Rodney Crowell: 'Until a Man's 38, He's Clueless Why He's in Love'

Rodney Crowell's most recent release, Sex & Gasoline, has been nominated for a Grammy.


Given how many classic songs he's written in his three-decade career, it would be surprising if Crowell released a CD that was anything less than award-worthy --- his music has more hooks that a fishing lure. And his tight, wry lyrics are so right that, when I served on the membership committee at PEN a few years ago, Rodney was one of the first songwriters I suggested as PEN-worthy.

This time, the mere fact of the nomination is impressive --- radio stations aren't racing to showcase the music of any 58-year-old musician. And then there is the small problem of Crowell's narrowing appeal: He now makes music almost exclusively for grown-ups. On LINK Sex & Gasoline, for example, there's a song called "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design." It takes a certain breed of listener to care --- someone who hopes to shake a leg and get a clue.

I'm a fool for anyone who aims high, talks smart and has some miles on the tires. And a father of a young daughter is automatically interested in talking to the father of four girls. And who was once married to Rosanne Cash. Ladies and gents....Rodney Crowell.

Jesse Kornbluth: You had extreme success in your 20s. Now you're pushing the AARP Ages, and no matter how great your work is, the reality is that you won't be nearly as visible or commercially successful as young talent. How do you do the mental math on that?

Rodney Crowell: You mean, how do you explain a guy whose commercial peak was 20 years ago but whose artistic peak is happening now?

JK: Yes. Start anywhere...

RC: For me, the real deal is relevance. Money comes on the back end. And the thing to know is, in my 20s, when I was selling millions of records, I felt irrelevant.

JK: Ever think, 'I wrote hits once. Just because I don't seem to write them now doesn't mean I can't. I think I'll sit down and write a song for ...'?

RC: No. When people ask me how I make a living, I say, 'I get paid to trust the universe.' The truth about all those big hits is this: I never wrote one for any reason but to write the best song I could. 'Till I Gain Control Again' --- I was trying to be in a league with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. They were good songwriters, and I wanted to be. So I understand what T-Bone Burnett meant when he told me, 'You must not be interested in money. Because if you aimed for the C and D students, you'd be rich.'

JK: The A and B students --- what do you serve up to them now?

RC: Now my songs are more about articulating the obscurity of my lost interior. My sensibility has changed.

JK: What happened?

RC: Small epiphanies that added up to a big one. In 1999, I decided I'd start doing work my kids could hold up as my legacy. And I moved from broad-stroke love songs to an articulation of my sensibility.

JK: This would be a C-student question, but considering your aims, maybe not. How much of the new CD is a character posturing and how much is what you really think and believe?

RC: Sometimes you get to act as a character as you deliver the narrative. But "Sex and Gasoline" --- I'm trying to tear that out of my heart. And "I've Done Everything I Can" was written directly to a daughter who put herself in harm's way.

JK: "Tired ol' story sad but true/We mama's boy's have got it in for you/Our faults are many our virtues nil/We never loved you and we never will" --- is that you?

RC: It is. It is. Hey, I've gone into therapy, because there was a time I had to understand 'we've never loved you and never will.' In an ongoing conversation with my daughter, I've said, 'Until a man is 38, he won't have any idea how he loves you. He might be looking for mother, he might be looking for shelter from the storm.' Anyway, that's my past.

JK: And yet, in concert, you sometimes sing with Rosanne Cash, and you were married to her from the ages of 29 to 42.

RC: We've maintained a civility and co-parented some girls. And to hear that voice and sing those songs --- that's a celebration.

JK: Those broad-stroke love songs?

RC: Well, railing against a duplicitous bunch of lying bastards --- it's not timeless art. It's art created for a time. I don't care much for serenity. But I do like timeless art, and I'd like to create some....

[cross-posted from]