“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. And this is Rodney Crowell.
Rodney Crowell: This is a song that I wrote after I, I was in New York City in the dead of winter, and my daughter was maybe 12 at the time, and we were feeding homeless people. And we walked up to this one particular fella, and, and his pants were torn. He had some old shoes on. He had no socks, and he really had no coat, and I had a pretty thick coat. And I offered him my coat. And I told my daughter, I said, “This is what we need to do for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.” So, I was kind of showing off for my daughter, and I offered this fella my coat, and he stood up very tall, and he says, “No, thank you. These choices are my own.” And it turned into this song. [Sings] “The New York City winter comes / In cold gray sheets of steel. / A numbness in his hands and feet / Is all that he can feel. / Alcohol and sterno turns a doorway to a bed. / And the ghost of who he might have been / Lives on inside his head. / In a canyon made of brownstone / On a sidewalk icy black, / He wanders nearly barefoot / With his righteousness intact, / A man of many mansions in a cardboard box replete, / And he lies sleeping with an angel / While his heart pretends to beat. / Ah, the wind blows down on Lonely Street / Like an ice pick through the air / Amidst the Sunday Times and the coffee grinds / And the winos in Times Square. / Five flights up on Easy Street, / You know she’s safe and warm. / And way down low ‘neath a foot of snow, / He’s riding out the storm. / Well, I offered him my winter coat. / Politely he refused. / Like an educated man, he spoke with words I seldom use. / He said, ‘I don’t need pity, for these choices are my own.’ / He bowed his head just slightly / And politely moved along. / Ah, the wind blows down on Lonely Street / Like an ice pick through the air / Amidst the Sunday Times and the coffee grinds / And the winos in Times Square. / Five flights up on Easy Street, / You know she’s safe and warm. / And way down low ‘neath a foot of snow, / He’s riding out the storm. / Ooh-ooh-ooh. / Ooh-ooh-ooh.” That’s part of it.
Paulson: Powerful. And that’s part of your new CD on Sony/DMZ called Fate’s Right Hand.
Crowell: That’s what it is.
Paulson: You are a man who records what you want to record. That’s not like anything I’ve heard from Music Row lately.
Paulson: That’s very much your voice.
Crowell: I am actually — I, I’m grateful, you know. For an artist who’s based out of Nashville, I’ve lived here by choice for a good long time. I lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s. Um, I consider myself lucky because, you know, most of the new artists have come along at a time when corporate politics really kind of rules the day in music. I came along at a time before where — in the day when artist development was still part of the music business’s terminology about itself. So, I, I’m kind of afforded the freedom of doing exactly what I want. I just don’t get paid as much as those other guys.
Paulson: Well, you get paid longer, and that’s one of the things about the longevity of careers.
Crowell: That’s true. Yeah, I do get paid longer.
Paulson: What ignited your love of music? Where did that come from?
Crowell: Oh, my love of music goes back. I’m working on a book — I have been for a while, a memoir, that really covers a time period from when I was 5 years old until I was, till I was 15, and it’s — I’m really reconstructing memory, and one of my earliest memories is my father taking me to see Hank Williams in 1952. And I would have been 2 years, maybe 4 months old. And I — and my father did something that reinforced the memory for me is that he constantly, in my childhood, said, “I took you to see old Hank perform.” You know, it was something he was really proud of. And I have these snippets of memories. Like I have — I remember this kind of cool air wafting down from overhead, ’cause I was on my father’s shoulders watching the show. So, in writing the book, I’ve been reconstructing what is basically my earliest memory, and my earliest memory is seeing Hank Williams perform. So, I would have to say that my love of music was sealed then and there. But to take the story back further, my mother and father met at a Roy Acuff concert in the high school gymnasium in Buchanan, Tennessee, in 1942.
Paulson: The stars were aligned, no question about it.
Crowell: Yeah so, I mean, what else am I gonna do besides swing an axe?
Paulson: Actually you were swinging drumsticks early on, weren’t you?
