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Visiting Rodney Crowell's Dark, Raucous Childhood
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, country music singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell has brought
his guitar to play some songs that relate to his new memoir, "Chinaberry
Sidewalks." Crowell has been successful in the worlds of country music
and alternative music. His songs have been hits for many singers,
including Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Tim McGraw.
Crowell's album "Diamonds and Dirt" was the first country album to have
five consecutive number one singles. They included "I Couldn't Leave You
if I Tried" and "After All This Time."
Rodney Crowell was married to singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash for over
10 years, during which time is father-in-law was Johnny Cash. Crowell's
new memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks," is his first book. It's about his
childhood, growing up poor in East Houston. His father drank too much.
His mother dragged him to Pentecostal church services, where she spoke
in tongues. At age 11, Crowell became the drummer in his father's honky-
Rodney Crowell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for bringing
your guitar with you. Before we talk about your new memoir, I'm going to
ask you to play a song from your latest album, and the album is called
"Sex and Gasoline." On the album, you do this as a duet with Joe Henry,
who produced the album, but I'm going to ask you to do the first part of
the song and to do it solo for us. It's called "I've Done Everything I
Mr. RODNEY CROWELL (Singer; Songwriter; Author, "Chinaberry Sidewalks"):
GROSS: And this is a song from a father's point of view, singing to a
Mr. CROWELL: It is. It is a father's advice, or it's actually a father's
regret, I think, most of all, and written to my second-oldest daughter.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Done Everything I Can")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) I'd love to hear you laughing, love to see you
smile, dance that little dance you danced when you were just a child.
The way the world came at you left you bitter and confused. The more I
tried to guide your path, the more you just felt used.
The sun comes up tomorrow, but there are no guarantees. It can rock you
like a baby. It can knock you to your knees. The path that lies between
us is a star-crossed avenue. I've done everything I can, or there's
nothing I can do.
GROSS: That's such a beautiful song. Thanks for performing an excerpt of
it. That's my guest, Rodney Crowell, and he has a new memoir. It's his
first book. It's called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
You wrote this book largely about your parents and your relationship
with them when you were growing up. And you wrote the book after your
And, you know, I often think that after your parents die, there's this
need to re-examine the story of your life and to tell it to yourself in
a way that you don't have to worry about offending your parents with
certain memories. And I was wondering if you had that experience while
writing that book, that there was a certain honesty in the way that you
could tell the story to yourself or to others that you maybe couldn't
have done before?
Mr. CROWELL: That's very true, but I did know the arc of the narrative,
really, because my parents and I had redeemed all of the troubled times
that had gone on earlier in life. So I knew that - where I was going
with the story.
And my mother was a fearless woman, really, in the end, and I don't
think she would have flinched at all of anything that I would reveal
about the family.
But then again, you know, with him gone, you start to look back, and you
can tell the story completely, without any fear of hurting them.
GROSS: You realized at some point that with your music career, you were
living the life your father wanted to live. He had a band that never
made it beyond the neighborhood honky-tonks, J.W. Crowell and the
When you were 11, he made you the drummer in the band. You say that was
to save the expense of actually hiring a drummer. Did he do you a favor
by making you the drummer as an 11-year-old? Did that help start you on
the road to music, or was that a problem?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, I think it was a blessing in the long run because I
learned a lot from my father, sitting back there for the - about a year
that I played in that band.
And I don't think I ever really became an adequate musician, but, you
know, he didn't care. He treated every performance that he gave as if he
were on, you know, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
And you mentioned earlier, you know, in the beginning, your question was
about, you know, my career had become what my father was never able to
achieve. And honestly, I can say that it was my editor who actually
started pointing out to me - he said hey, the story here is that your
life actually became what your father dreamed of. And I hadn't really
contextualized it for myself in that way.
GROSS: So when you were 11 and playing the honky-tonks with your father,
what were they like?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, you can imagine. They were seedy dives. The ice houses
in East Houston were basically beer joints with garage doors that -
sliding garage doors that you open upward, and then there's a jukebox in
there, and there's beer and tables. And they would generally - and a
cement floor. Generally, they'd just move the tables out of the way, set
the band up in the corner, and we would play, and people would dance. It
was a dancing culture.
