The opening lyrics on Fate's Right Hand, Rodney Crowell's latest album, are inspirational: "The hour is early/The whole world is quiet/A beautiful morning's about to ignite," Crowell croons. Not surprisingly, he's a man of his word. Up at 8 a.m. for a phone interview, he sounds bright-eyed and ready to talk.
Born in Houston, Crowell relocated to Nashville in 1972 when he was just 22 years old. He developed his stage presence and songwriting craft in a dive called Bishop's Pub, alongside other burgeoning talents like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, and Lucinda Williams. Today, Crowell, now 53, recalls those trying times and laughs.
"I don't think we knew we were any different," he says. "Truthfully, I just think we were -- and still are -- artists first."
After Emmylou Harris recorded two of his early compositions ("Bluebird Wine" and "Til I Can Gain Control Again"), she invited him to join her Hot Band as rhythm guitarist and harmony singer. In '77, Crowell embarked on a solo career; two years later, he married Rosanne Cash. Along the way, he wrote number-one hits for Crystal Gayle, the Oak Ridge Boys, Highway 101, and a slew of others.
"As a songwriter, I have a commercial ear. I can write hit songs, but for the most part, I'm just living my life as an artist," Crowell explains. "As pretentious as that might sound, it's really quite simple. It's like Guy Clark said to me early on: 'You can be an artist or you can be a star. Either one's okay -- just pick one and do it to your best.' I said, 'Oh, I want to be an artist. Is that the right answer?'"
His own albums, including 1986's Street Language (produced by Booker T. Jones) and '88's Diamonds & Dirt, were country and pop successes. The '90s, however, brought change: Crowell and Cash divorced, and, in the middle of the decade, Crowell quit recording and touring. For all intents and purposes, he dropped out of sight.
"That's when my life began," Crowell says, citing the time he spent raising his four daughters and courting his second wife, singer Claudia Church. Then he falls silent for a moment, meditating on his six-year break from the music business, which ended with his autobiographical release in 2001, Houston Kid. "I don't know if I reinvented myself," he finally drawls. "I decided to make the records that I feel like making -- albums that I can be proud of.
"I am not a country artist, especially in terms of what country is now," Crowell continues. "I make records and perform for people as a singer and a songwriter. I admire people like Johnny Cash and Guy Clark. Their music comes from the soul," he says, slowing down to add weight to each word. "I think that audiences today want to hear true music. It doesn't matter what kind it is. Look at Norah Jones or Lucinda Williams. That's basically the premise I work from. I assume that my audience is intelligent. To do anything less would be insulting."
Of course, Crowell is still writing hits for other people. "Somebody asked me what it felt like for Patty Loveless to have a hit on my song ["Lovin' All Night"]. I said it feels like I'll be able to stay in business for another three years," he says. "You know, there's a corporate music biz in Nashville that allows very talented musicians and songwriters to make their livings and still be artists. The so-called plastic side of the music business obscures the actual heart and soul this town really has."
Fate's Right Hand, released last summer, represents a labor of love. Crowell took out a bank loan to fund the recording sessions before he landed a deal with T-Bone Burnett's DMZ label, a subsidiary of Sony Music. "It's the perfect setup for a singer-songwriter," Crowell says. "They're sincerely working in alternative ways to get music to the people. I'm a good guinea pig for that.
"Being a man alive in our culture isn't a graceful proposition," Crowell notes, alluding to the album's introspective subject matter, which comes to light on songs like "Time To Go Inward," "It's a Different World Now," and "Preaching to the Choir." He relates the process of writing and recording, then adds, "I really worked hard on it. I couldn't stop until it was right. It's not that I'm a perfectionist. I just knew what it was supposed to be."
He enlisted vocalists Kim Richey and Gillian Welch and players like Bela Fleck, John Jorgenson, and Will Kimbrough for the album. "You tend to gravitate toward those people," Crowell says. "That music-business machine can be a pretty cold, old thing, and in contrast, these artists feel like a nice campfire. You go stand by them and warm your hands because you're drawn to the fire."
"Sometimes you gotta crawl through the middle of it all/But don't compromise your heart for something crass," Crowell sings on the album's final track, "This Too Will Pass." It's a lesson he's obviously taken to heart.