Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell has released nearly 20 albums in the past four decades and received awards from ASCAP, the American Music Awards and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which wrote that he "revolutionized the sound of country music with his Cherry Bombs band and with the records he produced for Rosanne Cash."
In 1988, Crowell produced five consecutive No. 1 hits off the album Diamonds and Dirt, including "It's Such a Small World," "She's Crazy for Leavin'" and "After All This Time," which won the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
Crowell recently brought his guitar into Fresh Air's studio to play songs that relate to his memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, about his rough-and-tumble childhood in East Texas. Its subject matter sounds like fodder for a good country song: There was a hard-drinking father and a church-going mother and a good dose of honky-tonk music — with drugs, sex, fighting and love thrown in for good measure.
But Crowell's music has always branched away from traditional country themes. His lyrics often include autobiographical details and experiment with both form and function. On his critically acclaimed album The Houston Kid, he even plays with a Johnny Cash classic, rewriting "I Walk the Line" to make "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," which mashes Cash's original words over a modified melody, while interjecting Crowell's thoughts about the first time he heard the tune.
In Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell reflects on his time growing up as a "Houston kid" in the 1950s, when he often watched his parents fight, sometimes physically. Crowell tells host Terry Gross that he sometimes had to protect his mother from his father's fists — a matter he addresses in "The Rock of My Soul."
"My father, in the course of his life, he redeemed himself over the long run," Crowell says. "But then, you have to understand that my mother and my father both came from violent families. [They were] sharecropping farm kids from Western Kentucky [and] Western Tennessee. Violence was very much a part of my mother's upbringing — a little less so with my father's, but my father was an angry man when he was young. He was angry and frustrated and had no idea how to channel anger."
Though his parents never separated and never divorced, Crowell says his parents spent a lot of time apart: His father played music and drank at local dive bars, while his mother spent much of her time worshipping at a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal church.
"My mother was apt to fall out on the floor and start speaking in tongues," Crowell says. "Actually, it was a great performance. ... It was great theater. As a 5-year-old, I understood that, although it scared me and there was a little part of me going, 'I don't know about this. This seems over-the-top to me.' At the same time, I did understand that this was passion."
Going To Nashville
In 1972, Crowell left East Texas and moved to Nashville to follow his own passion: songwriting. He quickly fell into a musical scene, where he met fellow songwriter Guy Clark, who offered him some sage advice.
"He said, 'Now, look, you can be a star or you can be an artist. You can be an artist and then become a star, but I don't think it works the other way around. But they're both okay. Pick one and get good at it,' " Crowell says. "Well, I knew he was an artist, so I said, 'I want to be an artist.' "
"[Clark] said, 'Listen to how good this is. You have to make your songs this good,' " Crowell says. "And it had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was being given to me, but eventually it gave me the intent that I wanted to try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness or museum-quality work. I'm not saying I've achieved museum quality, but if you're not swinging for museum quality or timelessness, then why bother?"
Related NPR Stories:
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, country music singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell has brought his guitar to play some songs that relate to his new memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks." Crowell has been successful in the worlds of country music and alternative music. His songs have been hits for many singers, including Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Tim McGraw.
Crowell's album "Diamonds and Dirt" was the first country album to have five consecutive number one singles. They included "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried" and "After All This Time."
Rodney Crowell was married to singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash for over 10 years, during which time his father-in-law was Johnny Cash. Crowell's new memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks," is his first book. It's about his childhood, growing up poor in East Houston. His father drank too much. His mother dragged him to Pentecostal church services, where she spoke in tongues. At age 11, Crowell became the drummer in his father's honky-tonk band.
Rodney Crowell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for bringing your guitar with you. Before we talk about your new memoir, I'm going to ask you to play a song from your latest album, and the album is called "Sex and Gasoline." On the album, you do this as a duet with Joe Henry, who produced the album, but I'm going to ask you to do the first part of the song and to do it solo for us. It's called "I've Done Everything I Can."
Mr. RODNEY CROWELL (Singer; Songwriter; Author, "Chinaberry Sidewalks"): Okay.
GROSS: And this is a song from a father's point of view, singing to a grown child?
Mr. CROWELL: It is. It is a father's advice, or it's actually a father's regret, I think, most of all, and written to my second-oldest daughter.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Done Everything I Can")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) I'd love to hear you laughing, love to see you smile, dance that little dance you danced when you were just a child. The way the world came at you left you bitter and confused. The more I tried to guide your path, the more you just felt used.
