Rodney Crowell’s New Book ‘Word for Word’ Chronicles His Songs + Life With Trademark Humor [Interview]
Jerry Jeff Walker once stole Rodney Crowell's dog — but he didn't get away with it.
That's just one of the stories Crowell shares in his new book, Word for Word, which dropped on Tuesday (Sept. 13) via BMG Books. The iconic singer-songwriter has gathered the lyrics to a vast cross-section of 150 of his songs in one place for the new book, and he connects the dots between the songs and his life in a series of written vignettes that share glimpses into his songwriting process, his life and his career with his inimitable mix of dry wit and observational humor.
His story of Walker's attempted canine theft is one of a series of anecdotes that share glimpses into Crowell's personal journey through his early struggles, the peak of his Nashville stardom and his later decision to focus exclusively on his own tastes at the expense of larger commercial success. He shares the lyrics to many of his best-known songs, some lesser-known works and even some unreleased songs that fans have not heard, providing a fascinating look inside the work process of one of the most meticulous and revered songwriters in Nashville history. The book is illustrated with a series of candid photos, pro shots, handwritten lyrics and more, featuring a cover shot from Marty Stuart.
Crowell comes across much the same way in conversation as he does in print; his easygoing manner and self-deprecating humor have a way of making an interviewer forget they're talking to a musical legend and relax into a conversation that does not feel like an advertisement for whatever new project he's promoting. The songwriting icon called back about ten minutes after we left a voice mail message about his scheduled interview, sheepishly admitting that while the conversation was on his schedule, "somehow it came across the desk I wasn't sitting at. How can I help you?"
Taste of Country: This is a very, very ambitious project. How did you conceive this project? And how long has it been in the works?
Rodney Crowell: Strangely, not that long. Having written a memoir that took me 10 years to write, this happened really quickly. It was like a weather pattern that just formed, but sometime last fall, for no reason that I can really point to, it just popped into my head to document this 45 years of writing lyrics. "You can do it," you know, is what I said to myself. "You've got something to say."
I immediately said, "I could try to write a little prose to go with it, too, which would be fun for me. I enjoy that." Strangely, I like the singular experience of sitting down, trying to put sentences together that actually work. And so, I set about, and you know, I've never been a really careful archivist of my own work. But I have notebooks going back to the early 1970s. I did manage to hang onto those, for no good reason other than they just made it from one house to the next. I had a lot of raw material, and I've found that once I start one of these projects, they seem to take on a life of their own and get themselves made despite my lack of any really admirable work ethic, although I do enjoy working. I'm working all the time, but I never pat myself on the back for having some focused intentionality about my work. I just enjoy it.
How many total songs do you have that you've had recorded? And how do you winnow down to the ones that are in the book?
I don't know how many songs I have recorded. Depending on who you talk to, I may have 20 albums, and maybe have been part of 22 or 24 ... I don't know how many. I can't seem to get past the first three in order to count them up on my fingers. But I just went with the ones that I like, and I started.
I have a section in there called "Chart Toppers," which is the more well-known songs, the hit songs that I've written. I certainly didn't want to lead with that, because I don't think that's really my modus operandi. So, I started with songs that I'm proud of, and things that I think that I succeeded in saying in my own unique way. That was the beginning, and of course, I needed to steer the narrative toward the well-known songs. If that's what you want to know about me, you might get frustrated with me in the beginning, because I'm gonna make you sit through what I want you to sit through to get to the better-known songs. I guess I'm selfish that way. (Laughs).
You've been famously critical of your own work. Not dismissive, but you don't seem to relish or have a real pridefulness about a lot of your own work, because you're still revising so much of it. Going through your own work a song at a time like this, does it give you any new perspective on the different eras of your own career?
Yeah. I'm a lot more thorough now. Certainly, when I was younger and inexperienced, I would tap into the inspiration that would hit me, you know, sort of like the lightning bolt or, you know, catching it in a bottle or whatever. With "Shame on the Moon," I draw attention to three different versions of it, because I wasn't happy with the last verse, and I explain why that happened. And a backstory leading up to the song, which is probably my most successful — not the most recorded, but probably, you know, it was No. 2 on the pop charts for six weeks or so.
But, you know, I will say I'm known for being ... I don't know if "hypercritical" is right, but I'm known for being critical of my own early work. But if you notice, I was rarely critical of the songwriting; in fact, I said I developed rather early as a songwriter. By the time I was 23, 24, I was writing songs that are still being performed today. Where my criticism of myself came is in my ability to record them up to the level that I thought they should be. And that's been over the course of the last 20 years, I felt pretty at home with that part of it, having written a memoir and spending a long time and working with an editor and learning a lot of revision, revision, revision, revision, revision, ad nauseam. My songwriting is a lot more thorough in my rhyming, my hard rhymes. I work a lot harder to make sure that the rhymes are really solid rhymes, not any of what we call soft rhymes.
