Forget Tony Robbins: if you’re a songwriter in need of positive thinking you need only consult Rodney Crowell, who not only has developed an effective, common-sense philosophy of songwriting, but is battling back from a disease that could easily have crippled a lesser human.
This, it’s true, is not necessarily surprising, coming from a Nashville veteran who’s capable of rubbing shoulders with former father-in-law Johnny Cash while also quoting the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in song.
When the Georgia Straight reaches the 67-year-old Crowell, he’s taking it easy on his Tennessee patio. And although his voice is soft, his spirit is strong. Despite being diagnosed last year with dysautonomia—a miscommunication between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that can result in extreme fatigue—he’s recently started his own record label; released Acoustic Classics, an unplugged look at a dozen of his greatest songs; and is about to head west to play the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. After that he’ll go to Carmel, California, to host the first edition of Adventures in Song, a masterclass in songwriting in which he’ll be assisted by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, among others.
Crowell is resolutely modest in explaining why he, as much as anyone else working in the Americana genre, has the ability to make commonplace tropes—love, heartbreak, and bad behaviour—seem vividly fresh. It’s all thanks to his parents.
“Neither of my parents were educated, but my mother played with words and she twisted things around and she rhymed things,” he explains. “My father, on the other hand, was not a writer, but he was a savant, in a way. Somehow if he heard a song once on a dry-cell radio—the Grand Ole Opry, or something—he’d have it, and he’d know it. And he had a real deep repertoire of songs that he knew—mostly country, from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams and a little later. Being around them, and I guess sharing their DNA, was the perfect combination for me to be a natural-born songwriter.”
The Texas native adds that he was also lucky to move to Nashville in the early 1970s, where he was quickly adopted into the songwriting clan. It was then, Crowell continues, that he developed one of the exercises he’ll be teaching at Adventures in Song: the “Eye to Eye” technique, in which one writer reads his or her lyrics to another. If the reader can’t maintain eye contact, it’s a sure sign that something needs improvement.
“It depends on whose the other set of eyes are,” he allows. “In my case, it was Guy Clark, and those were some pretty piercing, look-into-your-soul eyes. Early on, when I had the opportunity to bring him something new, he’d say ‘Okay. Don’t play it. Just look me in the eye and tell me those words.’ I learned a lot from that, because whenever I wanted to avert my gaze, I knew it was a weak couplet, or I’d lost the thread of the narrative. It was a really good exercise, and he’d do it with me, too, the other way around. But I’d venture to say that with him being nine years older than me and having a more intense set of eyes, it was easier for him than for me!”
Rodney Crowell plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival main stage at 8:40 p.m. on Saturday (July 14).