The sun comes up tomorrow, but there are no guarantees. It can rock you like a baby. It can knock you to your knees. The path that lies between us is a star-crossed avenue. I've done everything I can, or there's nothing I can do.
GROSS: That's such a beautiful song. Thanks for performing an excerpt of it. That's my guest, Rodney Crowell, and he has a new memoir. It's his first book. It's called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
You wrote this book largely about your parents and your relationship with them when you were growing up. And you wrote the book after your parents died.
And, you know, I often think that after your parents die, there's this need to re-examine the story of your life and to tell it to yourself in a way that you don't have to worry about offending your parents with certain memories. And I was wondering if you had that experience while writing that book, that there was a certain honesty in the way that you could tell the story to yourself or to others that you maybe couldn't have done before?
Mr. CROWELL: That's very true, but I did know the arc of the narrative, really, because my parents and I had redeemed all of the troubled times that had gone on earlier in life. So I knew that - where I was going with the story.
And my mother was a fearless woman, really, in the end, and I don't think she would have flinched at all of anything that I would reveal about the family.
But then again, you know, with them gone, you start to look back, and you can tell the story completely, without any fear of hurting them.
GROSS: You realized at some point that with your music career, you were living the life your father wanted to live. He had a band that never made it beyond the neighborhood honky-tonks, J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires.
When you were 11, he made you the drummer in the band. You say that was to save the expense of actually hiring a drummer. Did he do you a favor by making you the drummer as an 11-year-old? Did that help start you on the road to music, or was that a problem?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, I think it was a blessing in the long run because I learned a lot from my father, sitting back there for the - about a year that I played in that band.
And I don't think I ever really became an adequate musician, but, you know, he didn't care. He treated every performance that he gave as if he were on, you know, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
And you mentioned earlier, you know, in the beginning, your question was about, you know, my career had become what my father was never able to achieve. And honestly, I can say that it was my editor who actually started pointing out to me - he said hey, the story here is that your life actually became what your father dreamed of. And I hadn't really contextualized it for myself in that way.
GROSS: So when you were 11 and playing the honky-tonks with your father, what were they like?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, you can imagine. They were seedy dives. The ice houses in East Houston were basically beer joints with garage doors that -sliding garage doors that you open upward, and then there's a jukebox in there, and there's beer and tables. And they would generally - and a cement floor. Generally, they'd just move the tables out of the way, set the band up in the corner, and we would play, and people would dance. It was a dancing culture.
GROSS: Was it a fighting culture, too?
Mr. CROWELL: Fighting culture, oh, fighting was a big part of it. It was Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning redemption. That's basically the story of the Scots-Irish in East Houston.
GROSS: So you were 11 playing drums, like, did you have any idea what you were doing? You had no training.
Mr. CROWELL: I had no idea what I was doing. It was instinctive. And my father, he set me down one day. He brought a set of very, cheap, ragged, pawn-shop drums home and set them up in the living room, and my mother and I stood there.
I was an only child. We were standing there. What is he up to, you know? And he kind of sat down and said here's how it's done. He got some phone books and the kitchen chair and sat me down there and showed me what he had just done, and that was on a Tuesday.
And on Friday night, I was playing in a honky-tonk, or in actually a beer joint, and he was okay with that. You know, he was in his element.
Now, I did see a lot of things going on that were, you know, that an 11-year-old kid maybe shouldn't have been seeing, but I sort of understood this is human nature. These people are poor, and, you know, they don't have much in the way of a future coming at them. So they get what they can get what right now, and if it's drinking too much and fighting and then falling in love the next day, then that's the culture.
GROSS: And your family was poor.
Mr. CROWELL: My family was very poor. Strangely, though, my father was an enigma in that he was always working. He was not a ne'er-do-well. He wasn't lazy. He just couldn't hold on to money. It just, it was an enigma for him. He just, his pockets were always empty.
GROSS: Would you play a song that you love that you used to play when you were 11 in your father's band?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I learned this from my father, and I played it with him, and I actually recorded this song when - on one of my early albums when I started, just because, you know, it's something I learned from my father back in the honky-tonks.