I do notice that that's inspiration through hard work. Whereas when I was younger, you know, those bolts came out of the blue and I wrote songs that were ... if I could get that burst of inspiration now, I would do a much more formidable job of writing songs, but it doesn't mean it would be any better. (Laughs).
That's a thing that almost every serious artist is going to struggle with to a certain degree, isn't it? I can remember seeing an interview with Paul Simon saying he thinks that Simon and Garfunkel is terrible.
Yeah, well, I'd argue with him about that. But you know, Paul Simon would be one of the artists that I would point to, in terms of the arc of my career; the way Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen ... I don't know if they got better, but they didn't get worse.
They certainly continued to evolve, right?
Yeah, continued to evolve. Bob Dylan always has something for me when he comes up with something. And Paul Simon has been that way. I love Paul Simon's later work. I understand that to stay creative and keep that carrot out in front of you, you can't settle for satisfaction. Dissatisfaction is a better motivator for me than satisfaction is.
You have an interesting quote in the book that you attributed elsewhere, but it says art is never finished, only abandoned. And I found that really a fascinating sort of observation, because it's true. At some point, you have to say, "This is going to be released." But that doesn't mean you're done dealing with it.
There's a story that some lady was cruising through the National Museum in Spain, and Picasso's over in the corner working on one of his canvases from 30 years back, and the caretaker says, "Oh, that's Picasso ... he works here." [Laughs]. I don't know if that story is true, but it illustrated the process for me.
There are some really fascinating prose interludes in this book, just some sort of connective tissue about the songs, and one of the one of the most interesting anecdotes is that Jerry Jeff Walker once stole your dog.
Well, he didn't steal my dog successfully. [Laughs].
Right, he failed to steal your dog, which is actually a better story.
Thanks to Dave Loggins! Who called me. [Laughs]. I guess he was still carrying on with Jerry Jeff after I faded. But I caught him, and also, that couldn't happen today. It was the old Nashville Airport. 12 gates. I left my car running at the front entrance and ran down the hallway and caught Jerry before he got on the plane. Got my dog back. [Laughs].
That's just one of those great, only-in-Nashville stories.
You can't make this s--t up! [Laughs].
Do you derive the same sort of satisfaction from prose as you do for working on songs? Or is it different?
Prose is not my natural medium. But my love of words gives me the stamina to outlast liability until I finally get there. And of course, with a really great editor, which I've lucked into, the blinders come off and you start to understand, 'I see what I'm trying to get.'
And I love to work; to get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and sit down and either by hand or get in front of a computer and start to revise. I love the work. I just love the work, and it's how songwriting is for me. Ask my wife; when I'm up in the morning, I'm working on songs. And you know, the unfinished song is a blessing, because it brings you back to work. Not comparing myself to Picasso or or Renoir or whoever; the thing of it is, that you look into their life, you realize that they became who they were because they stayed at work. Right? So, the work is the actual blessing, not what comes from that. If we get some money, we need the money, and thank heavens, I haven't had to worry about that. But to me, the real blessing is the day's work.
What is your hope for this book? What do you hope it will accomplish for those who read it?
There seems to be a group of people out there ... I can't really judge their size. You know, if superstardom or even stardom is your measuring stick, then that's not where I am. But if you're a working artist who gets to do their work and has enough of an audience to sustain the job? I think those people will enjoy a peek inside the songs.
Mind you, there are songs in the collection that if I wanted to rain on your parade, I could poke holes in maybe some things that someone really likes. "It's Such a Small World" included, and I'm still working on that one. And that was the first No. 1 off of Diamonds & Dirt. So, there you go.
Is there anything else you want to say about the book that we haven't covered?
There's some good photography, snapshots and some professional-style observational photography. There's some art paintings and things. There's a letter from Kris Kristofferson that I had to include, and something else that Harlan Howard wrote for me in there, and [ex-wife] Rosanne [Cash] wrote an introduction to the section of our songs that we collaborated on together. And there's a really great collection of blurbs from an odd assortment of folks that weighed in on this.
I had fun. You know, I suppose I have a right to claim that I have a right to have a lyric book. It doesn't matter. I decided I wanted one. I made it. And there it is. [Laughs].
I thoroughly enjoyed it, for one. So, there's that.
Thanks! Good man. That's one down and 74 to go! [Laughs].