Crowell: It should go back to my father, really, if we trace my love of music — and my mother. He had bands when I was a kid. Being the optimist that he was, he came home one day with a set of — this real bare set of drums that he picked up at a pawn shop for $7 — set them up in the living room. I was 11 years old, and he said, “I lost my drummer.” He says, “And you’re it.” And, so, he taught me how to play, or showed me what I should do, and on Friday night, we were playing in a honky-tonk called Red Bluff Sally’s in east Houston. And he said, “Don’t worry if you get lost,” he said, “just find my foot, and then match what you’re doing to my foot.” So, he would — I’d watch his foot, and he would pat his foot. And I would get lost, and I’d eventually bring myself back synced up, as if I were dancing with my dad on that stage. That’s how I started playing drums.
Paulson: There is a story about you working a pretty glamorous job.
Crowell: This is a good story. They were doing a Jimmie Rodgers revue at Opryland, and I’d won the yodeling contest, so I got the job. I didn’t want to be in a revue doing Jimmie Rodgers yodeling. You know, as much as I like Jimmie Rodgers, I just didn’t want to do that. So, I had an afternoon job at the Jolly Ox Steakhouse in Green Hills in Nashville, and the guy who ran that, the manager of that restaurant, said, “Look, I don’t care what you do.” He says, “If you play a song that you wrote, you’re fired.” He says, “And we won’t discuss it.” He says, “You’ll be fired.” And I said, “OK.” So, I sang the hits of the day, and then one day, I just — impetuous as I was — I said, “Well, here’s a song I just wrote.” And I played this song called “You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee.” And when I was finished, there was — there were two aisle ways that came up to the stage, and there was a guy who was — who I didn’t recognize coming down one aisle and my boss coming down the other aisle. And my boss got there just a, a step ahead of the other fella. And he said, “I told you if you do one of your own songs, you’re fired. You’re fired.” The guy who stepped up right behind him said, “Well,” he said, “I’m Jerry Reed’s manager, and we want to record that song tomorrow. Could you come to the session? Chet Atkins is going to be producing it. And by the way, we’d like to sign you as a songwriter.”
Crowell: So, and all of that converged on itself at once. I didn’t have to do the job at Opryland yodeling, which I would have not been very good at. And I got a job writing songs all in one — a matter of just a few days.
Paulson: This is going to be some book, and it’s fascinating, all these people who sort of have their comeuppance. A guy fires you and sees you go to work for Jerry Reed. Your career began to ramp up. You played with Emmylou Harris, began to build a reputation. And in time, you became one of the top country music stars in the country.
Crowell: Well, briefly.
Paulson: Briefly. But you absolutely hit the peak.
Crowell: Yeah, it wasn’t good for me.
Paulson: Well, that’s what I want to talk about, because it wasn’t the same kind of voice we just heard. I mean, it seems like as your career went on, you may have tempered some of the things you might have recorded.
Crowell: Mm, yeah, I, I think that — in fairness, I think that the record that I recorded that was so big, it was an honest thing that just happened to click. I think that Diamonds and Dirt, it’s not my favorite record I ever made. I think there’s a handful of really good songs on there. I — it just was something that clicked. And my problem was following, because I felt myself starting to emulate myself. I sort of envy those guys who can focus in on one thing and do it again and again and again and again and stay fresh with themself. I get self-conscious. And, you know, for me, self-consciousness is the kiss of death for, for fresh art. I’m an artist. As waxy as that sounds, it’s true.
Paulson: I’ve always enjoyed your work, but it was a revelation when Houston Kid came out. It was, it was so much more powerful than everything else I’d heard. Are you most satisfied with that CD?
Crowell: Yeah, The Houston Kid was, was a coming into my own as an artist, I think. I had produced records, and I, ah, I think I had a catalog of really good songs. And I’ve always thought that my songs were, were well done. But I never felt as though I had really come up with something as a recording artist that, when I’m gone, my children can say, “My father was an artist.” And The Houston Kid was something I committed myself to that I just decided I wanted to do something really true and, and raw and heartfelt.
Paulson: One song on that album was not written by you. It was written by your former father-in-law.
