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NOT-SO-PRIVATE LIVES : What's Next for Rodney Crowell After his Much-Publicized Divorce From Rosanne Cash?

April 01, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

' Can I have your autograph ?' he said,

To the fat, blond actress.

Y'know, I know everything you've done;

Anyway, I hate divorces.

--From "New Age" by the Velvet Underground


Rodney Crowell isn't fat, blond or an over-the-hill thespian, but one suspects he can relate to the protagonist of that old Velvets classic, whose fans know more about her intimate life than she might prefer. The song's author, Lou Reed, later put out an album called "Growing Up in Public." Crowell could probably record one called "Breaking Up in Public."

Actually, Crowell's ex-wife, Rosanne Cash, already has done her version of that album, except that it has taken her two records to do it. "Interiors," one of the best albums of 1990, depicted the emotional turmoil of a marriage in trouble. Cash's just-issued "The Wheel" is another somber meditation on love in flames. It carries the action forward as she seeks to understand what went wrong and strives to emerge whole after a split.

Cash is too much the artist to name names, but it's virtually impossible not to take her songs as confessional meditations on the breakup of her 12-year marriage to Crowell. The tone of the two albums conveys the deep pain of somebody who has been through an emotional wringer, but it avoids bitterness and accusations, even as it alludes to instances of male infidelity. A tone of hurt reproach is about as far as Cash goes in her songs.

In a recent interview in Musician magazine, she said she still had loving feelings for her former husband, and that they carried out the split on good terms.

Crowell, who emerged as a versatile, respected songwriter during his mid-'70s stint in Emmylou Harris' band, hasn't kept his silence artistically on the subject. His 1992 album, "Life Is Messy," wasn't entirely about the split, since it included a few jaunty rockers about guys on the prowl for women.

But it also referred to his marital troubles. The soaring ballad, "Alone but Not Alone" was Crowell's own take on the pain of the breakup--"While you rise from the ashes, I free-fall in the dark." Crowell delivered it with the touch of Roy Orbison-like poignancy that he sometimes musters for a heartbroken ballad.

In the album's title song, Crowell vented his discomfort at having his life laundered openly.

Life is messy, it's starting to distress me.

They sell it in the press, they smell it on your breath,

But you keep on coming clean.

It will be interesting to see whether Crowell will follow Cash's lead and go in for a second round of "coming clean" about the divorce on his next album.

In Cash's case, two full albums on the subject was more than enough. While "The Wheel" has its excellent moments, and no shortage of Cash's characteristic intense self-probing, one wishes that she would move on to other moods and other themes.

Lately, Crowell has been trying at least one new approach: Accustomed to having a full band behind him for his robust blend of country and roots-rock, he has been playing recent concerts in a duo format, accompanied only by a guitarist. On his current round of dates, including the two nights at the Crazy Horse, he will be backed by John Jorgenson, the superb Desert Rose Band alumnus.

Crowell won his first acclaim as the songwriter behind hits like "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" by the Oak Ridge Boys (Harris does a beautiful rendition as well), Waylon Jennings' "Ain't Living Long Like This," Crystal Gayle's " 'Til I Gain Control Again" and "Shame on the Moon" by Bob Seger.

His own solo recording career began in 1978, but he fell into the worthy-but-overlooked category until 1988, when the album "Diamonds & Dirt" gave him a long-sought commercial breakthrough. It yielded five No. 1 country hits, including the Grammy-winning ballad, "After All This Time."

Crowell's next album, "Keys to the Highway," was similar in approach, drawing on honky-tonk and '50s rock traditions. With "Life Is Messy," he tried a new approach, working with producers John Leventhal and Larry Klein, both know for an ultra-clean, smoothly shimmering folk-pop sound.

In addition to finding out whether Crowell has more to say about his marriage and its aftermath, it will be interesting to see what direction his next record takes stylistically.

Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

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