(Soundbite of song "Old Pipeliner")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) I'm an old pipeliner, and I lay my line all day. I'm an old pipeliner, and I lay my line all day. I got little, bitty children just waitin' to draw my pay.
When you see me comin', better raise your window high. When you see me comin', better raise those windows high. And when you see me leavin', better hang your little head and cry.
I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an old pipeliner. Well, I'm an old pipeliner just waiting to draw my pay.
GROSS: Who wrote that?
Mr. CROWELL: Moon Mullican. He's an old piano-playing songwriter from, I think from somewhere around Houston. I may be wrong about that. But he's a Texas songwriter and a character from the - you know, maybe, you know, like a Bob Wills' peer, and he wrote that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rodney Crowell. He's a well-known songwriter and singer, and now he's an author, as well. He's written a memoir about his early life and his parents. It's called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
Your parents fought all the time when you were young, and one of the things they fought about is that your mother always accused your father of having whipped her across her belly when she was eight months pregnant with you, when she was standing naked in the bathtub.
And, you know, reading your memoir, I was thinking how disturbing it must have been to hear your mother say that your father whipped her when you were inside her, when you were a month away from being born.
Mr. CROWELL: It was. It's whipping me.
GROSS: Yeah, like whipping your unborn self.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, well, you can imagine that was troubling to me as a kid. And I must say that I chose to write about that again because my father, in the course of his life, no - you know, I had no hand in this, he redeemed himself over the long run. And as the book, you know, kind of reaches the place that I wanted it to go, he has redeemed himself.
But then, you've got to understand that my mother and my father both came from violent families, you know, sharecrop farm kids from Western Kentucky, Western Tennessee. Violence was very much a part of my mother's upbringing, a little less so to my father's, but my father was an angry man when he was young. He was angry and frustrated, and he had no idea how to channel anger.
And my mother, you know, the imprint that was - that she had about how to be a woman and how to be a wife was that you accept this. That's what happened to her mother. That's what happened to her grandmother.
And I think the beautiful thing about my mother and the reason I think she should be an inspiration to young women, is that over the course of her lifetime, she came to understand that no, those were bad directions she was given. And she found her way out of that in her own inimitable way.
GROSS: Can I ask you to play a song that you wrote that comes out of growing up with parents who fought a lot, and who not only argued, but physically fought?
Mr. CROWELL: Yes, I can play this song that comes straight from that experience. It's called "The Rock Of My Soul."
(Soundbite of song, "The Rock Of My Soul")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) The rock of my soul went to church on Sunday. The rock of my soul went to work on Monday clean across the levy by the railroad tracks, the other side of Houston in a two-room shack, sweeping out confetti from a third-grade classroom, the rock of my soul pushed a dust-mop broom.
And he said: Do like I say and not like I do, and you might make me proud, another Houston kid on a downhill skid for crying out loud.
I'm a firsthand witness to an age-old crime. A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime. Five, six, seven, eight, nine years old, that's what I remember about the rock of my soul. I told him I would kill him if he did not stop it, but the rock of my soul just would not drop it.
GROSS: That's great. That's my guest, Rodney Crowell, a song that he wrote, and that one's on his album "The Houston Kid." And now Rodney Crowell's written a new memoir called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
I'm so glad you brought your guitar with you and that you're singing for us. I really love your voice.
Mr. CROWELL: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, so we were talking about your parents and how they fought a lot. You know, we were talking about that before you played that song. But they stayed together. Did their relationship eventually mellow?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I would say the story to be told is - and I've often said this. If you and I were standing, and when my 18- and 19-year-old mother and father walked out the door to live their lives, and we were standing there as the adults we are now, we would look at each other and say: They'll never make it.
And yet they did. And it's only by love that they've made it, because they tried in every way to undo their bond, but it stayed, and they lasted a lifetime together.
GROSS: So you write about your parents in your memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks." There's a passage I want you to read that's about your mother. It's on page 50.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, okay.
GROSS: And your mother was a Pentecostal, very religious woman, but she also had a lot of physical problems, which you describe quite eloquently here.
Mr. CROWELL: I'll read that right now: Addie Cauzette arrived with the right side of her body partially paralyzed, the result, according to an old country doctor who didn't examine her until she was three, of a stroke suffered in her mother's womb.
So from birth, a pattern was set by which polio, acute dyslexia, epilepsy and the sudden death of an infant son and a subsequent case of whacked-out nerves would join a lengthy list of maladies assaulting young Cauzette well before her 20th birthday.
