The Scribe: Rodney Crowell on ‘The Chicago Sessions’

Rodney Crowell’s The Chicago Sessions shines through a collection of fresh tunes and reimaginings that elicit both full-toothed smiles and jaw-setting introspection. Easily classified in the “best of ” files of Crowell’s career, the album combines the Houston Kid’s Texas poet lyricism with elements of blues, alt-ish jangle, and McCartney-paced melody. 

Recorded in the Windy City with producer Jeff Tweedy at his Loft studio, Sessions makes fine use of an “around the kitchen table” style that’s clean but still wonderfully loose. It’s excellent songs meet stellar players with Crowell seemingly having the time of his life on tunes like “Lucky”, the Chess-y “Somebody Loves You” and “Oh Miss Claudia” (an ode to wife Claudia Church), the Burrito fuzz of “Ever The Dark”, and even the more serious-edged “Everything At Once”, a Wilco-pitched duet with Tweedy.

But Crowell never sacrifices weight for speed, and his balladry remains as compelling as ever. “Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly”, co-written with Sarah Buxton and Jedd Hughes chimes with Everly harmony and heartache while the resurrection of the Crowell-penned “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good”– originally included on Emmylou Harris’s 1976 album Luxury Liner— offers Rodney a chance at overdue satisfaction as well as an opportunity to vocally reach for the moon.

Other highlights include a dreamy rendition of friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall” and especially the out-of-the-blue confession of “Making Lovers Out Of Friends”, a candidate for Song of the Year if anyone’s ready to debate.

Only with the final revelation of “Ready To Move On” do the darkness and inevitability last glimpsed on ’21’s fantastic politics-and-pandemic-stained Triage leak into the album’s atmosphere. The 72-year-old sings/states, “You know there’ll come a day when none of this will matter,” but when confronted with the questions the song begs, there’s zero fear and more than a touch of defiance in Rodney Crowell’s voice when he answers, “I’m just gettin’ started.”

AI- You made a statement about always wanting to make a record in Chicago. What was it about the city– and tell me some the records that came out o’ there that made you want to go tap into that vibe to make your own.

RC- Chuck Berry! Chess Records, for sure, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter– the list goes on! And also John Prine and Steve Goodman!

That evokes the team up of you and Jeff Tweedy.

I had some help makin’ that a reality from my daughter and from providence. It just so happened, I was out at sea with Jeff for a songwriter festival on a cruise ship. I got a chance to tell Jeff how much I love his solo album Warm— not to mention his work with Wilco! He said, “Well, come up to Chicago sometime and record somethin'”, like an invitation to his studio, and I took that just [as him being] polite. I didn’t take it seriously until I somehow mentioned that to my daughter, who went on a rampage like, “Dad! Jeff Tweedy invited you to record! Get your management to talk to his management!” And from there, it was, “Come on up!”

You’ve said that in a lot o’ ways, The Chicago Sessions feels like [your 1978 debut album] Ain’t Living Long Like This, and I wanna say that extends from how much fun it sounds like you’re having in the studio. Maybe an extra slice of freedom compared to the last couple o’ recording sessions that you’ve done where you had the constraints of COVID-19 and the pandemic really affecting how things were done in the studio.

That, and the fact that on my own label, I couldn’t quite afford to hire a producer of Jeff’s stature. So I was havin’ to wear that extra hat in makin’ those records and having a producer like Jeff freed me up to just focus on playin’ the guitar and singin’ the songs I’d written, leavin’ the rest of it up to him. Take a load off, Fanny! Take a load for free!

Is that a luxury for you these days?

Are you kiddin’ me? You leave me alone, I can play and sing pretty damn good! And that’s what happened!

I liked Triage, Ioved the different instruments you used, the whole feel– but that record felt really big. This one sounds like you in the living room, hanging out and playin’ with some people. You really do sound like you’re havin’ fun! But the songs themselves are just amazing! “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good”— is this really the first time you’ve recorded that song? You’ve had it in your back pocket for all this time since Emmylou Harris recorded it?

I made a demo of it way back there in ’76, I think, that Emmy learned it off, and I was never fully happy with the lyric. This happened to me couple o’ times around that time– “Shame On The Moon” was the same scenario with [Bob] Seger. But that’s on me ’cause I went ahead and recorded it on [1981’s Rodney Crowell].

