No lie: Texas songwriter Rodney Crowell eyes Crystal Bay

Sam Esty Rayner

Rodney Crowell plays at Crystal Bay Casino on Saturday, Aug. 3, in support of his upcoming album, “Texas.”
Sam Esty Rayner

Rodney Crowell revealed why Texas produces so many great songwriters: “We’re really good liars,” he said.

Decades in the making, Crowell will release “Texas” on Aug. 16. It has contributions from Lone Star State embellishers such as Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Billy Gibbons, Randy Rogers, Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn, Willie Nelson and a couple of honorary Texans, Vince Gill and Ringo Starr.

“World-class liars,” Crowell said. “Texas was stolen away from Mexico based on a lie, so it’s in the water. It’s in the blood. And I’m not kidding. Just because it’s a lie, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I wouldn’t suggest that to Donald Trump, but in terms of storytelling, a lie well told and stuck to will oftentimes trump the truth.”

And truth can be stranger than fiction. It took moving from his native Houston to Nashville in 1972 to meet fellow Texans, including Guy Clark, and develop songwriting skills that led to numerous albums, No. 1 songs, music awards and hall of fame inductions.

“I was really young when I got here.” Crowell said. “I got a crash course, not only from Guy but from Townes Van Zandt and Micky Newbury and Roger Miller and Harlan Howard. Professional songwriters were all around and I just happened to fall in. It was superb to just keep your mouth shut and listen — 3 a.m. with Micky Newbury was a rarified time when he would play ‘Cortelia Clark’ or something like that.

“You have conversations with professional songwriters and it’s in the drinking water where you are, and I had the right genetic makeup to become a songwriter. I just happened to turn up in the right place where I could experience firsthand what it’s like to write good songs.”

Crowell’s relationship with Clark was slow developing yet “transcendent.” Clark died in 2016. Two of the songs on “Texas” were cowritten, “I’ll Show Me” and “Caw Caw Blues,” which was either Clark’s last or second to last song.

Crowell acquired a 1930s Gibson L-OO a decade ago. “I got this particular guitar and it got me to really delve into my version of the blues,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for a few years now and each of the last three or four records.”

Which brings us back to lies. And the truth.

“People ask me about modern country, pop country such as it is today. I always say, the blues has gone missing. Hank Williams sang the blues, man. The blues artists, the singers, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. They are grown men and they are telling stories. The delivery, the chord structures, the heartbreak in all of it.

“It’s the story of grown men and Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and country music in its heyday. Those are grown men telling the truth. Making up stories but telling the truth about the heartache and the sorrow.”

On “Texas,” Crowell wrote “Brown & Root, Brown & Root” in 1976, and Steve Earle has played it live for years. Earle introduces and plays blues for workers at the company that built infrastructure for the Vietnam War before being purchased by Haliburton.

Videos have been released in advance of the album for “What You Gonna Do Now” with Lyle Lovett and “Flatland Hillbillies” with Lee Ann Womack and Randy Rogers.

A yet-to-be released video is “56 Fury” with Billy Gibbons, who plays with tone and style that races listeners back to 1985 and the “Eliminator” album.

“Billy and I grew up in Houston on opposite sides of town at around the same time,” Crowell said. “A lot of things that happened musically around town we share a lot in common. It dawned on me I had to write a hot rod song to give Billy the right kind of energy to do his thing.”

Crowell has always recognized the Beatles as an influence and a mutual friend united him with Ringo Starr for an expeditious session for “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable.”

“I played it for Ringo and he said, ‘I’ve got it,’ and we literally recorded it in one take – good fun,” Crowell said. “I was 13 when the (Beatles) blasted the roof off of everything. I had a paper route and I am riding with a transistor radio hanging off of the handlebars, throwing papers, listening to Beatles songs. It moved me. I pedaled faster when ‘She Loves You’ came on.”

“Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” with Ronnie Dunn, Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack is a song about an actual highway landmark. “The Border” is a haunting tune in minor keys that feels something like Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

Crowell has assembled band for a “Texas” tour, which will make its second stop at the high-altitude “land of pinecone,” Crystal Bay Casino on Saturday, Aug. 3. Crowell estimated it will be just his third public performance in the Lake Tahoe area.

— Tim Parsons

  • Rodney Crowell: The ‘Texas’ tour
    Openers: Jenni & Jesse from Dead Winter Carpenters
    When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3
    Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room, seated show
    Tickets: $35 in advance or $40 on the day of the show
    Red Room after-party: The Ben Morrison Band

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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