In the 74 years and nearly four months marking her time on what she called this crooked old Earth, my mother rarely drew a healthy breath. Still, to say that life wasn't fair for this awkwardly glib, yet deeply religious woman, would fail to take into account her towering instinct for survival.
Thanks to this primal urge to thrive, she would leave this world at peace with the knowledge that physical existence was something for which she was born ill-equipped. And I honor my mother by saying that it wasn't for lack of effort that an accommodation between her sensitive soul and the poorly fitting body she wore was so very hard to come by.
GROSS: That's a beautiful passage. That's Rodney Crowell, reading a passage from his memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks." Do you think her discomfort in her body and in the physical world related to the depth of her faith - of her faith in a spiritual world?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, my mother's a very spiritual woman, and I think Pentecostal religion, Bible religion, was very important to her because it gave her a context for a very spiritual approach to life. And I think, with a bit more education, she would have expanded upon that spirituality in such a way that - she was a woman of great compassion and great love, and at the same time, she could be, you know, brutal. She whipped me with a switch, you know. That was part of her understanding of doing the right thing. She was taught when she was young, you know, spare the rod and spoil the child. So she became an artist at whipping me with chinaberry switches. And I write about it.
And I write about it with humor, I think, because I don't hold it against her that she thought the way to make me into a good boy was to whip me every time I got out of line a little bit.
GROSS: So you describe your mother as a first-class amen sister. Describe what Pentecostal church services were like, with people speaking in tongues. And it sounds like you were dragged there by your mother, you didn't really want to go. So from your point of view, what did they look like?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, it was pretty dazzling, actually. It was very emotionally powerful to be, in the mid-1950s, in an un-air-conditioned church - Pentecostal church in East Houston. And when things really got - as they say in the religion, you know, when the spirit's moving in the house, and things really get going, you know, my mother was apt to fall out on the floor and start speaking in tongues.
And actually, it was a great performance. And I write about it as a performance to which, you know, these very charismatic preachers would vault down from the pulpit and kneel over this fallen woman on the floor who's speaking in this language that nobody understands.
Yet, he holds his hand up to the heavens and starts to decode what she's saying, and usually in the form of some form of Scripture or some kind of moral story. You know, it was basically, you know, a come-uppance for the congregation to, you know, hold everybody in line. But it was great theater.
GROSS: Did you know any of the things that the pastor said that God was trying to tell her?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, I can't remember. I'm sure that - you know, I remember Brother Pemberton(ph), you know, telling us that, you know, he had this great thing that he would do, which he would - you know, in the middle of his sermons - I was more a fan of Brother Pemberton. In the middle of his sermons, he would start to falter in front of us, you know, and have to loosen his necktie. And it would be because of our sins and how bad we were all being. He was trying to negotiate with God to save all of our lives and to keep us from going to hell, and that's hard work.
You know, and here he is, man, he's working hard at this, and he's having to loosen his tie, and he's falling down in the pulpit, and he can't breathe, and everybody's going: Oh, no, no, he's not going to make it. And the drama just starts to come to this crescendo. And then suddenly, you know, the white dove of peace figuratively flies into the room, and you realize: Oh, he's not going to die. He's going to make it. He's going to come back.
And then when he comes back, he comes back with a message, saying: I've seen the hem of the garment of the great one, and he tells me if you go onto the streets and tell everybody what you've witnessed here, that all will be absolved.
You know, later, as an adult, I realized: God, that's perfect. You know, we were all seeing him sort of, you know, live through that. And so yeah, we run out on the streets and say: Hey, you've got to come over where we are, man. We've got it going on here. That's, you know, that's the way Evangelical Christianity works really good. I mean, you can set the hook that way.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Chinaberry Sidewalks." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) Till you been beside a man, you don't know what he wants You don't know if he cries at night...
GROSS: Now, your mother had epileptic seizures. That was one of her problems. And there was a period when the women of the church saw that as a sign that she had been overtaken by the devil, and they thought that what they needed to do was perform an exorcism.
Mr. CROWELL: That's true.
GROSS: Which they did, and which you witnessed.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I witnessed it.
