it as dark as my life actually was," Crowell says, sounding almost angry at his younger self. "Not prop it up with some fake, happy ditties to make The Man happy. There would be no 'Lovin' All Night' just to stay in the money game. There are some dark moments on there I'm really proud of," he admits, "but the compromises on there really defuse it for me. I was not committed to me."
In his quest for relevancy, Crowell has found some peace by being committed to his "singular sensibility," a phrase that comes up frequently while he talks. It allows him an out when he beats himself up (as he does on the new track "Beautiful Despair") for not writing like Dylan, and it gives him strength to move ahead. "No one looks at the world like I do," Crowell says. "What I write, only I can write, because of my singular sensibility, so I made a deal with the creative process: I would try to live in a heightened state of awareness, and I would let the songs come, not force them to please someone other than myself."
Kind of like Van Morrison's line, "Don't pull no punches, but don't push the river"?
"That's another way of saying, 'Show, don't tell,' " Crowell says with an almost beatific smile. "That's how I try to write now." He rarely gets his inspiration from his fellow songwriters the way he did 30 song-years ago. He is more apt to find it in the writings of Mary Karr, the music of Miles Davis or the art of Pablo Picasso, all of whom he cites in recent lyrics. His reading list includes a steady diet of philosophy and religious texts of all kinds (those Essenes gospels and the Roman philosopher Epictetus, who gets a song named after him on the new record), and he says he's sure there's a book or two inside him getting ready to come out.
But the books will come later. There's still worlds to tackle in song. Rarely has a songwriter spread his net so wide as Crowell does on his latest. His rage against the Bush administration is palpable, but he says that "focusing on the president is beside the point. Political America is corporate America, and you can't separate the two; they're in bed together so deep. We're each of us responsible, so let's look to Congress. They're our representatives. Therein lies damnation or salvation." He pauses. "Okay, maybe that's too strong, but our government will only become morally balanced if the common man and woman demand it. All the more reason for me to try to say what I feel."
And after his bitter attacks on corporate greed and the religious right on "The Outsider," what could possibly come next? "I will tell you this," he says, eyes alive. "I'm writing about some interesting stuff that I've never written about. Not many people have. From bulimia to Alzheimer's. Where it's really going remains to be seen, but I won't know until I try. It's the process of discovery -- how to write about these terribly difficult topics -- that's actually my favorite part."
RODNEY CROWELL -- Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere with Will Kimbrough & Jedd Hughes.