Rodney Crowell channeled his musical upbringing in the Lone Star State on his latest album, fittingly titled Texas. An album of collaborations, Crowell’s vivid lyrics and memorable storytelling remain at the heart of each song.
The 11-track release, out Aug. 15 on Crowell’s RC1 Records imprint and distributed by The Orchard, finds the revered singer-songwriter enlisting the help of several fellow Texans, including Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Dunn, Randy Rogers, Lee Ann Womack and Steve Earle. Texas also features Ringo Starr and Vince Gill.
The idea for an album of collaborations was initially sparked by Starr. As Crowell recalls, he received an “out-of-the-blue” invitation from the former Beatle to record at his place in Hollywood and he jumped at the opportunity. “The invitation to record with Ringo was not something I was going to turn down,” Crowell tells Billboard over the phone. “Then I had a long-running conversation with Billy Gibbons, and I wrote a song specifically for us to record together and the record started to make itself. The songs were very Texas-centric and [Gibbons] said, ‘Well, there’s your title.’”
He adds, “I always admired him so much and thought of ZZ Top as our Rolling Stones: down and dirty and unapologetic. Getting to record with him was a delight. Same thing with Ringo Starr. That music was so uplifting. It was just a joy. I have all these special guests collaborating on it with me, but I still feel like this is entirely a Rodney Crowell album.”
Songs like the traditional-leaning “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas,” which features Dunn, Nelson and Womack, were inspired by real towns in his home state. In fact, Uncertain is an actual town in Texas where Crowell used to go fishing with an old roadie friend. Meanwhile, the rollicking “56 Fury” with Gibbons was based on two old photographs of Crowell’s mother and mother-in-law behind the wheel of their respective cars.
Texas itself had a great influence on Crowell as a singer and songwriter. “Culturally, I grew up in the poor, east side of Houston,” Crowell explains. “Music was very much a part of the culture … a lot of jukeboxes. It was a dancing culture and it was country music. People worked hard, menial labor jobs and on the weekends they liked to drink and cut loose.
“I grew up around people dancing and by the time I started to play, I would play music for people to dance. When I left college and went to Nashville, by luck or maybe by divine direction, I fell into a group of songwriters with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Steve Earle. It was a bunch of Texas songwriters who just happened to write together. I learned a lot from my fellow Texans.”
All of the tracks on Texas were written or co-written by Crowell. Several songs on the project were penned in the ‘70s, including an early favorite of Earle’s called “Brown & Root, Brown & Root” that he began covering in his sets in the 1980s. The last song Crowell wrote with Clark ahead of his death in 2016 was the blues-fueled “Caw Caw Blues,” now featuring Gill, while another of their co-writes on the project include the jazz-infused “I’ll Show Me.”
Crowell can’t pick one song on Texas that means the most to him; in fact, he says his soft spot would be for the entire album rather than one particular track. Texas was a “joyous” album for Crowell to make with his friends, and the process was mostly set around having fun in the studio.
“It made it carefree and made it where, with the help of these guests, we were identifying a geographical part of this country that’s also cultural and in some ways spiritual,” he says. “Where I grew up, people loved music. If it wasn’t in a dance hall or somewhere publicly, then it was, ‘Move the furniture out of the way and let’s play music and dance.’”
Crowell, 69, spends most of his days writing songs or prose, and says he’s more passionate about music now than he was at 21. He searches for new music on a daily basis, be it world music, jazz, country, or blues.
“I have more of a passion for hearing and feeling and understanding it and letting it inspire me in whatever way it does — my work ethic sustains me because I love the work,” he says when asked of his longevity as a songwriter. “I invest a lot of time in writing. I don’t take the gift of writing for granted in any way. I put the elbow grease into it.
“It’s a gift to be able to create. I’m older, so therefore, time is more compressed. Any way you look at it I have less time on this earth and therefore I don’t have the luxury of sitting back and feeling good about what I’ve accomplished. The most important thing for me is what I haven’t accomplished. I’ve written some really fine songs, well crafted, the language is solid truth, but I can do better. I’d like to be like Jim Harrison and fall asleep at my writing station in my studio and not wake up. That would be the blessing of all time. To go down doing what I love to do.”