“You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good”, I was not quite happy with it, but Emmy was. She said, “I’m gonna record this,” and I said, “Okay, go ahead!” But it never quite suited me. I pondered it for a long time and the last few years, I discovered something new about the chorus that I could do, and I had rewritten most o’ the parts that were hard for me to say. During the pandemic, I’d been back here in my studio recording songs by myself– playing all the instruments, and really enjoyin’ it– and I hit on it! And then Jeff heard it, and he wanted to give it a go. What we wound up with was more than I Imagined, and I’m happy about that!

Hitting that higher note, that falsetto– that’s cool.

Yeah, that was fun! And it happened spontaneously– it wasn’t anything that was preplanned! We were recording and we were on the outro and I started ad libbin’. I hopped up there and I had that note and I said, “Whoa!” And I just kept goin’! I think the rest o’ the band sensed that I was havin’ fun with that and kept playin’, so I could keep doin’ it (laughs)! It probably didn’t need to go on that long!

You brought up Chuck Berry earlier, and when you said that, the first thing that popped into my head was the song “Oh Miss Claudia”. It’s kinda low down with a little bit o’ rockabilly.

The prototype of that song, if I’m honest, is R.L. Burnside. I have an album o’ his that I’ve worn to a nub, and there’s the one [singing], “Oooh, Miss Maybelle, let me be yo’ jumpin’ frog, I’ll drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log, oooh, Miss Maybelle!” One day, I was playin’ that little guitar riff, thinkin’ about R.L. Burnside, and started goin’, “Oooh, Miss Claudia…” Suddenly, I was like, “I can do this!” And it’s a true story about how I feel about [my wife] Miss Claudia!

The song “Making Lovers Out Of Friends” is just a great song– and you wrote it with Ashley McBryde?

She and I sat right here where I’m sitting and made that song up one day, just havin’ talked about an experience she had with someone who’s a friend and wanted more. Out of a conversation, that song took– and she didn’t record it! I don’t why she didn’t record it– she should– and when she didn’t, I said, “Well, I’m gonna record it then!”

I think that would make a good duet.

Yeah, it would be! I didn’t think of asking her if she wanted to do it as a duet. I suppose I could, but I didn’t think about it. I just took it as a singular narrative.

Being a fan of Jeff and the album Warm, and then coming to find out that he was also a fan of yours– and had been since he saw the film Heartworn Highways. I’m not sure when he saw it and when it inspired him– I’m sure it was early on in his career– but that movie still gets to people and is still making new fans of you and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and everybody involved in the movie. I have 22-year-old songwriters here in town that I talk to all the time that are like, “Have you seen this movie?” I’m like, “YES, I’VE SEEN IT!” Does that surprise you that it’s still having an effect on people today?

No, I wouldn’t think. I’ve never seen it myself. I have a couple o’ copies here. I never could see it because of the Christmas scene at the table. Guy and I took LSD that night and I had a hard time with it. It was the last time for me (laughs)! I had a bad trip and I never wanted to see it. I still don’t wanna see it! But Guy… It didn’t affect him that way!

You close out the album with the song “Ready To Move On”, and that’s a powerful track. It feels, in many ways, like a sequel to “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Sex & Gasoline”. Choosing to end with that song, you legitimately in the last line say, “I’m ready to move on.” I feel like there’s really an emphasis on that. But you’re still hungry for more, right?

Oh, of course! I ad nauseam say this, I teach songwriting in as much as it can be taught when people come to my songwriting camps, and I say it’s my job to have the patience to let the song tell me what it wants to be. I’m just the scribe. I take notes. So that song, starting out with, “I’m tired to the bone, I want to be left alone…” I had been reading Don Quixote— I think I’d finished it– at a time when it was a quiet winter and I wasn’t workin’ other than tinkerin’ with songs. It was born out o’ that opening line and it’s like, “Where does this all go?” I just follow where the song leads me, and it leads me to the dichotomy– there’s no wrong, there’s no right, there’s no left, all of that– it’s the opposites. It’s the yin and yang all the way out to “I’m ready to move on.”

Quite frankly, I thought when that line came to me, I said, “Am I ready to leave this life that I’ve lived?” Yeah, well, someday, I will be! Maybe this song is prescient in that way, or maybe I’m just ready to move on from whatever. At the particular time that I recorded it last summer, I was just ready to move on from the crap that was on the news 24/7! I did a couple o’ interviews in Australia, and they were kinda panicky, goin’, “You’re not quitting are ya’?” If people are gonna interpret it that way, well, that’s on me ’cause I let the song tell me what it wants to be! And that’s what it wanted to be! But the truth is, no, I’m just gettin’ started!

The Chicago Sessions is available now from New West Records.