GROSS: Was it a fighting culture, too?
Mr. CROWELL: Fighting culture, oh, fighting was a big part of it. It was
Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning redemption. That's basically
the story of the Scotch-Irish in East Houston.
GROSS: So you were 11 playing drums, like, did you have any idea what
you were doing? You had no training.
Mr. CROWELL: I had no idea what I was doing. It was instinctive. And my
father, he set me down one day. He brought a set of very, cheap, ragged,
pawn-shop drums home and set them up in the living room, and my mother
and I stood there.
I was an only child. We were standing there. What is he up to, you know?
And he kind of sat down and said here's how it's done. He got some phone
books and the kitchen chair and sat me down there and showed me what he
had just done, and that was on a Tuesday.
And on Friday night, I was playing in a honky-tonk, or in actually a
beer joint, and he was okay with that. You know, he was in his element.
Now, I did see a lot of things going on that were, you know, that an 11-
year-old kid maybe shouldn't have been seeing, but I sort of understood
this is human nature. These people are poor, and, you know, they don't
have much in the way of a future coming at them. So they get what they
can get what right now, and if it's drinking too much and fighting and
then falling in love the next day, then that's the culture.
GROSS: And your family was poor.
Mr. CROWELL: My family was very poor. Strangely, though, my father was
an enigma in that he was always working. He was not a ne'er-do-well. He
wasn't lazy. He just couldn't hold on to money. It just, it was an
enigma for him. He just, his pockets were always empty.
GROSS: Would you play a song that you love that you used to play when
you were 11 in your father's band?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I learned this from my father, and I played it with
him, and I actually recorded this song when - on one of my early albums
when I started, just because, you know, it's something I learned from my
father back in the honky-tonk.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) I'm an old pipeliner, and I lay my line all day.
I'm an old pipeliner, and I lay my line all day. I got little, bitty
children just waitin' to draw my pay.
When you see me comin', better raise your window high. When you see me
comin', better raise those windows high. And when you see me leavin',
better hang your little head and cry.
I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an old pipeliner. I'm an
old pipeliner. Well, I'm an old pipeliner just waiting to draw my pay.
GROSS: Who wrote that?
Mr. CROWELL: Moon Mullican. He's an old piano-playing songwriter from, I
think from somewhere around Houston. I may be wrong about that. But he's
a Texas songwriter and a character from the - you know, maybe, you know,
like a Bob Wills' peer, and he wrote that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rodney Crowell. He's a
well-known songwriter and singer, and now he's an author, as well. He's
written a memoir about his early life and his parents. It's called
GROSS: Your parents fought all the time when you were young, and one of
the things they fought about is that your mother always accused your
father of having whipped her across her belly when she was eight months
pregnant with you, when she was standing naked in the bathtub.
And, you know, reading your memoir, I was thinking how disturbing it
must have been to hear your mother say that your father whipped her when
you were inside her, when you were a month away from being born.
Mr. CROWELL: It's whipping me.
GROSS: Yeah, like whipping your unborn self.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, well, you can imagine that was troubling to me as a
kid. And I must say that I chose to write about that again because my
father, in the course of his life, no - you know, I had no hand in this,
he redeemed himself over the long run. And as the book, you know, kind
of reaches the place that I wanted it to go, he has redeemed himself.
But then, you've got to understand that my mother and my father both
came from violent families, you know, sharecrop farm kids from Western
Kentucky, Western Tennessee. Violence was very much a part of my
mother's upbringing, a little less so to my father's, but my father was
an angry man when he was young. He was angry and frustrated, and he had
no idea how to channel anger.
And my mother, you know, the imprint that was - that she had about how
to be a woman and how to be a wife was that you accept this. That's what
happened to her mother. That's what happened to her grandmother.