GROSS: Would you describe what you witnessed?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, it was six women coming into our house. And I describe them as they were all - they all wore those square-toed, square-heeled ladies' shoes and, like, World War II business suits and had their hair tied in bun. And they came in, and I describe them as -and they look like, to me - now this would be the benefit of my adult self looking back at them - they looked like a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Ayn Rand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CROWELL: They did. And they come in, and so they immediately announce that my mother's - this epilepsy thing that keeps her, you know, life from blooming is because she's possessed by the devil, in which they start basically a exorcism on her through prayer - faith prayer, and which ultimately leads to her - they kind of induce a seizure, or she obliges this whole thing by going into a very, very intense grand mal seizure, over which these women pray and chant. You know, they call the devil a liar, and I finally wind up - I'm so caught up in it - I get in there with them and start shouting that the devil's a liar.
And then they get her to spit the devil out on the floor, you know, spit her out. You know, they - you know, she's demanding and commanding the devil to come out of my mother's mouth in the form of a puddle of spit, which she does. It winds up on the floor. And then after all this is over, they just kind of abruptly, well, you know, my mother sort of - she finishes her seizure, and they go out to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and tell me to clean it up. So it's kind of a funny little remembrance of mine, what I went through to clean the devil off the floor.
GROSS: So the exorcism didn't work. I mean, your mother continued to have epileptic seizures, right?
Mr. CROWELL: She sure did.
GROSS: Did that make her at all cynical about either exorcisms or her faith or the women who performed the exorcism?
Mr. CROWELL: I don't think so. I don't think it made her cynical at all. I don't think my mother was capable of cynicism. I think that she was so obliging to these ladies, and I think she loved the attention. And, you know, they were ministering over her. They were bringing God into her living room. And you know what? If the prayer didn't get the devil out of her, then it wasn't God's will, you know? And she kept on with her -truthfully, you know, I'll tell you the truth about this. My mother's epilepsy stopped when I absolutely refused to be a part of it again. I just told her with curse words that I had had enough of it, and the next time, she could die. I didn't care. I'd had enough. And funnily enough, that was the end of that.
So, you know, someone, you know, who works in the psychological field, they could look at this and say, hmm. You know, it's like there was an on/off switch with these. And I think it was - my mother was deeply troubled emotionally for a long time, and I think it manifested in very violent seizures. Now that's not to say that she didn't - you know, she wasn't stricken with the disease of epilepsy. But, you know, I know - I witnessed it enough to know that there was something deeply psychological about how she turned it on and turned it off. And when I said no more, that was it.
GROSS: Well, have you ever written a song that comes out of this period of your life or that comes out of, like, your mother's faith?
Mr. CROWELL: I recently wrote a song for my mother. It's the kind of song that she would've wanted to hear from me. And I think that wherever she is, you know, wherever her soul travels on this day or the day that I wrote this song, I'm sure that it reached her and she was happy.
(Soundbite of song "Jesus Talk To Mama")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) Jesus, talk to mama. Tell her I'm all right. Tell her that I'm on the mend. Tell her that I'm in your hand. Tell her that the future's looking bright. Do this, won't you, Jesus? I never meant to stray. Jesus, talk to mama. Tell her that we'll meet again some day.
Jesus, if you hear me, take a message to my ma. Tell her that I'm on the mend. Tell her that I'm in your hand. Tonight, I beat the devil to the draw. All I'm really asking is to tell her I found you. Jesus, talk to mama. Tell her that her wandering days are through.
GROSS: Great song. That's Rodney Crowell, a recent song of his, performed for us in the studio. And after writing so many songs, recorded by many people, now he's written a memoir. It's called "Chinaberry Sidewalks," and it's about growing up, and it's about his parents.
GROSS: In your memoir, you reproduce a business card from one of your band members in one of the first bands you ever played in when you were a teenager.
Mr. CROWELL: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: I think you're still in high school. The band was called The Arbitrators, and the business card said: The English sound, the surf beat, rhythm and blues, country if you want it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CROWELL: Right. Yeah. Well...
GROSS: Why did the country have a little disclaimer there?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, you know, it's - you know, we've always been the stepchild to it all, you know? There's a certain, you know, the hayseed oh, we're not as intelligent as the rest of mainstream and, you know, all of the things that we've tried to live down. And, you know, that's just proof that all the way back in a teenage rock and roll band that I had, that we could play - we - I loved country music back then. I loved Hank Williams. Hank Williams was my first idol. But, you know, we had that little disclaimer that, well, we'll play it if you want it, you know. And it's - you know, country music has come a long way since then.
