He has never been afraid to speak his truth, especially in songs. Yet Rodney Crowell, the man who purloined romantic devastation with "Ashes By Now," salvaged a shred of dignity with "I Don't Have To Crawl," celebrated unbridled female spirit in "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and maintained in the struggle "Til I Gain Control Again," has been walking some hardcore lines the last ten years.
With The Houston Kid, he reckoned with the ghosts of poor white trash upbringing in East Houston - and sowed humanity where there was mostly broken dreams and shattered hope. For The Outsider, he considered the wreckage of political hypocrisy and its pompous choke effect. Then there was the deeply person Fate's Right Hand that took the awareness of time's passage, youth's fading and the realities of maturing as its truth and jagged beauty.
Humanity is Crowell's stock in trade. Compassion through a prism of unfiltered truth. Hard to take, and the only chaser is that beat that just keeps thumping, those melodies that both rile and hush you. Lines to walk, lines to cross, places to arrive at with your mind wife open.
Once upon a time, in a pink bedroom in a suburb known for a certain sort of social status, a kid fell in love with so many of the songs on Emmylou Harris' records, not even knowing Rodney Crowell was the silvery-voiced honky tonktress' Sancho Panza. No, he was an old guy with a soul that had been around for ages... who understood the things about my life that hadn't even occurred to me.
And that is still how it is. Out here in the heartland, where as his forebear Townes Van Zandt wrote "the desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold/ So the story ends we're told...," he's trying to keep the fire alive, kindled and sparked with whatever soggy matches he has at his disposal..
The nights are cold... a little desolate... Damp in the way that seeps inside.
The faithful are sparse, too. Faded ghosts of proud working Americans, sucker punched for a way they think is about honor, sinking in debt they were assured was all good no money down. These are the people who want to believe in the Dream, who think that the politicians represent them... only now they're starting to know a little better.
Maybe not so much the why of the what's wrong, but that gnawing nagging sense that something isn't quite right. Somehow the money keeps going out, but they can't keep up with what's going in. And if gas is $4/gallon, it's because of the Middle East situation, not part and parcel of Exxon's record profits. No, no, the leaders wouldn't do that to us: good hard-working Americans who need the jobs being sent to rhe global economy, where less than minimum wages can be paid to people for whom the poverty is so abject scraps feel like riches.
They're not sure how it happened. They think the education black man doesn't understand. The straight talking kewpie doll with the one liners speaks straight, so she must be honest... and someone who understands their truth.
As dangerous as that is, it's not the great unraveling that threatens to undo us. No, the greater trouble is more pernicious: the objectification of sex... the value of the female derived only from what's between her legs... and the corrosive impact on our culture. For when pussy is the only thing that matters, what does that say about intelligence, kindness, stability and support? What does it say about joy and grace and nurture?
Exactly, It's the neutralization of all the things that make us cultured, that gives civilization it's very civility.
I'm sitting in a dressing room in Ann Arbor, Michigan... having stowed away on a tour bus slicing through the Rust Belt, having hit half-filled rooms and lost hours of cerebral conversation about life, the media, the things that matter and how people get so locked into their sense of self they don't even sense it all slipping away... as "Intelligent Design" rolls out into the crowd. Bruce Springsteen has played here this afternoon, part of a fund 'n'awareness raiser for Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Times are hard out here in what is romantically called the heartland. The farms have turned to agribusinesses, the factories closing up, the small businesses shuttering - all in the name of the profit margin and failing economy. The stumble, the fall, the flash of a pair of panties.
When Rodney Crowell started making Sex & Gasoline, a roiling boil of a song cycle about the strafing of the fairer sex, he wasn't looking to spin a treatise about sexual politics. He had a daughter trapped in a shitstorm of bulimia and the esteem issues that come from a culture where there's always a hotter girl... a bigger rack... a sleazer trick...
In the end, the nastier, the better. Teach the little ones to be kinderwhores and sorroristutes. Short skirts, high heels, spin and whirl and twirl - preferably on the end of some man's pencil. For that is all you're good for...
The messages, telegraphed in ads and fashion magazines, films and Joe Francis "Girls Gone Wild" videos, define the ideal. It's not even worth trying to be worth something more... your sex is all. Surrender, Dorothy. Give it up and speak not, because we don't care what you think or feel or say.
After he trilogy of his personal journey, he turns his gaze wide open... takes on the corest truth. We are what we value, If you miss the beauty, the elegance, the strength of women, if it just reduces down to bucking and sucking and a wild ride, what does that say about the drives that drive us?