And I think the beautiful thing about my mother and the reason I think
she should be an inspiration to young women, is that over the course of
her lifetime, she came to understand that no, those were bad directions
she was given. And she found her way out of that in her own inimitable
GROSS: Can I ask you to play a song that you wrote that comes out of
growing up with parents who fought a lot, and who not only argued, but
Mr. CROWELL: Yes, I can play this song that comes straight from that
experience. It's called "The Rock Of My Soul."
(Soundbite of song, "The Rock Of My Soul")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) The rock of my soul went to church on Sunday. The
rock of my soul went to work on Monday clean across the levy by the
railroad tracks, the other side of Houston in a two room shack, sweeping
out confetti from a third grade classroom, the rock of my soul pushed a
dust mop broom.
And he said: Do like I say, not like I do, and you might make me proud,
another Houston kid on a downhill skid for crying out loud.
I'm a firsthand witness to an age-old crime. A man who hits a woman
isn't worth a dime. Five, six, seven, eight, nine years old, that's what
I remember about the rock of my soul. I told him I would kill him if he
did not stop it, but the rock of my soul just would not drop it.
GROSS: That's great. That's my guest, Rodney Crowell, a song that he
wrote, and that one's on his album "The Houston Kid." And now Rodney
Crowell's written a new memoir called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
I'm so glad you brought your guitar with you and that you're singing for
us. I really love your voice.
Mr. CROWELL: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, so we were talking about your parents and how they
fought a lot. You know, we were talking about that before you played
that song. But they stayed together. Did their relationship eventually
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I would say the story to be told is - and I've often
said this. If you were standing, and when my 18- and 19-year-old mother
and father walked out the door to live their lives, and we were standing
there as the adults we are now, we would look at each other and say:
They'll never make it.
And yet they did. And it's only by love that they've made it, because
they've tried in every way to undo their bond, but it stayed, and they
lasted a lifetime together.
GROSS: My guest is Rodney Crowell. He'll play more songs and talk more
about his new memoir after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is country music singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell.
He's written a new memoir.
So you write about your parents in your memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
There's a passage I want you to read that's about your mother. It's on
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, okay.
GROSS: And your mother was Pentecostal, very religious woman, but she
also had a lot of physical problems, which you describe quite eloquently
Mr. CROWELL: I'll read that right now: Addie Cauzette arrived with the
right side of her body partially paralyzed, the result, according to an
old country doctor who didn't examine her until she was three, of a
stroke suffered in her mother's womb.
So from birth, a pattern was set by which polio, acute dyslexia,
epilepsy and the sudden death of an infant son and a subsequent of case
of whacked-out nerves would join a lengthy list of maladies assaulting
young Cauzette well before her 20th birthday.
In the 74 years and nearly four months marking her time on what she
called this crooked, old Earth, my mother rarely drew a healthy breath.
Still, to say that life wasn't fair for this awkwardly glib, yet deeply
religious woman, would fail to take into account her towering instinct
Thanks to this primal urge to thrive, she would leave this world at
peace with the knowledge that physical existence was something for which
she was born ill-equipped. And I honor my mother by saying that it
wasn't for lack of effort that an accommodation between her sensitive
soul and the poorly fitting body she wore was so very hard to come by.
GROSS: That's a beautiful passage. That's Rodney Crowell, reading a
passage from his memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks." Do you think her
discomfort in her body and in the physical world related to the depth of
her faith - of her faith in a spiritual world?
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, my mother's a very spiritual woman, and I think
Pentecostal religion, Bible religion, was very important to her because
it gave her a context for a very spiritual approach to life. And I
think, with a bit more education, she would have expanded upon that
spirituality in such a way that - she was a woman of great compassion
and great love, and at the same time, she could be, you know, brutal.
She whipped me with a switch, you know. That was part of her
understanding of doing the right thing. She was taught when she was
young, you know, spare the rod and spoil the child. So she became an
artist at whipping me with chinaberry switches. And I write about it.
And I write about it with humor, I think, because I don't hold it
against her that she thought the way to make me into a good boy was to
whip me every time I got out of line a little bit.
