Interview: Rodney Crowell Spreads ‘Universal Love’ on Ambitious New Album, ‘Triage’
Rodney Crowell swings for the fences on his new album, Triage — but he does it in a surprisingly unassuming way. Taking on topics including religion, climate change and political and social upheaval, Crowell deftly weaves those ambitious themes into an album that's chock-full of his inimitable brand of lyrical wit, wisdom and a one-of-a-kind observational sensibility about the world, the human race and its foibles.
Standout tracks including "Transient Global Amnesia Blues," "Something Has to Change," "I'm All About Love" and "Hymn #43" (which features Crowell's ex-wife Rosanne Cash, her husband John Leventhal and their son, Jacob Leventhal) ruminate on universal themes. Crowell addresses them in intimate, personal ways, gently probing into issues including greed, apathy and how they impact the world, religion, environmental concerns and the overall arcing question of: Just how should we treat each other and the planet?
While the subject matter is inherently difficult, Crowell manages to present it all in a low-key manner, as if to say, "Come on, guys, we can all do better than this."
Triage drops on Friday (July 23), and Crowell spoke to The Boot in advance of the release in a wide-ranging phone conversation. He's the kind of interviewee who prefaces each new interaction with several minutes of personal back-and-forth about things that are unrelated to selling his current project. When he finally comes around to the subject at hand, the iconic singer-songwriter says, somewhat sheepishly, "I'm wasting your time ... How can I be of service to you?"
The resulting conversation follows:
Well ... we should probably talk about the Triage album. [Laughs]
Let's do it!
This goes back to before the pandemic. What was the first song you wrote for the project?
"Something Has to Change," which I don't know if you'd call it a lead single anymore ... I guess it's a lead track. But that was a song that I had written a couple of years before. On New Year's Eve 2018, I started working on the lyrics to the title track, "Triage." Just filling up a notebook, writing some pretty good lines and a lot of bad lines that were never destined to be, but just to open up a flow.
And once that kicked in, and songs like "Here Goes Nothing" came in on the heels of it, the songs started lining up kinda like a landing pattern at the airport, like, "Here they come, they're coming in."
As that process went on, I began to realize that the original version of "Something Has to Change" was not on the same level as the new songs coming in. So I took it apart and reimagined it and made it fit into the flow. So, "Triage" would the song that triggered the album. But "Something Has to Change" was already there.
What was it about writing "Triage" that made you realize it was an anchor track for an album?
Claudia and I were somewhere down in the Caribbean, and you know, you never really unplug from it. I have a notebook, and I'm just writing, writing and re-writing, and I began to sense that — it's kind of intuitive — I'm going to need to work on really grounding the language that is coming to me.
Mind you, "Triage" was originally, I wanted to write something in honor of my friend Joe Henry, who was a songwriter-producer who I had worked with a good bit. He'd had a health crisis, and he handled it admirably and inspirationally, and I wanted to give him a song. And if you know Joe Henry at all, you know that he deserves your best.
I was drawing on that very hard to articulate the notion of universal love, that a lot of religions have tried to substantiate over the years, and a lot has been written in different forms, to get some sort of language to what is unknowable, or what you can't prove. Which, in Joe's case, was a life-threatening thing that he survived, and quite well. And based on his belief in himself and a higher call.
That's a long-winded backstory way of saying that I sensed, if I was going to write the songs that were knocking on the door, I had to dedicate myself to really grounding the language. so that if you have no interest in this subject, and you just wanna flow along with the music and the sound of it all, I wouldn't be asking you to suspend your disbelief. I have to make this as concrete as I can in order for it to be valid.
In your song-by-song notes that you wrote for this album, you state that monotheism, climate change and cultural divide were three of the things that were most on your mind. How do you even go about trying to tackle such gigantic subject matter in a song?
I would say, carefully.
Honestly, maybe that's a more succinct way of saying what I just went the long way around of trying to articulate. To write these songs very carefully because of the overwhelmingly complex, even mystical side of the whole thing. It's like, do you believe in God? Yeah, well, prove it. Show me something. That kind of thing. And every take on it — there are so many imaginable and unimaginable takes on the concepts that I'm dealing with ... climate catastrophe, as Bill Gates put it in his book, right down to the catastrophe of human beings being so damn divided based on unsubstantiated information.
And I'm one more guy putting out his ideology in the form of these songs. How do we know what I have to say is the be-all and end-all? I can't claim that it is, or anyone else. But I certainly can for myself, and I've found, in writing songs, that when I've done a better job, the songs work for other people. And a song, when it's well-written, it's no longer my song. If it really works for them, then it's their song, or their relationship with that song.
But if I get it right for me, then my belief, or perhaps my hope, is that if it resonates with someone else, then the song becomes theirs. Which is all the more reason to be careful writing it.
You must experience this phenomenon that every writer experiences, where you write one thing, and someone else hears a different thing altogether. They take what you wrote and turn it in a way that maybe isn't what you intended, but that's what they think your song is about.
I experienced it early on. I wrote a song long ago called "I Ain't Living Long Like This," and in it, there's a line that says, "Dad drove a stock car to an early death." And my daddy said, "You know, so-and-so asked me if I really died in a stock car." [Much laughter]. "Did you really die in a stock car?"
I mean, that brought it home, right there, because people are going to interpret things in so many ways that are out of my control. But I still have a job to do, which is make it the best I can. In some ways, what people make of these songs once they're out there is none of my business. [Laughs]. There's nothing I can change.
When the pandemic hit, you dropped some tracks and wrote some new ones. Which tracks pre-date the pandemic, and which ones came after?
