The influential singer-songwriter teams with an all-star list of duet partners on music that evokes his native state of Texas. Now 69, he considers himself to be in a “wonderful prime moment as an artist"

By Nancy Kruh
September 30, 2019 10:00 AM
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Rodney Crowell’s new album, Texas, features a collaborative cast of such musical titans as Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, Vince Gill and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

How did Crowell, 69, attract such a diverse array of all-stars?

Don’t suggest it’s because he’s cool.

“You know, it doesn’t pay to assign myself any kind of cool factor,” the soft-spoken Crowell tells PEOPLE. “That seems to be a dead-end street.”

Besides, Crowell says, if you have to say you’re cool, “it ain’t so.” Of course, that shouldn’t stop anyone else from saying it. Though he may not have the name recognition these days of his duet partners, who else in country music has the coolness credentials that could have attracted them?

Just soak in some of the Crowell highlights, starting in the 1970s: Member of the mythic Outlaw songwriting community. Emmylou Harris’ righthand man during her Hot Band days. Producer of (then-wife) Rosanne Cash‘s groundbreaking albums. For a hot minute, a country radio phenom with five consecutive No. 1 hits off one album. Tunesmith of such signature songs as Waylon Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” Bob Seger‘s “Shame on the Moon” and Keith Urban‘s “Making Memories of Us.” A godfather of Americana, two-time Grammy winner (including one shared with Harris), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee and, most recently, history interpreter on Ken Burns’ epic Country Music doc.

rodney crowell
Rodney Crowell
| Credit: Sam Esty Rayner Photography

At the moment, perhaps what’s coolest about Rodney Crowell is that, despite all the star power on the album, he has managed to make it distinctly his own. At least that’s what Elvis Costello — one of Crowell’s many cool friends — told him over dinner recently. “He was talking about listening to the record,” Crowell says, “and he said, ‘Man, you got all these people on this, but it sounds like your record. And I said, ‘Man, that’s what we set out to do.’ So I got that from Elvis, and yeah, I’m good.”

Years in the making, the album — brimming with rowdy melodies and sharp lyrics — grew organically as Crowell kept accumulating tracks with other artists. He first nabbed fellow Texan Steve Earle to collaborate on “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” a Crowell song about a Texas construction company worker that Earle started singing 25 years ago. Another Texan, Lyle Lovett, followed on the hard-driving “What You Gonna Do Now.” Gibbons and Crowell bonded over their mutual Houston roots, and the bearded guitarist couldn’t resist Crowell’s furious “56 Fury.” Texas favorite son Willie Nelson interrupted his own Nashville recording session to lay down a vocal for “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas.”

Obviously, a Texas theme was emerging, and Crowell kept fleshing it out with other Texans: Ronnie Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Randy Rogers.

Then out of the blue, a mutual friend texted Crowell to say Ringo Starr “is available to record if you want to.” Crowell had no problem stretching his definition of “Texan” (it was close enough that, at age 14, he saw the Beatles perform in a Houston arena). He hopped a plane to LA and nabbed Starr’s vocal and drums on the quirky kiss-off “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable.”

Crowell also pulled best buddy Vince Gill onto the album to help him sing “Caw Caw Blues,” the last song Crowell co-wrote with legendary Texas songwriter Guy Clark before his death in 2016. Though famously an Oklahoman, Gill was also a close friend of Clark’s.

Unbeknownst to Crowell, Gill was working on Okie, an album inspired by his own home state. “I called him,” Crowell says. “We laughed about it, and I said, ‘Well, look, you’re on mine. You’re as much a Texan as I am. You know the language. You know the vernacular. The humor is pretty much the same.’ He’s as Texas as you can get in Oklahoma.”

Crowell is now taking the album’s music out on the road, enjoying what he calls a “wonderful prime moment as an artist.” Incredibly, at an age when many singers confront diminished vocal power, Crowell feels his voice has finally come into its own.

“I’m just really grateful that my voice came to me later,” he says. “I’m moving to the end of my sixties, and I feel young because the skills I really wanted to put forward took 50 years to develop.”

Crowell is also feeling secure in his place in country and Americana music. “Certainly the audience that I entertain, literally and figuratively, is smaller than it was in the late ’80s,” he allows, but at the same time, he says, he also is feeling more relevant.

To him, that means finally being able to accurately depict his “interior experience” in his lyrics, something he didn’t feel he was doing in his hit-making days in the late 1980s. “And, I think, first and foremost, I’m just more relevant to myself,” he says. “What I’m doing is important to me.”

rodney crowell

Most important right now is a new songwriting project that couldn’t be more relevant: The subject is the current threat to the planet from global warming. He’s doing it, he says, for his four daughters and three grandchildren. “That,” he says, “and the fact that my generation started out so good and we just sloughed off.”

Yes, he says, he knows the perils of tackling such a heavy issue. “If you don’t write it just right,” he says, “you’re just a tree hugger.”

He’s persisting — in “a process of revision, revision, revision, revision, revision” — because he feels a sense of urgency that he can’t ignore: “It doesn’t seem like I have the luxury of waiting five years to say it. I don’t assume that I’m going to somehow save the world, but I have to do it because it’s what I do.”

The urgency also has to do with hearing his own clock ticking. “And I can’t ignore it,” he says. “I could make it another 20, 25 years perhaps. But you know, it could be that this spigot turns off at some point, and when it does, I’m done.”

And then?

“I’m really eager to spend the rest of my life as gracefully as I can,” Crowell says. “And so far, making songs and making records and performing seems to be part of that grace. But when the spigot turns off, I have to believe that I’ll move into whatever the next graceful thing is. Or that’s what my intention is, so we’ll see.”