GROSS: So you describe your mother as a first-class, amen sister.
Describe what Pentecostal church services were like, with people
speaking in tongues? And it sounds like you were dragged there by your
mother, you didn't really want to go. So from your point of view, what
did they look like?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, it was pretty dazzling, actually. It was very
emotionally powerful to be in a mid-1950s, in an un-air-conditioned
church - Pentecostal church in East Houston. And when things really got
- as they say in the religion, you know, when the spirit's moving in the
house, and things really get going, you know, my mother was apt to fall
out on the floor and start speaking in tongues.
And actually, it was a great performance. And I write about it as a
performance to which, you know, these very charismatic preachers would
vault down from the pulpit and kneel over this fallen woman on the floor
who's speaking in this language that nobody understands.
Yet, he holds his hand up to the heavens and starts to decode what she's
saying, and usually in the form of some form of Scripture or some kind
of moral story. You know, it was basically, you know, a come-uppance for
the congregation to, you know, hold everybody in line. But it was great
GROSS: Did you know any (unintelligible) that the pastor said that God
was trying to tell her?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, I can't remember. I'm sure that - you know, I remember
Brother Pemberton(ph), you know, telling us that, you know, he had this
great thing that he would do, which he would - you know, in the middle
of his sermons - I was more a fan of Brother Pemberton. In the middle of
his sermons, he would start to falter in front of us, you know, and have
to loosen his neck tie. And it would be because of our sins and how bad
we were all being. He was trying to negotiate with God to save all of
our lives and to keep us from going to hell, and that's hard work.
You know, and here he is, man, he's working hard at this, and he's
having to loosen his tie, and he's falling down in the pulpit, and he
can't breathe, and everybody's going: Oh, no, no, he's not going to make
it. And the drama just starts to come to this crescendo. And then
suddenly, you know, the white dove of peace figuratively flies into the
room, and you realize: Oh, he's not going to die. He's going to make it.
He's going to come back.
And then when he comes back, he comes back with a message, saying: I've
seen the hem of the garment of the great one, and he tells me if you go
onto the streets and tell everybody what you've witnessed here that all
will be absolved.
You know, later, as an adult, I realized: God, that's perfect. You know,
we were all seeing him sort of, you know, live through that. And so
yeah, we run out on the streets and say: Hey, you've got to come over
where we are, man. We've got it going on here. That's, you know, that's
the way Evangelical Christianity works really good. I mean, you can set
the hook that way.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell will be back in the second half of the show. His
new memoir is called "Chinaberry Sidewalks." I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with country music
singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell. He's performing some of his songs
for us, and we're talking about his new memoir, "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
The memoir is about growing up poor in East Houston. His parents fought
a lot. His father was a drinker. His mother was a devoted Pentecostal
church-goer and spoke in tongues. She suffered from a variety of
Now, your mother had epileptic seizures. That was one of her problems.
And there was a period when the women of the church saw that as a sign
that she had been overtaken by the devil, and they thought that what
they needed to do was perform an exorcism.
Mr. CROWELL: That's true.
GROSS: Which they did, and which you witnessed.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, I witnessed it.
GROSS: Would you describe what you witnessed?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, it was six women coming into our house. And I
describe them as they were all - they all wore those square-toed,
square-heeled ladies' shoes and, like, World War II business suits and
had their hairs tied in bun. And they came in, and I describe them as -
and they look like, to me - now this would be the benefit of my adult
self looking back at them - they looked like a cross between Eleanor
Roosevelt and Ayn Rand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CROWELL: They did. And they come in, and so they immediately
announced that my mother's - this epilepsy thing that keeps her, you
know, life from blooming is because she's possessed by the devil, in
which they start basically a exorcism on her through prayer - faith
prayer, and which ultimately leads to her - they kind of induce a
seizure, or she obliges this whole thing by going into a very, very
intense grand mal seizure, over which these women pray and chant. You
know, they called the devil a liar, and I finally wind up - I'm so
caught up in it - I get in there with them and start shouting that the
devil's a liar.
