Country songwriter Rodney Crowell isn’t about to sell out

Lovable curmudgeon Rodney Crowell has written countless hits for others.  He will play his own tunes at the Jefferson on Sunday.  Image: David McClister Lovable curmudgeon Rodney Crowell has written countless hits for others. He will play his own tunes at the Jefferson on Sunday. Image: David McClister

Rodney Crowell probably wouldn’t like you. Don’t take it hard. He doesn’t seem to like much—except for country music.

The old school songwriter has recorded a handful of tunes that have had commercial success over the years, but he’s even better known for songs other people end up singing. Crowell’s penned tracks that have been turned into chart toppers by the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Van Morrison, and Etta James. Probably the best-known Crowell cover is 1982’s “Shame on the Moon,” the first single from Bob Seger’s “The Distance.” Crowell’s songwriting, Seger’s voice, and The Silver Bullet Band’s instrumentation spent four weeks at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart that year.

Gearing up for his April 27 show at the Jefferson Theater, Crowell talked to C-VILLE Weekly about writing something someone else makes famous, his guarded view of social media, and what it takes to keep commercial success from going to your head.

You released a new album on April 15. How would you put Tarpaper Sky into the context of your career?

It’s among the best three records I’ve ever made. When you’ve made 20 records or so, to put such things in perspective is hard. It is a satisfying record for me personally because of my own performance. My performance, which is live in the studio, is consistent from beginning to end. I would say Tarpaper Sky is performed more than produced. That’s just what I am at this time in my creative journey: I am more interested in what I can do as a performer. When I get songs right for myself, generally speaking, people cover them.

Is there any part of you that is offended when you write a song that someone other than yourself ends up making famous?

I am grateful that anyone would record my song. I have heard many versions of my songs that I simply didn’t like, but I am grateful that they even tried. Sometimes the version I want to hear is not the best version. My version of “Shame on the Moon” is nowhere close to Bob Seger’s version. He blew me completely out of the water. I am only grateful, for better or worse. A lot of times for worse.


You’ve had so many greats record your songs over the years. Which ones stand out in your mind?

Norah Jones’ version of “Bull Rider” turned me inside out. I thought it was fantastic. Lucinda Williams’ version of “God I’m Missing You.” Stunning. Rosanne Cash’s version of “No Memories Hangin’ Round.” There is a great version of “Ashes by Now” that Roger Daltrey did. Too bad it was never released.


What do you hope your longtime fans will get out of the latest record? What about new fans?

I don’t go there. It’s not for me to consider what fans are going to think. You can’t sit around scratching your head, asking yourself what the fans in Dubuque want. I sort of cringe for people that go on social media and talk it out. I will never do that ever. I would need a new job if that were the case.

Speaking of social media, what’s your take on online promotion and sales?

The Lord giveth, and the lord taketh away. As record stores have dwindled and our music gets copied, we don’t get paid as much, but it is reality and it is what happens. I have someone who spearheads my social media. I contribute, but I contribute in the same way I do as a songwriter. I write something once a month or so and put it out there, but I just say what I think I want to say, and I control it that way. It is a one-way conversation with me; otherwise, I think you can blow your mystique.

You’ve worked hard to maintain artistic integrity while attaining commercial success. What do you think about how commercial country music has become?

Merle Haggard is country music. Johnny Cash is county music. Hank Williams. I still exist. There are people making country music, but I’m not so sure it fits with the business that big time radio is into. They are selling air space, so it is pop music. You can’t sell ad time with country music. You can sell it will pop music, because most of the advertising is for pop culture. I don’t fault anyone for making pop music, but I’m a purist. The beauty of the digital age is you can find and download real country music if you want to.

Is it something you think about, trying not to sell out?

I would say. And most of the artists I admire greatly have a version of that thought. Which is not to say we don’t fall on our ass from time to time. Leonard Cohen certainly maintained some great integrity. Willie Nelson has. Bob Dylan has. I don’t know—the poets somehow manage to do it. I am drawn to the poet. I would say that’s the bottom line.