Crowell: Here’s the way that worked. I, I — it was my experience of hearing “I Walk the Line” the first time in 1956 when I was — before the sun came up one morning, going fishing with my father and grandfather. And it was such a powerful moment to hear that song just with the sound. You know, I describe his voice as sounding like Abraham Lincoln looked, you know. Came out of that — one of those old analog dashboard radios in a ’49 Ford, and it was such a powerful collision between me and a song. I always wanted to write about it. And, and I thought I wanted to write about it as prose, which I have since done. But I had all these verses that, that describe where I was, the time and place and what was going on for me, but I never could figure out how to, how to come up with a chorus that didn’t cheapen the narration. Then one day, it occurred to me, his words fit perfectly in my melody. So, I just swiped his words and stuck them in there, and then, ’cause I knew him, I called him, and I said, “I need for you to come sing something for me.” And he — you know, I said, “It’s ‘I Walk the Line’ revisited.” So, he showed up thinking I was going to have him sing his song for some reason. And I sat down and start teaching him a new melody to words he had been singing for 40-plus years.
Paulson: Took some nerve, didn’t it?
Crowell: Yeah, there was a friend of mine who said, “You know that’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Paulson: We at the First Amendment Center, which is a funder of this program, every year we do an event at the Americana Music Association Conference here. And we honor somebody in music who has used their art to make a difference, to say something that others would have left unsaid. And this past year, we honored Johnny Cash. And you look at his career, and this is a man who sang out in support of Native Americans when that was absolutely not the thing to do. He’s a man who visited prisons and bolstered spirits of prisoners when that was not a career-enhancing move. He was always — it was always boats against the current, and meeting him that night and, and actually hearing him recite “Ragged Old Flag,” powerful, powerful. He had to be an inspiration to you throughout your career, even when you weren’t a member of the family.
Crowell: Mm-hmm, sure.
Paulson: He’s the kind of voice that’s rare in, in contemporary music, and it’s lasted and resonated for so many, so many years. Why do you think it is that Johnny Cash, every decade, is visible and powerful, and a new generation discovers him?
Crowell: Well, he first and foremost, he, he carries himself and he sounds like he should be on Mount Rushmore. You know, he’s got that kind of power. And I remember — this is just a, a private moment. I had a video camera one time in a — I, for those who don’t know, I was married to his daughter for 12 years. — And it was a family gathering, and he was lying in a hammock just sort of nonchalant, and I was filming my daughters, and I just turned the camera on him, and when I did — he was just there. But when I — the camera hit him and he knew it was on him, he turned on whatever that thing is, that power and that charisma and that persona. He just turned it on for a second for me. And it just flew through the camera. It just hit me, and I, I just remember thinking, “Oh, my God, that’s that thing that everybody responds to.” You know, words can’t really des— you know, describe what that kind of charisma is. It’s just — you just see greatness in somebody. And you say, “Man, there it is.”
Paulson: Well, Johnny Cash is not the only man who’s spoken out about how he feels. And I’m, I’m intrigued by your Web page. You have conversations with your fans about how you see the world. And since that dramatic day of Sept. 11, the world has changed in dramatic fashion, and there are arguments within American society like never before, including arguments that if you dissent from American governmental policy, that, you know, that you’re somehow unpatriotic. And you’ve addressed those issues. I was struck by your comments that we shouldn’t criticize the American president personally, but that dissent is not a disrespectful act. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Crowell: Well, I — you can disagree without being disrespectful. You know, a man is president of the United States, he deserves our respect whether you agree with his policies or not. And certainly if you don’t agree with him, you know, it’s your patriotic duty, if you have an avenue, to, to make your views heard and clear. I just think as a liberal — as I call myself a Yellow Dog Democrat. As a liberal artist, that I’ve noticed that, you know, progressively in, in this culture that we live in, that the — it seems to me that the conservative effort is really focused on how it just continually gets its message across through the media. It uses the media really well. I don’t agree most of the time, and as a, as a liberal artist — as a liberal human being, I feel like that, that they’re getting a lot more airtime than my particular team does. But I think in my Web site, I was kind of wanting to say that it seems as though the conservatives are just articulating their game plan a lot better than we are. And if — and some people that I really admire, for instance, well, I don’t want to name any names. But there, there are some artists who I really admire came out. They had a large — for them — forum and attacked the president instead of just accepting their honors, and, and I felt like, “Well, you know, I don’t think that’s the way to do it.” And I, I sort of think in terms of somebody who does a really good job as a sort of a liberal-minded humanist, I think of Bono from U2. And I, I just pointed out that he always strives to touch that thing in another human being that is their innate goodness. And there is, there is a goodness in every human being, somewhere.