And then they get her to spit the devil out on the floor, you know, spit
her out. You know, they - you know, she's demanding and commanding the
devil to come out of my mother's mouth in the form of a puddle of spit,
which she does. It winds up on the floor. And then after all this is
over, they just kind of abruptly well, you know, my mother sort of - she
finishes her seizure, and they go out to the kitchen for a cup of coffee
and tell me to clean it up. So it's kind of a funny little remembrance
of mine, what I went through to clean the devil off the floor.
GROSS: So the exorcism didn't work. I mean, your mother continued to
have epileptic seizures, right?
Mr. CROWELL: She sure did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did that make her at all cynical about either exorcisms or her
faith or the women who performed the exorcism?
Mr. CROWELL: I don't think so. I don't think it made her cynical at all.
I don't think my mother was capable of cynicism. I think that she was so
obliging to these ladies, and I think she loved the attention. And, you
know, they were ministering over her. They were bringing God into her
living room. And you know what? If the prayer didn't get the devil out
of her, then it wasn't God's will, you know? And she kept on with her -
truthfully, you know, I'll tell you the truth about this. My mother's
epilepsy stopped when I absolutely refused to be a part of it again. I
just told her with curse words that I had had enough of it, and the next
time she could die. I didn't care. I'd had enough. And finally, enough.
That was the end of that.
So, you know, someone, you know, who works in the psychological field,
they could look at this and say, hmm. You know, it's like there was an
on/off switch with these. And I think it was - my mother was deeply
troubled emotionally for a long time, and I think it manifested in very
violent seizures. Now that's not to say that she didn't - you know, she
wasn't stricken with the disease of epilepsy. But, you know, I know - I
witnessed it enough to know that there was something deeply
psychological about how she turned it on and turned it off. And when I
said no more, that was it.
GROSS: Well, have you ever written a song that comes out of this period
of your life or that comes out of, like, your mother's faith?
Mr. CROWELL: I recently wrote a song for my mother. It's the kind of
song that she would've wanted to hear from me. And I think that wherever
she is, you know, wherever her soul travels on this day or the day that
I wrote this song, I'm sure that it reached her and she was happy.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) Jesus, talk to mama. Tell her I'm all right. Tell
her that I'm on the mend. Tell her that I'm in your hand. Tell her that
the future's looking bright. Do this, won't you Jesus? I never meant to
stray. Jesus, talk to mama. Tell her that we'll meet again some day.
Jesus, if you hear me, take a message to my ma. Tell her that I'm on the
mend. Tell her that I'm in your hand. Tonight, I'll beat the devil to
the draw. All I'm really asking is to tell her I found you. Jesus, talk
to mama. Tell her that her wandering days are through.
GROSS: Great song. That's Rodney Crowell, a recent song of his,
performed for us in the studio. And after writing so many songs,
recorded by many people, now he's written a memoir. It's called
"Chinaberry Sidewalks," and it's about growing up, and it's about his
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Rodney Crowell, the singer-songwriter and now author.
He's written a memoir about his early years and about his parents. It's
called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
In your memoir, you reproduce a business card from one of your band
members in one of the first bands you ever played in when you were a
Mr. CROWELL: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: I think you're still in high school. The band was called The
Arbitrators, and the business card said: The English sound, the surf
beat, rhythm and blues, country if you want it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CROWELL: Right. Yeah. Well...
GROSS: Why did the country have a little disclaimer there?
Mr. CROWELL: Well, you know, it's - you know, we've always been the
stepchild to it all, you know? There's a certain, you know, the hayseed
oh, we're not as intelligent as the rest of mainstream and, you know,
all of the things that we've tried to live down. And, you know, that's
just proof that all the way back in the teenage rock and roll band that
I had, that we could play - we - I loved country music back then. I
loved Hank Williams. Hank Williams was my first idol. But, you know, we
had that little disclaimer that well, we'll play it if you want it, you
know. And it's - you know, country music has come a long way since then.