GROSS: When you started performing professionally in Nashville, writing country songs and, you know, recording them yourself, other people recording them, did you know where you fit? Did you see yourself as fitting any particular genre of country music? You know, oh, I'm going to be a country outlaw, or I'm going to be - I think it was before the expression "alt," like alt-country, alternative country. Like, where did you see yourself fitting in? Certainly not like the rhinestone Nudie country performer.
Mr. CROWELL: I was lucky in that I arrived in Nashville with my college roommate Donivan Cowart. We were both songwriters, and we were a singing duo. And we fancied ourselves songwriters, but we didn't yet - we weren't formed yet. When I arrived, I just was lucky in that I fell into a musical scene that, the great Guy Clark, great American songwriter, was pretty much the curator of what was good. And Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury were Guy's good friends, and Guy took a liking to me and just kind of took me under his arm. He said something to me early on that has always stuck with me. He said, he says, now look. He says you can be a star, or you can be an artist. He said you can be an artist and become a star, he says, but I don't think that it works the other way around. He says, but they're both okay. Pick one, and get good at it.
Well, I knew he was an artist, you know, so I said, I want to be an artist. I want to be an artist. So he said, okay, you know. So he sat me down and started playing Dylan Thomas reading his poetry - some Dylan Thomas recordings - and he says okay, listen to this. Listen to how good this is. You've got to make your songs this good. It had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was being given me. But eventually, it gave me the intent that I wanted to try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness, or museum-quality work. You know, I'm not saying that I've achieved museum quality. But if you're not swinging for museum quality or timeless, then why bother? That's been the driving force for me.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to sing a song for us that you wrote early in your career. You recorded this in the 1970s, in the late '70s, and I think it's one of the first recordings that you made. And the song I'm going to ask you to do is "'Til I Can Gain Control Again." Can you talk a little bit about writing this, and if you thought of this as an autobiographical song and what was going on in your life when you wrote it?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, this would continue from what I was just telling you about, my relationship with Guy Clark, that Guy Clark - Townes Van Zandt is widely known as one of the most beautiful poets of songwriting. You know, his songwriting exists as just pure poetry - beautiful, beautiful songwriter. Unfortunately, he died young. And I just wanted to write something good enough for Guy to continue believing in me and also to get Townes Van Zandt's acknowledgment. And - because, you know, with Townes, you weren't going to get it unless you earned it. And this song, I think - you know, memory being revisionist, I think this was the one where Townes sort of looked at me and said oh, okay. You can stick around for a while.
(Soundbite of song, "'Til I Can Gain Control Again")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) Just like the sun over the mountaintops, you know I'll always come again. You know I love to spend my morning time like sunlight dancing on your skin. I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you. What you've seen is what I've been. There is nothing that I could hide from you. Now you see me better than I can. Out on the road that lies before me now, there are some turns where I will spin. I only hope that you can hold me now, hold me now, 'til I can gain control again, 'til I can gain control again.
GROSS: That's such a beautiful song. Thanks for playing that for us.
That's my guest, Rodney Crowell.
And how many people have recorded that song?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, quite a few. I've lost track. You know, Johnny -Crystal Gayle had the number one record of it, but Emmylou Harris recorded it first - Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. Oh, gosh - This Mortal Coil, Van Morrison, Raul Malo. Gosh, there's just so many. It's been recorded - I guess it's my - it's either that one or "Ain't Living Long Like This" is my most covered song, I think. I'm guessing.
GROSS: You mentioned one of the people who recorded it was Johnny Cash, who was your father-in-law for about 10 years when you were married to Rosanne Cash in the '80s. And I just have one question about that. You know, I'm sure he was so iconic to you when you were growing up. So, like, what's it like to have someone who had been an icon in your life suddenly be your - like, your father-in-law?
Mr. CROWELL: My relationship with John was - it was a blessing in my life. First of all, he was the first superstar I was ever around. And when I first showed up on the scene, you know, being - just starting out, you know, just getting some songs recorded and starting to go around and play and, you know, making a little bit of money. I had a little bit of self-respect. But when I first came into the family, into the entourage, there were a lot - you had to - there was a gauntlet you had to get through, a lot of sycophants; a lot of people were around who their lives were, they thrive, you know, like a swarm of bees around that fame.
