With The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell offers his past and his present in hopes that painting a truthful picture of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Houston with both its innocent thrills and terrifying domestic brutality can balance the obvious legacy with a hope for something more. Working outside the traditional record company system – a system the Grammy-winning songwriter/producer rejected in hopes of making this project consistent with the material in the purest sense – Crowell jettisoned all expectations but his own.
In some ways, it was like high stakes poker,” says Crowell, “because I’m playing with my own money and you really can’t walk away. There was a moment of clarity where I realized that if I did it (within the system), I’d only further my artstic schizophrenia. “By being rejected by and rejecting the system, it really all became what did I want…”
To that end, Crowell’s songscape marries the disparate influences that have always colored his distinctly American roots music sound. Bits of Bob Dylan’s poetics and sweet melodic sense mingle with shards of Johnny Cash – who makes a guest appearance here on “I Walk the Line (Revisited)”’s chorus --’s rebel intensity and strength, while the funkiness of the Band, the backbeats of Buck Owens and the Staples, a bit of Chuck Berry’s ragged churlishness and the spare beauty that marks Emmylou Harris’ most poignant moments can be heard in a sonic cocktail that’s intoxicating through its unabashed affection for that which begat it.
Still as much as it’s about the music, The Houston Kid is the story of the things that define a world where life is cheap, dignity taken where it can be found, people scratch to get by and joy sprouts like weeds between the sidewalk. It is an honest picture of difficult moments – the battered wife and frightened child in the out-of-control “Topsy Turvy” and the portrait of the proud struggling man who’s as belligerent as loving “The Rock of My Soul” who cautions “Do like I say, not as I do, and you might make me proud” – and the freewheeling happiness inherent to childhood, especially a childhood spent in dangerous places – the welcome-to-my-world opening track “Telephone Road,” the jukejoint chasing “I Walk The Line (Revisited)” – that ultimately leads to redemption.
Along the way, there are the some of the best drawn characters in modern American music this side of Lou Reed. There’s the small time crook of “Highway 17,” who builds a stockpile of cash from robbing liquor stores and filling stations only to end up doing 5-10 in Huntsville. A vivid picture of a home with “five kids and a wife with one dress and a yard full of cars that would not run” isn’t the refuge he lives for – and he returns to not only find his role in the family changed (“I’m a perfect sample of a bad example, gone forever from their graces”) but that his small fortune is gone in a perfect O.Henry twist.
Equally compelling is the pair of songs inspired by the twin sons of friends of Crowell’s parents. In what may be the most compelling treatment of AIDS and bias written, “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Wandering Boy” juxtapose the twin who flees Houston to become a bisexual hustler in California so strung out he knows not where he is and must return to the place he escaped to succumb to the dreaded HIV virus. It is in Texas, where the hardcore Texan’s latent homophopbia and uninformed hatred of his brother’s lifestyle is ultimately transformed by his love for his brother, admitting “I used to cast my judgements like a net/ Those California gay boys deserve just what they get” only to be haunted by the realization “Little did I know there would come a day/ When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay.”
In humanity, there is forgiveness. In forgiveness, we find love. And in love, there is salvation.
For Rodney Crowell, it’s a simple truth that defines The Houston Kid, though he’s never been one to preach. And in classic style, the man who’s provided words and music for Bob Seger, Rosanne Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Buffett, Foghat, Johnny Cash, Lee Ann Womack and, of course, Emmylou Harris, the 11 songs reveal much about lives lost and found through what they show.
Casting the tone is “The Banks of the Old Bandera,” the project’s oldest song, which paints a softly glowing picture of the innocent time and idyllic place where Crowell put down roots, but also offers the very grown up insight “What it made you feel like is a song, what it really feels like now is gone.” When novelist Tom Robbins heard it at a 1976 party at Harris’ home, he encouraged the young writer to make an album of these sorts of songs…an album ultimately Crowell wasn’t ready to make until now.
Weighing in on his current state of mind with “Why Don’t We Talk About It Now,” he sets the tone for an album that examines the legends and legacies of what was both exhilarating and painful – and finds a truth to set him free. “There had been a series of these 3 a.m.’s, actually, where I was awake and troubled. Maybe the truth, if you’re looking for a big answer, is: I just grew up. I finally realized it was the fear burning away, the fear of following my own heart.
“When I wrote ‘I Know Love Is All I Need,’ then everything fit together. It was the song that redeemed ‘The Rock of My Soul’ and ‘Topsy Turvy.’ It was a song that offered peace and resolution, and it also a song that we went in and just recorded.