GROSS: When you started performing professionally in Nashville, writing
country songs and, you know, recording them yourself, other people
recording them, did you know where you fit? Did you see yourself as
fitting any particular genre of country music? You know, oh, I'm going
to be a country outlaw, or I'm going to be - I think it was before the
expression, you know, alt country, alternative country. Like, where did
you see yourself fitting in? Certainly not like the rhinestone Nudie
Mr. CROWELL: I was lucky in that I arrived in Nashville with my college
roommate Donivan Cowart. We were both songwriters, and we were a singing
duo. And we fancied ourselves songwriters, but we didn't yet - we
weren't formed yet. When I arrived, I just was lucky in that I fell into
a musical scene that, the great Guy Clark, great American songwriter,
was pretty much the curator of what was good. And Townes Van Zandt and
Mickey Newbury were Guy's good friends, and Guy took a liking to me and
just kind of took me under his arm. He said something to me early on
that has always stuck with me. He said, he says, now look. He says you
can be a star, or you can be an artist. He said you can be an artist and
become a star, he says, but I don't think that it works the other way
around. He says, but they're both okay. Pick one, and get good at it.
Well, I knew he was an artist, you know, so I said, I want to be an
artist. I want to be an artist. So he said, okay, you know. So he sat me
down and started playing Dylan Thomas, reading his poetry - some Dylan
Thomas recordings - and he says okay, listen to this. Listen to how good
this is. You've got to make your songs this good. It had a profound
effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was
being given me. But eventually, it gave me the intent that I wanted to
try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness, or museum-
quality work. You know, I'm not saying that I've achieved museum
quality. But if you're not swinging for museum quality or timeless, then
why bother? That's been the driving force for me.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to sing a song for us that you wrote early
in your career. You recorded this in the 1970s, in the late '70s, and I
think it's one of the first recordings that you made. And the song I'm
going to ask you to do is "'Til I Can Gain Control Again." Can you talk
a little bit about writing this, and if you thought of this as an
autobiographical song and what was going on in your life when you wrote
Mr. CROWELL: Well, this would continue from what I was just telling you
about, my relationship with Guy Clark, that Guy Clark - Townes Van Zandt
is widely known as one of the most beautiful poets of songwriting. You
know, his songwriting exists as just pure poetry - beautiful, beautiful
songwriter. Unfortunately, he died young. And I just wanted to write
something good enough for Guy to continue believing in me and also to
get Townes Van Zandt's acknowledgment. And - because, you know, with
Townes, you weren't going to get it unless you earned it. And this song,
I think - you know, memory being revisionist, I think this was the one
where Townes sort of looked at me and said oh, okay. You can stick
around for a while.
(Soundbite of song, "'Til I Can Gain Control Again")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) Just like the sun over the mountain tops, you
know I'll always come again. You know I love to spend my morning time
like sunlight dancing on your skin. I've never gone so wrong. As for
telling lies to you, what you've seen is what I've been. There is
nothing that I could hide from you. Now you see me better than I can.
Out on the road that lies before me now, there are some turns where I
will spin. I only hope that you can hold me now, hold me now, 'til I can
gain control again, 'til I can gain control again.
GROSS: That's such a beautiful song. Thanks for playing that for us.
That's my guest, Rodney Crowell.
And how many people have recorded that song?
Mr. CROWELL: Oh, quite a few. I've lost track. You know, Johnny -
Crystal Gayle had the number one record of it, but Emmylou Harris
recorded it first - Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. Oh,
gosh - this Mortal Coil, Van Morrison, Raul Malo. Gosh, there's just so
many. It's been recorded - I guess it's my – it's either that one or
"Ain't Living Long Like This" is my most covered song, I think. I'm
GROSS: You mentioned one of the people who recorded it was Johnny Cash,
who was your father-in-law for about 10 years when you were married to
Rosanne Cash in the '80s. And I just have one question about that. You
know, I'm sure he was so iconic to you when you were growing up. So,
like, what's it like to have someone who had been an icon in your life
suddenly be your - like, your father-in-law?