I can go down the line. Let's see ... "Don't Leave Me Now" was pre-pandemic; "Triage," pre-pandemic; "Transient Global Amnesia Blues," it was Oct. 9, 2020, when that happened. So that was the last song to go on the record, and I wrote it and recorded it in a matter of a couple of days.
"One Little Bird," pre-pandemic; "Something Has to Change," pre-pandemic. "I'm All About Love," pre-pandemic; "Here Goes Nothing," pre-pandemic; "The Girl on the Street" was post, but it's a song I wrote a few years back.
By then, we were socially distanced, so the actual production of that particular track is a bit different, because it began with me recording just the vocal-guitar performance, and from that point on, it was file sharing. The drummer on it lives just up the way from me, and so I could walk down to his place, and I sat with him and we formed the drum pattern to go with it. But after that, we emailed it out and spoke by telephone to those who were contributing to it, and that's how we put that together.
"Hymn #43," the pandemic was full-on, and I was working on my studio, and I rang up John Leventhal and said, "Hey, have you got any melodies that you want some words written to? I'm working on something." And he said, "Yeah, I'm interested in writing hymns right now, melodically." So I said, "Send me something."
He sent me a melodic guitar piece, and I wrote the words to it, and recorded it and sent it back to him. He put the rest on it, including his wife Rosanne and their son Jake.
Last but not least, "This Body Isn't All That I Am" was pre-pandemic. So what's the tally?
Yes. Once we started the process, the pandemic also gave me the chance to consider a couple of things that I'd recorded that were a bit preachy. I was pontificating in a couple of songs, and I came to understand that I was culling them, and elbowed them out. If not for the pandemic, I might have wrapped this up and put it out. When I had a moment to breathe, I said, "Ah, I can see the error of my ways here."
You talk about the theme of universal love for this album, and in the song "I'm all About Love," you stick a seemingly random cast of characters together as things and people that you love. What was the intent behind that?
The intent behind that is in some of the aspects of Buddhism that I put into practice. I can't claim to be Buddhist, but I have read pretty extensively into what Buddhism is, and there's a lot of forms that it takes. And I think that in the better part of any religion — although I shun religion, for the most part, because it just seems to be such a controlling thing — the concept being that if you believe in God, then you have a responsibility, some would say, to see God in someone else; even your enemy.
That was the central theme. You know, I don't like Vladimir Putin [laughs], and I don't like Donald Trump. But if I truly live by the golden rule of trying to see the deity in every human being, every tree, every animal, then you've got to put up or shut up. 'Cause it's really easy for to write a song in which I claim to love Greta Thunberg and Vladimir Putin in the same breath. I wouldn't necessarily tell you that I live it, but I can certainly write a song about it. With a little nod and wink and a sense of humor about it.
You mentioned "Hymn #43." It's a pretty essential track on this record. You could call it a skeptic's prayer, almost. It expresses some uncommon thoughts on the subject. What was driving you when you wrote the lyrics?
I think you've got the gist of it. John and I were talking about a hymn, and I grew up down in Houston, and my mother was pretty devout Pentecostal. Sneaking around to drink beer from time to time, but you know, spoke in tongues and mostly adhered to the principles. And more power to her. I grew up in it and around it, and pretty early, I developed skepticism about it, because there's a lot of show business involved in it, which allowed me to step back a little bit from it.
So for me to write a hymn and be as truthful as I could about it ... you know, so much about the teachings of Jesus, the simplest things about do unto others, and ye who are without sin, cast the first stone, all of that stuff is solid spiritual wisdom. It's what religion has done with the teaching that I'm so skeptical of. The original teaching, I'm with you. I'm down.
As far as, for my soul to be saved, all I have to do is confess and turn it over to the hierarchy of the church, and everything's gonna be all good and I'm gonna get into Heaven? I don't think so.
At the same time, I don't have the final say on anything. It might be very well that the folks who've been perpetuating that doctrine for so long, they may be right. I can't say they're not right, but it doesn't feel right to me.
A phrase that jumped out of the lyrics that I wrote down as I was listening is "endless war." Human beings have been fighting each other all down through history over concepts that can't be proven.
The current divide between the left and right, so much of the ideology is driven by doctrine that, if I understand the basic spiritual principles of love thy neighbor more than thyself, however that goes, whatever religion is perpetuating certainly does not line up with that doctrine. It perpetuates a kind of hatred, which is so contrary to what I think I understand of the lessons of two-thousand years ago.
However it was received, wherever the wisdom was coming from, whether it was coming from the Buddha or the ancient Chinese mystics ... It was never about hatred. It was never about black and white divides, and I don't mean that in terms of race. I just mean, you're wrong, I'm right, end of story. Now, let's fight.
It's hard to resolve it. It really is, And I could sit there and say, 'Okay, now you're writing these songs, and you're making some sort of attempt to resolve at least your take on all of this. [Laughs]. Wow ... who do you think you are? [Laughter]. That could be the subtitle: Triage: Who Do I Think I Am?
What do you hope the listener takes away from this collection of songs?
A sense of peace, and a sense of harmony, and in particular, if I thought that the listener would move ever closer to some sort of harmony with nature, with the planet. With the trees, with the grass, with the birds. Then I would have succeeded at what I set out to do.
This planet that we live on, that's so benevolent and so giving ... all you have to is walk outside and there's the sunshine, bringing warmth and making things grow, And yet, we human beings take all of this so for granted, and in our unconscious way, treat it like a trash can.
It may be an over-simplification or a pipe dream on my part, but all I can tell you is I take the work as seriously as I can, and I have a lot of gratitude that all of these years I've made a living writing these songs, and that there are still people who will follow me, and people such as yourself who will let me speak and try to help me make sense of what it is, and translate that out there into the world. So, thank you.