Rodney Crowell — Wolf Trap
Looking up to the balcony and rafters at the Barns at Wolf Trap, Rodney Crowell was blinded by the spotlights for a few seconds. But when he looked down to see the audience, he seemed surprised to see a sea of masks.
In this Northern Virginia theater with its impeccable acoustics and intimate aesthetic beauty, Crowell seemed right at home.
“I’m from Tennessee,” said Crowell, leaving a long pause between his next sentence. “You can’t get 26 per cent of people in masks in Tennessee.”
“Come here,” someone shouted.
“I am here,” Crowell slyly deadpanned back.
Like many shows that had been rescheduled, Crowell’s visit was a victory of sorts as some 300 people sat side by side in the listening room constructed from two 18th century barns–and that is adjacent to the Filene Center amphitheater on the Wolf Trap property. It was my first show in an indoor environment in eighteen months.
No doubt the pandemic has had its effects on artists and listeners alike. Crowell released Triage this summer and gave insights about some of his new songs. When introducing “Something Must Change,” he gave somewhat of a challenge to the audience. “I’ll leave it to you to decide what it’s about” while pondering the words, “Am I ready for times like these?”
Outside in the foyer at the merch table, autographed cardboard sheets of handwritten lyrics held clues. Crowell’s cutting pen condemns a world of haves and haves not and espouses his belief in a higher redemptive power. The spirituality found itself late in the set when Crowell sang “Hymn 43,” the last song from Triage which he wrote with his “husband-in-law,” John Leventhal. (Crowell was formerly married to Rosanne Cash who is now married to Leventhal.) He called Leventhal during the lockdown and asked if he had any melodies he could write words for. Leventhal said he was thinking about hymns which inspired Crowell to explore endless wars and events that are caused by those who have God on their side. Crowell playfully wrote about his own mortality in the song “The Body Isn’t All There is To Who I Am,” the result of a late night craving for a peanut butter sandwich that Crowell deterred and instead chose to use the time to write a new song.
Donning an acoustic guitar for the night, Crowell led a five-piece band that had no electric guitars but packed a punch. “We’re little but we’re wired,” Crowell quipped. They gave muscle to “Frankie Please” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” where Kathleen Marks summoned the banging keys of Jerry Lee Lewis. In “Earthbound,” the band swung like it was a song that could have been on Beatles ‘65, the band that Crowell memorably saw as a teenager at the Houston Coliseum on their first visit to America. During the night Eamon McLaughlin alternated between bazuki and fiddle while stand-up bassist Zacariah Hickman simultaneously played harp. Keyboardist Marks filled the particles of sounds and painted the details of Crowell’s extended narratives that make you wonder if he had chosen to be a great southern novelist. It was Crowell, Marks and McLaughlin who joined together in a three-way vocal performance emulating the conversation Crowell wrote and envisioned himself having with the late Guy Clark and his wife Susanna Clark in “It Ain’t Over Yet.”
He began the show with “Jewel of The South,” an impressionistic piece derived from his East Texas upbringing. Percussionist Glenn Caruba played the brush strokes that accentuated the landscape of Crowell’s narrative. Crowell’s penchant for narrative also extended to storytelling. Recalling a visit to Zurich when he was in his mid-twenties and “following a starlet” who was signed to a record label, he recounted how he wore an old Willie Nelson t-shirt and only had $25 in his pocket. “I had to learn I wasn’t it,” he recounted of the period. “It took me a while to figure it out.” When he went back to his hotel room, he wrote “Ain’t Got No Money” which was later recorded by Rosanne Cash. Crowell savored the feeling of getting a “big fat paycheck” when it was a hit.
But perhaps the night’s funniest moment came when Crowell told the story of how he adapted Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line.” Crowell had a near religious experience the first time he heard it listening to the car radio of his father’s 1949 Ford growing up in Houston. He likened the transformative feeling to being abducted by aliens. By the time he attempted to recreate it, Crowell was an adult and divorced from Rosanne Cash but still had the phone number of his ex-father in law and the moxie to call him. When Crowell played him the take that wove in his own original lyrics with those of the original song, he talked to the man in black about the song they wrote together. Cash shot back: “Son, you’ve got a lot of nerve changing my melody.”
That day, the elder Cash was having lunch with Bonnie Raitt who came in the studio and heard the new version and said, “Sounds like you’re taking Viagra when you’re performing.”
Crowell, the writer of the autobiographical “East Houston Blues,” is the author of a rich memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks. We can only hope Crowell takes up the pen for a follow-up. If Crowell’s writing brilliance wasn’t already clear, it came into the focus late in the night when he sang “Shame On the Moon,” his late Seventies jewel that Bob Seger made a mainstream smash. Crowell admitted he shelved the song for years but recently picked it up again.
By the time Crowell played his last encore “Hymns 43,” it was past ten and soon it would be midnight. “There will always be more work to do,” he sang, calling upon and praising the light in each of us. Crowell had been onstage for two hours in a career retrospective that criss-crossed five decades.
Coming out of the theater it was pitch black. There was no moonlight to look up to and ponder all the questions Crowell made us think about.