Crowell: I think if you try to communicate with it and go to the heart, you’re gonna get a lot further with people, because if you’re a liberal-minded human being and you start arguing on a mental level with a conservative, you’re gonna lose. The only way for a, a true liberal-minded human being is to try to communicate with somebody’s heart. It’s got to be heart-to-heart. Because on, on a mental level, it’s easier to, to defend a conservative mindset than it is a liberal one.
Paulson: One of the things that has occurred to me over the years is that a lot of the guests we invite, people we invite to come on, they don’t want to take a stand. And, and you know, we’ve had people from both the left and the right on this show. Charlie Daniels was here not long ago. And Charlie’s got his very specific set of values and what he believes in, and he’s outspoken. But no matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on, you have to respect somebody who sticks their neck out and says, “This is what I believe. I’m consistent about it.” Why do you think it is that so many people in public life are actually reluctant to ever portray their beliefs about the democracy, about the system, about the people who run the government? What happened to that impulse?
Crowell: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. Maybe conditioning. And I think that probably, ah, it would seem that in the ’60s, the kind of liberal mindset had a loud microphone. And, so, there was strength in numbers, so, you know, John Lennon and Bob Dylan were leading the way, and, you know, the, the liberal-minded were basically shouting through their loudspeaker. Well, it does seem in our culture that the conservative loudspeaker is, is louder, and it seems like that, that there’s more just support, rah, rah, rah, behind the conservative mindset. And it seems like maybe if someone who — it just seems to me it’s a lot here — if I may, if this is a good example, Bill Clinton, whether or not — you know, I think what he — his human — his choices as a human being, I cannot pass judgment on. But this Natalie Maines, she said some rather nasty things about our president, you know, a while back. But when I heard about that, I said, “Well, I don’t think that would be my choice,” but the one thing that came up for me was, God, remembering not so long ago, I was hearing all these horrible things being said about Bill Clinton. And there was no, you know, radio station or record business or media conglomerate talking about these people who were slamming that man. You know, maybe he brought it on himself, but it seemed like a double standard to me.
Paulson: We’ve just got a few minutes left. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the new CD.
Paulson: How is this different from The Houston Kid?
Crowell: You know, I said The Houston Kid was articulating the dysfunction of my childhood, but it was not specifically all autobiographical. I sort of placed myself in the culture where I grew up and gave voice for a lot of kids like me. The Houston Kid could have been six or seven different kids I knew. Fate’s Right Hand, my new record, is — I have — I was striving to articulate how I view the middle of my life. So, I have a collection of 11 songs that hopefully — well, I won’t say hopefully. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of articulating, for me — and I usually find when I can articulate for myself, it works for other people — just the vulnerability and, and the, you know, just the scary day-to-day that comes with being in the middle of your life.
Paulson: You’re frightening me, Rodney. I’m right there with you.
Crowell: Don’t you know?
Paulson: Too much of my life is being reflected here.
Crowell: Well, hopefully, that’s what will happen with the record, that somebody like yourself can hear those songs and go, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Paulson: Can we hear one more song from this CD?
Crowell: [Sings] “Cool as a rule. / You don’t learn in no school. / You can’t brown nose a teacher / From a dunce hat stool. / It’s the hum and the rhythm, the birds and the bees, / Mamas and the papas and the monkeys in the trees. / Brothers and sisters living life on the street, / Play the hunch, pull the punch. / You’ll never get beat / By the junk food, tattooed white dude / True-blued honky with an attitude / Coming unglued. / Fate’s right hand, I don’t understand at all. / Willie loves women like a junky loves dope. / Give them just enough rope. / The monkey’s gonna choke. / She’s a Bill Blass combo, maxed-out mambo. / DKNY caught him in a lie. / Ken Starr word, you’re talking absurd, / Spending $40 million just to give the man a bird. / He’s a king. She’s a queen. / The rap won’t stick. / Get it on with a rubber, and you won’t get sick. / Fate’s right hand, I don’t understand at all. / Red rum, dot-com, dim sum, smart bombs, / Double cappuccino and a heart like a tom-tom. / Ozone long gone. / That’s it. I quit. / Natural inclination says, ‘Enough of this.’ / Brat pack, blackjack, / Heart attack, crack. / We need another news channel like a hole in the back. / There’s a 187, the 405. / We all go to heaven on a hard disc drive. / Fate’s right hand, I don’t understand at all. / Fate’s right hand, I don’t understand at all. / They got us surrounded.”
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