Houston Scores Big-Time in Latest Edition of Encyclopedia of Country Music: Part 7
Three former Houstonians who have been included in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Country Music defy all odds. To call Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett or Steve Earle "country songwriters" or "country singers" is the grossest simplification.
Jason Wolter Steve Earle (r), another Houston refugee in the Encyclopedia of Country Music
All three have a huge streak of the folk tradition in them, and too much integrity and orneriness to have ever stayed in the mainstream spotlight for long. Yet the breadth and depth of their artistic success is undeniable and their influence has been felt far and wide, but especially in Texas.
Fun fact: A little less streetwise than Crowell and Earle, only Lovett hasn't written a song called "Telephone Road."
Rodney Crowell: Rodney Crowell grew up in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonks of Telephone Road and Pasadena. His father was a part-time country bandleader, and he put young Rodney behind the tubs when he was 11 years old so he didn't have to pay for a drummer.
Crowell would go on to play in garage cover bands in high school, and actually attempted several semesters at Stephen F. Austin State College before striking out for Nashville one night on a whim.
While Crowell arrived virtually penniless, he was armed with the tools for success: A literary bent, a wide knowledge of country, rockabilly, and rock and roll, and balls the size of cantaloupes. He almost immediately fell in with Jerry Reed, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and Townes van Zandt, although there are those who say Townes liked to heckle Crowell. Crowell appeared in the Nashville segments of 1975 documentary Heartworn Highways.
Thomas Petillo Rodney Crowell, the Houston Kid
Emmylou Harris covered several Crowell tunes, and he eventually joined her Hot Band and moved to Los Angeles for a few years, but was back in Nashville by 1977, playing in a project known as the Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill and Tony Brown. By 1978, Crowell released his first solo album, Ain't Livin' Long Like This.
His three albums for Warner Brothers produced numerous covers of Crowell's songs (Waylon Jennings's cover of "Ain't Livin' Long Like This" and the Oak Ridge Boys hit "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight"), but Crowell's third album for Warner Brothers, Rodney Crowell, was Crowell's first attempt at producing himself, and it not only contained Crowell's highest-charting tune to date, "Stars on the Water," it also resulted in Bob Seger recording Crowell's " "Shame on the Moon," which served notice that Rodney Crowell was not just a country songwriter and also earned him his first big bucks.
Crowell married Rosanne Cash in 1979 and began producing her albums and writing for her. He had considerable success as a songwriter, but didn't record again until 1986. Rhythm & Romance went nowhere, but 1988's Diamonds and Dust, a monumental album that produced five No. 1 singles in 17 months, made Crowell an international star. Keys to the Highway (1989) put Crowell into the Top 5 again with two tunes.
A rough patch ensued for Crowell, including his divorce from Cash in 1992, although he continued to write and record. But it wasn't until 2001's semi-autobiographical The Houston Kid that Crowell suddenly crossed over to become an iconic figure in the Americana genre. Critics flipped for Houston Kid, and Crowell followed with the stellar Fate's Right Hand and The Outsider, both strong efforts.
In 2008, the Joe Henry-produced Sex and Gasoline was nominated for a Grammy, and last year saw the release of Crowell's Ship Channel memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. He recently released Kin, an album co-written with noted memoirist Mary Karr.