A view askew

Nov 16, 2005 at 12:00 am

“My hat’s off to Steve Earle,” says prolific songwriter and fellow dust-disturber Rodney Crowell. “He’s found an effective way — a beautiful way, really — to throw bricks through the window. Maybe my nature is a little more forgiving, though.”

Crowell gives a low, good-natured laugh, as he often does. “I like to think of my approach as more like rolling a canister through the back door and gassing the place. Or maybe sneaking inside the house and giving everybody a little shot of truth serum.”

We’re talking about The Outsider, which is only the most recent of a string of powerful late-career records on Rodney Crowell’s résumé. A powerhouse songwriter whose tunes have been covered by a dizzying array of artists — from Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson to the Grateful Dead and This Mortal Coil — Crowell’s always saved his most personal material for his own records. And, like its immediate predecessors The Houston Kid and Fate’s Right Hand, Crowell’s newest release finds him engaged in an occasionally somber, but more often joyful, meditation on self and the world. In the months since its release, many have even taken to calling The Outsider the third album in a trilogy, each entry loosely arranged around autobiographical, philosophical and (now) political concerns.

It’s a supportable theory, if inessential to enjoying the music, but Crowell himself takes a broader view when speaking about the origins of his recent, widely praised work.

“I don’t plan out how I’m going to write songs. I do everything I can not to plan, to be the blank slate. I’m a much better songwriter when my brain’s not involved. It’s just that our whole culture is so politicized now that I found I couldn’t write without referencing that.”

Crowell first rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s “new country” movement, when kindred spirits like Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were taking country music back to its folk and Americana roots. But “country” has always been too limited a tag to slap on Crowell, and The Outsider finds him mining Celtic, blues and even soul influences — check the copping of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” on the opening track, “Say You Love Me” — as he reports on the view from the margins of American life.

And despite its title, The Outsider is less a statement of one man’s position than a chorus of voices, a community of outsiders whose viewpoints Crowell slips into and out of, so that the record plays like a series of testimonies. The people who populate The Outsider respond to the scary world in a number of ways: full-bore hedonism (“The Obscenity Prayer”), quiet frustration (“Don’t Get Me Started”) and even genuine acceptance of what seems like insurmountable personal differences (the hard-hitting title cut, with its priceless line, “I don’t have to be straight/You don’t have to be something I hate” — try getting away with that on contemporary country stations). That acceptance at the heart of the record is what makes The Outsider one of Crowell’s most moving and humanist albums.

It’s one of his loveliest too, as heard on the centerpiece cut, “Ignorance is the Enemy,” on which longtime friend John Prine and longtime collaborator Emmylou Harris provide a spoken-word breakdown.

“That song’s a prayer, if you listen to it. And in my sort of high-minded spirituality, the God of my understanding is both male and female. I really wanted God to be speaking back to the character in that song. And when I thought about the voice of God, I thought, well, that’s got to be Emmylou and John.”

He laughs again. “Yeah. It’s a real high-minded movie I was making for myself there. Some people have told me they’re knocked out by it, and other friends I respect have said, ‘Well, now you’ve gone a bit too far.’ I understand both reactions. But on this record, even on the potentially didactic stuff, I tried to leave it ambiguous enough for the listener to draw the conclusions.

“The soapbox isn’t a good place to read poetry from, you know.”


Friday, Nov. 18, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.

Eric Waggoner writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]