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POP MUSIC

That Haunted Feeling

For decades, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell's goal was to make a landmark album about his hardscrabble childhood. He didn't feel up to the task--until now.

February 25, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

For nearly a quarter-century, Rodney Crowell has been hailed as a songwriter's songwriter whose finely detailed, character-rich songs have been recorded by such respected country, pop and rock artists as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt and the Grateful Dead.

He's even had chart-topping success of his own over the course of 11 albums, peaking in 1988 when his breakthrough "Diamonds & Dirt" collection spawned a record five straight No. 1 country singles.

Through it all, however, the Texas native was haunted by the feeling that he still hadn't delivered the kind of landmark album that would deserve a place on a shelf with the best works of his personal heroes, including Cash and Bob Dylan.

He's had the germ of an idea for such an album in mind for close to half his life--a work that would draw on his childhood years as "poor white trash" in east Houston, the only child of an alcoholic musician father and a loving, abused mother. But lack of major-label support, coupled with his own trepidation about embarking on such a project, kept Crowell from ever truly swinging for the fences.

Until now.

His new album, "The Houston Kid," tells his story through a batch of largely autobiographical songs that unearth both the heartache and the humor he finds in his life, looking back through the prism of three or four decades' distance.

"The Houston Kid," which came out earlier this month on Sugar Hill Records, is by far the most consistent and deeply personal album Crowell has ever recorded, rife with penetrating yet often noncritical observations about his parents and people like them, whose inadequacies often wreak havoc on those they love.

Crowell feels so strongly about the album, which he financed himself, that he is frequently rerouting his travel plans to talk to interviewers about it face to face rather than over the phone. It's part of the extra mile he's willing to go to demonstrate that "The Houston Kid" is far more than just the latest Rodney Crowell album. (In addition, there's a companion film documentary he's assembling, as well as a memoir he's started writing.)

What took so long?

"Man, when somebody started writing checks for me to make records, I was like, 'Yessuh . . . I'll do everything I can to make you happy,' " he says.

"The problem with that is that it took having nothing left to lose for me to finally have the scenario where I could do what I'd always wanted to do: to make a record where I could sit down with [anyone] and say, 'This is me. I'm proud of this, and this is what I'm capable of doing.' "

*

Spousal abuse. Domestic violence. Dysfunctional family.

Those topics are central to "The Houston Kid," but you won't find those terms in any of the songs.

Catch phrases make for wretched song lyrics, and the man who wrote such contemporary country classics as " 'Til I Gain Control Again" and "I Ain't Living Long Like This" treasures clear, evocative lyrics.

Here's some of the fittingly unvarnished language Crowell uses to write about his father in "The Rock of My Soul."

The rock of my soul didn't have much charm

With the lack of education on a red dirt farm

He was fond of disappearing on an eight-day drunk

Coming home smelling like a lowdown skunk

"My parents were really good people, but they were crazy," Crowell, 50, says after settling in at a corner table at a Santa Monica restaurant, barely two hours off a plane from Nashville.

"It was lack of education, insecurity and the fact that both were sons and daughters of sharecroppers. Wife-beaters. It's domestic violence now, but where they came from it was wife-beaters. Old drunk wife-beaters," he says. "My grandfather was a deacon in the church, led the singing, and he was a drop-dead alcoholic and a wife-beater."

He tells the story as a story, not as a shameful or boastful confession from his life. It's the perceptive artist, not a long-ago wounded child, who speaks easily, compassionately, even humorously about his parents' shortcomings, recalling them lovingly, if wistfully, three years after his mother's death and 13 years after his father's.

He hasn't eaten all day, but still orders light--just a bowl of tortilla soup and a margarita--so he won't spoil his dinner with his wife of 2 1/2 years, singer-actress-painter Claudia Church, who's in L.A. studying acting.

They're looking for a place to live--they're eyeballing Santa Monica and Venice--which will make L.A. home to Crowell for the first time since he called Redondo Beach home in the late '70s and early '80s, after leaving Emmylou Harris' Hot Band to launch a solo career.

*

The oldest song on "The Houston Kid" is "The Banks of the Old Bandera," which he wrote in 1976, but the seed for the project was planted about 20 years earlier.

Crowell, just 5 1/2, was on a fishing trip with his father and grandfather when Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" came on the radio of his dad's '49 Ford and hit him so hard that it put him on the path for a life in music.

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