A few years back, it became evident to those within Rodney Crowell’s life that he had soured on Christmas. The singer-songwriter reached the point where you meet the holiday decorations on department store shelves in September with a frown, rather than the easy smile that would have greeted the sight just a few years before. It was only the chance encounter with the words of a fellow Texas-born Americana artist on foreign soil that turned his opinion around to such a degree that Nov. 2 will see the release of Christmas Everywhere (New West Records), the first Christmas album of Crowell’s career.
“A couple of winters ago I was in Scotland,” Crowell told Billboard. “It was after Christmas, but it still felt like the holidays. I had started pondering a Christmas album, and I knew I didn’t want to just cover all of the traditional Christmas songs, as that has been done by every artist that rises up to a certain level of fame. I started thinking about coming up with some of my own tunes, and then I heard Hayes Carll’s ‘Grateful for Christmas’ on the radio, a Christmas song that he had written that was really clever and honest. I said to myself, ‘That’s it,’ and the songs just started coming to me.”
Christmas Everywhere features twelve original songs by Crowell, including the R&B infused “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney On For Size,” premiering on Billboard. The creative process for the album happened at such a rapid pace that it surprised even the songwriter, who finished tunes at a rate heretofore unseen during his career, although he rounded the record out with a couple of songs that had been on the shelf for a while.
“I wrote most of this album in a very brief time, much more quickly than I usually write,” Crowell admits. “Ten or eleven songs would usually take me a couple of years, but I wrote most of these in four or five months. I wrote ‘All For Little Girls & Boys’ for my two oldest daughters when they were eight and four, back in the early ’80s; we just sat on the floor and made it up on the spot. I told them to just sing what they wanted to sing, and that I’d just play along. Once it was recorded, we just gave it out that year as a Christmas card. Then, somewhere in the ’90s, Chuck Cannon and I wrote ‘Christmas Makes Me Sad.’ We were just talking one night and one of us just threw out there, ‘Let’s write a Christmas song,’ and that one just sat there for years.”
Fifty years removed from his days as a teen playing in Houston garage bands, the six-time Americana Honors & Awards winner has returned to release arguably one of the most introspective recordings of his storied career. Here, he talks about going the nontraditional route on a holiday album, as well as the balancing act in battling commercialism without cynicism.
What was the inspiration for “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney on for Size”?
I teach songwriting, and it can’t really be taught, but where do you get yourself into a position to be inspired to write? That’s one of the mysteries of writing songs. It mainly gets done through a dedication to your work and craft. When I began writing the bulk of the songs, ideas were just coming to me quickly. When I jotted down the line “when the fat man tries the chimney on for size” on a piece of paper, just considering the premise of Christmas, I set about writing the song. The rhythm and blues feeling of it started to come up during that process.
I’m proud of that song, Christmas time or no, and feel that every word of it is in its perfect place. From a purely technical standpoint, taking the song for what it is, I consider it very well written.
What led to your souring on Christmas years ago?
It was the commercialism, but also the fact that the older you get, you begin to realize time is passing by faster; it feels like you had just finished celebrating the last Christmas fifteen minutes ago. The title of one of the songs on the album, “Let’s Skip Christmas This Year,” came from songwriter Mary Karr, who said her mother would say it every year.
There’s a lot of work that goes into producing Christmas for your family. We decided to give that voice a song, one with some cynicism, but giggling all the way.
How hard is it to write about the melancholy felt by so many people during the holidays, but without the lyrics becoming cynical?
That’s the job of a real writer. You have a thin line to walk on, where you want the story to be truthful without giving in to that cynicism. Because there is a lot of loneliness and isolation during Christmas time; the song “Merry Christmas From an Empty Bed” features a combination of things that create that melancholy. One thing that happened in my early life was this artificial Christmas tree that we had for a little while, and it just felt wrong to me, like what little beauty we still had around Christmas was gone. I started out writing about an artificial Christmas tree, and I realized I would have to put it in some kind of narrative form, and that’s when I reached out to Brennen Leigh [who is featured on the song]. I wanted to have a conversation within the song where the two narrators are not together, and don’t sing together, but they each talk about their particular situation at a time when they have quit speaking to one another.
There is some cynicism in some of the songs, and it’s there purposefully. I added it to the song “Clement’s Lament” that opens the album, with the line about “The season starts in August now, we’ll see you in the mall.” I mean, everybody I know has to go to the mall despite hating it at that time of year, and it’s not the most enjoyable thing about Christmas.
Do you feel that finally releasing a Christmas album now fills in an empty spot in your career?
I’m glad to have one, if only for my children. I don’t kid myself; the world wasn’t sitting out there, looking at their watch and wondering, “Where is the Rodney Crowell Christmas album that we’ve been waiting for all of his up and down career?” Had I not made it, I doubt I would have gone off into the sunset worried about never making one. That being said, now that I’ve made one, I’m happy to have done it.