“It led to us re-doing ‘The Rock of My Soul,’ which is a second take. I walked out there and it was my moment: me, making a Rodney Crowell record in the most direct way. I finally figured out that I am more of a performer than vocalist and for me to connect with a song’s compelling emotional place, I need to be in that moment.”
Finding a moment’s true center is pretty much the way Crowell came to music in the first place. An 11-year old whose father came home on a Tuesday with a set of drums determined to get two shares of the band cut come Saturday night, Crowell fell in without thinking, just instinct and a will to get to the side of the pool.
“I had a snare, a kick and a cymbal – and I could play a shuffle,” Crowell says of his baptism on the bandstand. Rhythm is nothing more than primitive intuition. If you’re 11 years old and don’t think about it, anything’s possible.
“Fear is one of the things that blocks the flow of emotions. Thinking about things begets fear.”
Further freeing up Crowell was the sad passing of his mother, the lovely Cauzette Crowell in 1998. “I couldn’t have told this story completely,” Crowell acknowledges. “She heard ‘The Rock of My Soul’ and was unflinching knowing her domestic situation was going to the presses.”
Certainly the notion that the completeness of one’s life was going to be lit by a naked lightbulb is a terrifying prospect for anyone. But it is the filter of love and acceptance that offers a softness to the truth which allows a wholeness that explores the healing that comes with wisdom and acceptance. Even as Rodney Crowell was seeking to give himself permission to make the music in a way that was consistent with what the songs’ dictated, he was also sorting out the dark images of his memory and juxtaposing them with the best intentions that were once obscured in the moments. It is in that contrast that the tranquillity can settle, even as he still finds the heart to kick up his heels and savor life at its most intense.
“When I made Diamonds and Dirt (his platinum-selling project that contained 5 #1s), it was a commercial spike in my career, but it did not fulfill me at all. That particular shining moment was actually very troubling to me in terms of being an artist.
“There were a series of moments in the making of The Houston Kid, really singer/songwriter performances…I found the maturity to strip it all away and just create something where the chemistry could take over. A lot of the musicians found that, too, that ‘ooh la la’ place where it goes right back to the innocence that brings you to playing in the first place. That’s the hardest feeling to capture of them all.”
With the joie de jouer that builds upon a joie de vivre that Crowell found during what some might’ve viewed as a harrowing time came the freedom to swing out over the uncertainty. And it’s a parallel that goes directly to the letting go commitment the lanky songwriter made to his art as a 22-year old working as a dishwasher at Nashville’s TGIFriday’s in 1974. “I was in the middle of my shift and I took off my apron, handed it to my boss and said, ‘I’m going to be a musician or I’m going to starve.’
“I lived in my car with a friend of mine…but before too long, I got a publishing deal writing for Jerry Reed. There was no looking back.”
Until now. The young man whose Grandpa used to take him to the Old Navigation Bar on Wayside Drive under the cover of getting him a haircut, the boy whose father put him up on a bandstand to gain a bigger cut of the door, but set his soul on fire with the electricity that is musical connection, the thoughtful outsider who found the role of observer to be a fitting persona in the teenage world of rough-and-tumble Houston, has turned into an adult who is ready to harvest all that was for an album that is compelling and inspiring culmination of what can be.
As Crowell says of his arrival, “While this is technically my autobiography, and The Houston Kid’s autobiography, I’ve annexed the lives of the people around us, too, and tried to be true to their lives, their world and their perspective. They, too, are part of this story.
“The domestic violence and the insanity I grew up with is all here, but there are bits of what other people were going through. They may not have known they were hurting back then, but I did. Whether they felt it or not, I did – and it was part of the perception apparatus that was mine. Sometimes it’s as they probably saw it, sometimes it’s through my eyes… but ultimately, it’s the truth around that part of the world and the truth that was sown that I could only harvest as an adult.
“For I think it’s when you grow-up and you can find the kindness and the love, that you really understand those experiences in a whole way. And I’ve come full-circle from the innocence of my first record where I didn’t understand that fear can be part of the process to here where I realize there’s nothing to be afraid of except not letting the truth set the songs. This record does that…and now that I’ve learned to let go of fear, I’ve finally learned how to make Rodney Crowell records.”
In that incredibly personal revelation and understanding comes a great deal of truth for everyone who’s ever been haunted by the past and sought a peace and a piece of their own. In the inevitable lies the keys to the future…and if we’re willing to listen, Rodney Crowell opens the door.
“There’s a voice I hear/ It comes in loud and clear
It’s my father’s voice teaching me
He says to be a man you’ve got to be true to your word
Then when you make a stand, you’ll be heard
I know love is all I need, that’s all I know.”
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