Crowell doesn't judge. He doesn't have to. He can lay it out, plain and simple, let the shards reflect back at you... and know that the truth is self-evident. All you have to do is lay out and let'em look. Whatever reflex response you've got, it'll get short circuited in the stark reveal.
Still, lust. Four letters that spell the ruin of all clear thinking and balanced execution. What greater primordial urge? What greater knee buckling erotic charge? Is there any kryptonite more potent?
With a dervish fury, Crowell and his trio whirl through the check list of the ages and their falters: the tentativity of innocence in full blush, the transitory moment of being in bloom and knowing, then the almost instant wilting of peak desire. It is staggering to see the shelf-life shorten, the want transmuted into repulsion and the desperation that leads knives and dirty lingerie.
But what's gone is left. What is valued is the most plastic.
To add insult to injury, the song's harried narrator brazenly declares, "We mama's boys have got it in for you/ We never loved you, and we never will..."
They are truncated by the vertigo of the sexual revolution. Brokered more licentiousness with less intimacy or connection. Body parts, nothing more. Consume and cast away... and so the culture spins without any concern for gravity, picking up speed and dizzying everyone in the process.
Each night "Sex & Gasoline" sends a charge through the audience. They are left naked in the truth of the revelation: the curtain drop, the glaring light of how it is that we work so hard not to see. If they came looking for the tender recognition of human erosion, the dignity that can be found by accepting oneself where they are, this song is a direct hit on everything that derails us.
Rodney Crowell knows. He's raised four girls in an increasingly faster, harder, deeper, cheaper world. He's got one married with a couple babies... one writing songs and finding her way... one finishing high school... and another on the slippery slope of all this gender treason embodies.
He knows, too, about being an erotic bulls-eye. Once upon a time the sexiest thing in country music... married to Rosanne Cash, the Ken & Barbie of hipster country... and the romantic shriek inducer with his lean rocking, wildly evolved songs of sensitivity that were equal parts rogue and poetic perfection.
He got it. Got the game, the stakes, the table. He played those cards for a while...
Then he got fed up and headed home. Made The Houston Kid. Recognized that in that clearer reality were songs a far sight more potent.
The more he peeled away, the more he exposed, the more kinetic the connection.
Rodney Crowell wasn't afraid of the charge. Or the volts.
The more he hit, the more he was willing to scrape away.
Not that he's about the brutality of how-it-is, shoving the truth on the unsuspecting, cramming the shocking down someone's throat. He knows people need to know, to consider, but he also understands that it's important to give them the room to process, the balance to remain upright in the surge and the harbor to dock while it all settles.
Coming out of the acoustically explosive "Sex & Gasoline," Crowell exhales. Reaches into his pocket and withdraws the less-thans-hymn of dignity in their poverty "Riding Out The Storm." The ballad glistens with the notion that honor is about how one carries themselves, not the size of their wallet or their Learjet.
It is about knowing one's humanity is all one needs for entry. It is about recognizing one's manifest in the spin. It is about the most basic form of the human condition, and the inherent grace of being alive. It is not about have or have not, rich, poor, fabled, unseen, it is merely about being.
To second that emotion, there is the grandly staccato, absolutely culture-checking "Earthbound." Jubiliant the way a thoroughbred trots on the way to the gate at a top shelf race track, "Earthbound" is a celebration of all the small things that make this living a grand delicious adventure. It's not about plastic add-on mammaries, fast cars, steep drops or any sort of adrenal jacking treatment.
That's what Rodney Crowell sees that so much of the zeitgeist - caught up in the rush rush, flush flush of modern living - have lost in the blur beyond the windshield as the gas pedal hits the floor. Pay attention. It's the little things: humanity, compassion, kindness, small tears, peels of laughter, a slice of heaven, a glass of earthy red wine.
And that is the vexome truth of Sex & Gasoline. It is a love song to the best part of women, even as it decries the way the gauge has shifted. "Moving Work of Art" is a paen to how beautiful a woman in full can be; "I Want You #35" holds fast to the betrayal of raw lust, the chaos of living in times like these and the steadfast desire of a narrator who sees beyond conventional value.
To move beyond the current grounding is to be free of the shackles of our culture. But it's also about relinquishing control. This is, after all, the man who not only wrote, but performed an achingly tender "Til I Gain Control Again" for an enraptured audience... and he will not perform "I've Done Everything I Can," the song of knowing some decisions have to be made by the one being tossed about by doubt and fear and cultural ravages like a ragdoll.
