Rodney Crowell Discusses His New LP, 'Close Ties'

Joseph Llanes
Rodney Crowell

Like so many others, Rodney Crowell found that the mortality of the past year "sent me into a reflective tonality" that can be heard on his upcoming album, Close Ties

"The bulk of the songs came through 2015 and 16," Crowell tells Billboard, "and a lot of people close to me passed away during that time period -- my long-time business manager of 38 years, one of my favorite publishers, two of my really close friends, songwriters (including Crowell's good pal Guy Clark). And, y'know, it found its way into the narrative one way or another." But that doesn't make Close Ties, which comes out March 31, a concept album. 

"I wouldn't even call it a loose theme," Crowell says. "I certainly would call it a narrative, though; Where I began in East Houston ('East Houston Blues') and where I landed ('Nashville 1972') sort of bookend the in-between."

"I'm Tied To Ya," the album's Sheryl Crow duet that's premiered exclusively below, comes from outside that window, however. Crowell dates the song to 1997, when he was in Ireland as part of a cultural exchange between American and Irish songwriters. He came up with the initial idea with Michael McGuinn, a classical arranger and choral conductor who showed up in a three-piece suit in contrast to Crowell's jeans and no shoes.

"We wound up sitting on the floor composing what became 'I'm Tied To Ya,'" Crowell recalls. "It was his melody Sheryl is singing and the narrative of the verse was my contribution. But he's no lyricist, so it took me a good many years to track down the female narrative."

Crow agreeing to be part of the song, it turned out, helped Crowell find the direction he was looking for. "Once she said she was in I said, 'OK, time to bear down and uncover what the female narrative is on this song,'" he says. "To be honest, I was just trying to write something I wouldn't be embarrassed for Sheryl to sing. She seemed happy to sing this, so I guess it worked."

Close Ties' 10 tracks also feature "It Ain't Over Yet," a buck-up track Crowell wrote for Guy Clark that features Crowell's ex-wife Rosanne Cash and The Civil Wars' John Paul White." Clark's wife, meanwhile, is the subject of "Life Without Susanna." "A lot of it is very much about these close relationships that I've had over the years," Crowell explains. "That just sort of became the narrative, that here I am today, but I've had this life that I've lived and these people that have passed through and brought great gifts. It's me pondering all of that."

Crowell hits the road March 23 in Kansas City to promote Close Ties, with dates in the U.S., London and Ireland set into late September. When he's not touring, meanwhile, Crowell already has another project in motion -- a holiday album that he'd like to release this year as well. 

"It's Christmas songs that may not turn out to be so seasonal, maybe a bit darker and sarcastic, but it's really an enjoyable process," Crowell says. "I think I'll be able to make an interesting record. I don't think anybody will be interested in it, but I don't care. It's work to do."