The country-music industry has Rodney Crowell pegged as a born-again twanger, but that has nothing to do with his religious beliefs.
Crowell got "born again" in April, when the Academy of Country Music dubbed him the best new male country singer of 1988. Crowell, who plays Sunday at the Coach House, certainly was worthy of some kind of recognition: His 1988 album, "Diamonds & Dirt," is an excellent record that has spun off four No. 1 country singles. It's just that "Diamonds & Dirt" was the fifth album by the Houston, Tex., native, whose recording career, dating back to 1978, was hardly born yesterday.
Crowell's impact on country music goes back even farther than that: he first emerged in 1975 as a guitarist and key songwriter for Emmylou Harris. As a songwriter, Crowell turned out such country hits as "Ain't Living Long Like This," a signature song for Waylon Jennings, and the Oak Ridge Boys' "Leaving Louisiana." Over the past 10 years, Crowell also has produced virtually all of the recordings by his wife, Rosanne Cash.
If Crowell qualifies as a country-music newcomer, then Willie Nelson's guitar qualifies as fresh off the showroom floor.
But Crowell never was pure country, which may have rankled the country-music orthodoxy in an era when music--especially music on the radio--tends to be shrink-wrapped into strictly formatted packaging.
Crowell was no easy fit because he liked to play rock 'n' roll as well as country. Rocker Bob Seger had a big hit with one of Crowell's ballads, "Shame on the Moon," and Crowell's own records showed a firm grounding in the seminal rock 'n' roll of Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. At a time when the forces that market music were concentrating on segmentation, Crowell had a praiseworthy, but commercially iffy commitment, to synthesis.
Before starting work on "Diamonds & Dirt," Crowell, 38, decided to stop bucking commercial logic and adapt to some of the conventions of the marketplace.
"I did make a commitment about working within the parameters of what country music is, and try to be a success there," Crowell said in a recent interview from his manager's office in Nashville. "Before, I'd stayed in between. I'd vacillated between every format of music. I would have a little bit of success on pop radio, then a little bit of success on country radio. I just came to the realization that if I was going to consolidate an audience, I had to have a window to the world. You know what the window is: it's radio."
So Crowell made "Diamonds & Dirt," an album that country radio could cotton to. It has sighing steel guitars, some nice fiddle accents, a bit of Western swing and honky-tonk, and a good deal of lively, rockin' country that's heavier on the country than the rock.
Crowell also tried to achieve a directness and simplicity that he says may have been lacking on previous releases because the record producer in him wanted to dab on interesting sonics that tended to encroach on the singer in him. The result was an album that has stayed high on the country-music charts for well over a year--and an Academy of Country Music award that Crowell realizes has its ironies.
"I have to admit in the past that I'd always been a bit snobby about awards," Crowell said. He said his attitude was, " 'That's not what being an artist is about. Awards? Come on.' But it's funny how when you get in the middle of something, you start rationalizing and make your own peace with it. Ultimately, I figured that people in the academy knew I'd been around, and that (best new male singer) was a category they could use to acknowledge the good work I'd done in the past."
Struggling to overcome music-industry indifference is always hard on a performer's psyche. Crowell said that for him, it was compounded by the fact that his wife's star rose much more quickly than his own.
"When Rosanne was doing better than me, you bet I was being competitive," he said. "Career-wise, things were working better for her and I didn't like it, and I acted accordingly. I love the fact that now we're on equal footing. It's made me 10 times more fun to be around."
Actually, Crowell said, it was around the time of his 1986 album, "Street Level," that he learned to let go of his jealousy.
"I accepted the fact that what she was doing was just fine, and there was nothing wrong with me because my process was taking longer than hers. My sick competition turned into a more creative competition."
A few years ago, the strains in the Crowell-Cash marriage (she is Johnny Cash's daughter) proved strong enough to wear grooves into vinyl. In 1985, Cash came forward with "Rhythm & Romance," a largely confessional album that centered on the rocky state of her marriage (she and Crowell have four children, one of them by Crowell's previous marriage).
Crowell says the directness of his wife's songs came as a shock, and he wound up distancing himself from "Rhythm & Romance," producing only three songs on the album.