It is that kind of compassion tinged with pride. To not remove one's ability to save oneself, even as they reach for that hand-up. It is a delicate dance, one that requires precision, awareness and a lack of self-consciousness.
As the night unravels... as the songs roll out, one after another... it's the witness to a life lived, to moments spent and friendships made and truths seen from various perspectives. It is that first musical exposure that hit you like 60,000 volts "I Walk The Line (ReVisited)," it's the regret and nobility of letting go "Please Remember Me," the fat harmony sweep of "Fate's Right Hand."
Last night in Cleveland, he played to a half full former Croatian Hall, where the pall was almost the undercurrent buzzing in its silence of the barely hanging on. It was a somber performance, one where the audience had come to be emboldened and encouraged, to walk away believing in the things they'd lost faith in. You could feel that need like the humidity that is almost visible in the summers.
Alex Bevan, a local singer/songwriter, Ohio icon and my first idol, stood in the back, taking it in. He has figured out how to make the songs work for him, even at the margins - music that spans novelty to keep the drunks happy to songs that teach about ecology and those moments that are so pretty they take your breath away.
He knows the struggle intimately. To work because you have to; to believe because there's no other choice. Not as simple as it seems, but in the end, it is a softer way to land...
"Closer To Heaven" is an exhaled litany of the things that are empty vessels, the truths that set you free and the acceptance of the wonder of it all. When the Grammy-winner whose songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings and Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris to Roger Daltrey, Keith Urban to Foghat sings it, my friend smiles at me. It is a truth that defined him long before the song floated around us.
It is a song from Sex & Gasoline. One that offers a right here you are solace and balm, creating a context to be okay in the moment, whether heaving or hurling - and the notion that we are what we accept. Sometimes enough is plenty. Sometimes too much will kill you... if not literally, then you're soul - and you become some of the zombie diaspora, wandering the world leaving havoc in your callous numbness.
Alex Bevan showed me that songs could make you lighter, make you brighter, make you more. All those years ago. Rodney Crowell picked up the baton and took it to places that gave me insight into the complicated emotional minefield that I lived within - a world and a couple generations away from where I was raised.
"Life is messy, I feel like Elvis Presley," Crowell once sang from the wreckage of his bigtime country star career, "They take you from the cage and they push you out onstage..."
Equilibrium gets lost for lotsa reasons. How you steady tells the story.
All those songs, those faces, places, white lines leading you on.
Rodney Crowell's been subjected to my questions since I was 20, 21 years old. I'd say we grew up together, but that's no fair. I've been a glinting sparkle on the horizon, but something blinking to always make sure that I was seen.
Driving around the old money part of Cleveland, with its tudor houses and granite mansions, centurian country clubs and ivy covered girls schools, the world was as polemic as it could be. Yet the common ground - the music - made us soul companions of what could be.
We knew nothing of how the other lived, yet everything about the path to somewhere else. It is the common falter and flinch of chaos that united us, the hope for something more, the fear it isn't real and always the willingness to reach out another time.
At the Beachland Ballroom in Ohio, Alex Bevan drew his wife near during the set's final song, "I Know Love Is All You Need." It was the final song I played in my father's house in Florida, the one where the poster for Rodney Crowell that someone at the record company had him sign to me had hung upon the wall. It was a song that opened with the line "I am an orphan now..." and it celebrated the lessons we were given that last long after the flesh and blood.
"I am...," Deirdre said, tears glistening in her eyes. She didn't have the words. She didn't need them. It was one of those songs that capture your being and offer you the truth you can't quite know without being shown it.
At the Ark in Ann Arbor, the show is more jubiliant... more a celebration of what can be... and the indictment of shifting values is more challenge than fist thrust rancor. But just as importantly "I Know Love Is All I Need" caps a set of musical engagement and coaxing people to their highest selves.
This night it is a benediction. It is a prayer and a promise. It is the truth that cloaks you in whatever kinds of disaster crosses your path. It is not just a remembrance, but a compass or a star to steer by. And in all that, Rodney Crowell emerges not just as a voice willing to offer up the painful truth, but a beacon of the overlooked things that really should matter.
Throw out the bodies, cut down on the drag a friend of mine exhorts. And there is some truth to that, no doubt. But the greater reality is this: find the joy, the warmth, the grace, the reasons to believe. It all starts with love, and it ends with mercy... and in those things, sex and gasoline are rendered irrelevant.