And so when I first came in, I was hell-bent to earn respect. And so maybe I went over the top a little bit. You know, I was - I had a little chip on my shoulder, and I thought: I'm trying to establish that, you know, I'm not just some golddigger coming around here. I'm actually a real artist. And, you know, and I think it sort of warmed John's heart. And I think he understood what I was trying to do. I think it was refreshing to him, and he opened up to me right away and he didn't try to stop me kind of going overboard and kind of having this attitude like hey, you know, I'm cool. He just let me do it until I realized on my own is, hey, he accepted me from day one.
GROSS: Did Johnny Cash get along with your father?
Mr. CROWELL: John met my father, I think, once or twice. Certainly, when Rosanne and I got married in California, my father was there. And actually, he and John got up and they both sang songs at the same time, together. And it was - of course, you can understand, for my father, it was, you know, he was floating on air. He was dancing with Hollywood starlets, and he was having the time of his life. It was good. It was good to see. He had - his step was light that night.
GROSS: Wow. You know, at the end of your memoir, your new memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks," you write that becoming a father helped spark a reconciliation with your parents, because your children became so close with - well, I guess with your mother. You know, your children became very close with your mother.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, they did.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: So did you start to see your childhood differently, too, becoming a father?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah. I started - when I became a father, I slowly began to understand that I was making some of the same mistakes that they made. It's, you know, it's part of parenthood. You just make mistakes. And I learned, you know, it's like, it's one thing to be guilty, but, you know, you can be guilty without really being to blame. It's like our childhood, sometimes it's just the imprint that it gives us, it takes us a long time to live our way out of it.
And I think by the time my children started arriving and I saw my parents loving them and I saw them just drinking in that love, and I started to realize, you know, the anger that I, you know, and the distance and the coldness that I wanted to keep, that little protection that I thought I needed to wear or to sort, you know, to wear like an armor, I realized I didn't need it. I just needed to forgive.
And, you know, when you start - when forgiveness starts, you've got to start with yourself, you know? And as a parent, I had to learn to forgive myself, because I was constantly making mistakes, and it would become really obvious. Oh, okay. You've - I learn to forgive myself and lo and behold, I'm forgiving my beloved parents.
GROSS: I'd like you to end with a song, if you wouldn't mind playing for us "I Know Love Is All I Need." And maybe you could tell us about writing it and introduce it for us.
Mr. CROWELL: I can tell you about it. I was making a record called "The Houston Kid." And I started writing "The Houston Kid," and I really started tinkering with the notion that I could write a memoir around the same time I was writing the songs. And the songs - "The Houston Kid" songs were basically musical memoir, although I took a lot of poetic license and I kind of made the environment that I grew up, the part of east Houston, a character in the songs.
But then one night, I had this really vivid dream from my parents. They came to visit me and sat me down in this dream and said, hey, well, we like this record you're making, but you're not telling the whole story. And I said something sort of flip in my dream like oh, yeah? Well, enlighten me, then. And they gave me this information. I don't know what it was. It looked to me, you know, it looked like digital encoding. But I woke up and wrote this down. And it came out like this.
(Soundbite of song, "I Know Love Is All I Need")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) So I'm an orphan now, out here on my own, and it's hard to know where I belong. It comes as no surprise. It happens to us all. Just like the sun will rise and night will fall.
Oh, I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. That's all I know.
An image I recall, a picture on the wall, of my mother on her wedding day. Young and naive, nothing up her sleeve, but the things that just got lost along the way.
Oh, I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. That's all I know.
There's a voice I hear. It comes in loud and clear. It's my father's voice teaching me. He says to be a man, you've got to be true to your word. Then when you make a stand, you'll be heard.
Oh, I know love is all I need. Oh, I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. That's all I know.
I can see it in my children. I can feel it with my wife. And I know it with these friends I have who are so important to my life.
I had a dream last night. I saw my ma and dad. They were happy now, and I was glad. They had this brand new house that they'd just moved in, and when I awoke they were gone.
But I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. That's all I know.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell, thank you so much. This was really wonderful. I really, really appreciate the singing and playing that you did for us and talking about your life. Thank you.
Mr. CROWELL: Thank you.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell's new memoir is called "Chinaberry Sidewalks." He's currently on tour. You can read an excerpt of his book on our website: freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.