While living in Hermosa Beach, California in 1976, Rodney Crowell found himself on the wrong side of the law when the police arrived at his door one day and took him to jail. Temporary incarceration was the penalty for neglecting to pay a number of fines for ignoring the area lease laws for his dog Banjo, leaving the singer sitting in a cell alone, without a pen or paper. It was there where Crowell began “writing” the words for his 1978 hit “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
“That was a gift because it brought a song that was forming into almost instant focus,” Crowell tells American Songwriter. “That’s probably the song of mine that’s performed more than anything by a lot of different artists, so kudos to me, being 25 or 26 at the time, getting taken to jail and realizing ‘wow, I can work on this while I’m in jail. Don’t come get me too quickly.’”
Without writing tools, Crowell composed the song, narrating his experience within the four walls—He slipped the handcuffs on behind my back / And left me reeling on a steel reel rack / They got ’em all in the jailhouse baby.
“I had to remember it when I got out, but that was actually a lot of fun,” laughs Crowell. “It was me literally lying on a steel reel rack composing in my head and trying to figure out how to access the memory. It was a good exercise. I don’t recommend it, but for that particular moment in my life, it was a perfect storm.”
The track, later covered by Waylon Jennings in 1980, was Crowell’s second No. 1 hit and an example of the anecdotal tales he recalls in his latest book Word For Word.
Documenting parts of his earlier life and his days in music over the 50 years since he first moved to Nashville, Word For Word gives more context to 150 of Crowell’s songs through 50 pages of prose written by Crowell, all stories behind the songs, including “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight,” and “Til I Gain Control Again,” and a collection of his songs covered by everyone from Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Etta James, and the Grateful Dead, and those that became more well-known once covered, like Bob Seger’s take on “Shame On The Moon”, Tim McGraw with “Please Remember Me,” and Keith Urban’s rendition of “Making Memories of Us.”
Word For Word also features previously unseen photographs, handwritten song sheets, and other visuals from Crowell’s life of songs, along with a foreword by author Daniel Levitin and commentary from his ex-wife Rosanne Cash.
“I’ve written a lot of songs, and it just popped into my head that I should have a lyric book,” says Crowell, “but I didn’t want it to just be lyrics. I wanted to write some backstory to make the narrative not one singular pathway.”
Pulling from files of artifacts from his catalog and lyrics stored in his computer, compiling Word For Word was an easier feat for Crowell since archiving his materials while working on his 2011 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. Over a year, Crowell centered in more on the stories to accompany the select songs.
Anecdotes also reveal Crowell’s tendencies to revise his lyrics over time, referencing a friend’s story about a woman from Oklahoma City who visited the National Gallery in Spain and saw a man painting on a Guernica, and yelled to a guard to stop him. The guard responded, “That, señora, is Picasso, He works here.”
“No doubt my friend’s account, which is most likely untrue, is a variation on the famous Leonardo Da Vinci quote, ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned,’” writes Crowell in his introduction. “That excerpt, I’m not ashamed to say, applies to some of the records I’ve made. As a songwriter, however, I’m far more comfortable with the Picasso yarn than the Da Vinci declaration. Revision is, for me, an open-ended part of the song-making process.”
Rewriting or revising songs is neither a maddening nor enlightening exercise for Crowell. “Redirecting my narrative instincts toward writing prose sentences and paragraphs, and what I learned through revision, and through having an editor work with me, has made me a far more thorough songwriter,” said Crowell. “I learned that perfection does not necessarily equal inspiration. Some of my earlier songs that I wrote when I was in my early 20s … now if I got that youthful burst of inspiration, I would do a better job of it.”
Technically, there’s still something in capturing those first bursts of inspiration, for a song, he added. “The longer I work at it, the more I’m aware that my inspiration comes from hard work,” says Crowell. “It’s more than lightning in a bottle, and that lightning, you cannot argue with it. I look at Dylan and his early 20s when he was writing, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and leading to these bursts of inspiration, the likes of which rarely visit anybody. As we go on, we just have to keep working.”
Recounting memories, some of Crowell’s prose may be slightly loosely based, but it’s all part of the essence of the stories, and his songs.
“When it comes to fact-checking, I accept the re-sculpting of the memory,” laughs Crowell. “What I tried to hold on to is the truth of the story, and what it means, not necessarily whether all the details are true, because God knows I’m gonna embellish. I’ve been embellishing my whole life.”
Rodney Crowell (Photos: Austin Lord)