Mr. CROWELL: My relationship with John was - it was a blessing in my
life. First of all, he was the first superstar I was ever around. And
when I first showed up on the scene, you know, being - just starting
out, you know, just getting some songs recorded and starting to go
around and play and, you know, making a little bit of money. I had a
little bit of self-respect. But when I first came into the family, into
the entourage, there were a lot - you had to - there was a gauntlet you
had to get through, a lot of sycophants, a lot people who were around
who their lives - or they thrive, you know, like a swarm of bees around
And so when I first came in, I was hell-bent to earn respect. And so
maybe I went over the top little bit. You know, I was - I had a little
chip on my shoulder, and I thought: I'm trying to establish that, you
know, I'm not just some gold digger coming around here. I'm actually a
real artist. And, you know, and I think it sort of warmed John's heart.
And I think he understood what I was trying to do. I think it was
refreshing to him, and he opened up to me right away and he didn't try
to stop me kind of going overboard and kind of having this attitude like
hey, you know, I'm cool. He just let me do it until I realized on my own
is, hey, he accepted me from day one.
GROSS: Did Johnny Cash get along with your father?
Mr. CROWELL: John met my father, I think, once or twice. Certainly, when
Rosanne and I got married in California, my father was there. And
actually, he and John got up and they both sang songs at the same time,
together. And it was - of course, you can understand, from my father, it
was, you know, he was floating on air. He was dancing with Hollywood
starlets, and he was having the time of his life. It was good. It was
good to see. He had - his step was light that night.
GROSS: Wow. You know, at the end of your memoir, your new memoir,
"Chinaberry Sidewalks," you write that becoming a father helped spark a
reconciliation with your parents, because your children became so close
with – well, I guess with your mother. You know, your children became
very close with your mother.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah, they did.
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: So did you start to see your childhood differently, too, becoming
Mr. CROWELL: Yeah. I started – when I became a father, I slowly began to
understand that I was making some of the same mistakes that they made.
It's, you know, it's part of parenthood. You just make mistakes. And I
learned, you know, it's like, you know, it's one thing to be guilty,
but, you know, you can be guilty without really being to blame. It's
like our childhood, sometimes it's just the imprint that it gives us, it
takes us a long time to live our way out of it.
And I think by the time my children started arriving and I saw my
parents loving them and I saw them just drinking in that love, and I
started to realize, you know, the anger that I, you know, and the
distance and the coldness that I wanted to keep, that little protection
that I thought I needed to wear or to sort, you know, to wear like an
armor, I realized I didn't need it. I just needed to forgive.
And, you know, when you start - when forgiveness starts, you've got to
start with yourself, you know? And as a parent, I had to learn to
forgive myself, because I was constantly making mistakes, and it would
become really obvious. Oh, okay. You've - I learn to forgive myself and
lo and behold, I'm forgiving my beloved parents.
GROSS: My guest is Rodney Crowell. His new memoir is called "Chinaberry
Sidewalks." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer
Rodney Crowell. And after making many albums, now he has a new memoir
called "Chinaberry Sidewalks." It's about growing up poor in East
Houston. It's about his early life. It's about his parents' tumultuous
marriage. And he's brought his guitar with him, and he's been singing
some of his songs that relate to stories in the book.
And I'd like you to end with a song, if you wouldn't mind playing for us
"I Know Love is All I Need." And maybe you could tell us about writing
it and introduce it for us.
Mr. CROWELL: I can tell you about it. I was making a record called "The
Houston Kid." And I started writing "The Houston Kid," and I really
started tinkering with the notion that I could write a memoir around the
same time I was writing the songs. And the songs - "The Houston Kid"
songs were basically musical memoir, although I took a lot of poetic
license and I kind of made the environment that I grew up, the part of
east Houston, a character in the songs.
But then one night, I had this really vivid dream from my parents. They
came to visit me and sat me down in this dream and said, hey, well, we
like this record you're making, but you're not telling the whole story.
And I said something sort of flip in my dream like oh, yeah? Well,
enlighten me, then. And they gave me this information. I don't know what
it was. It looked to me, you know, it looked like digital encoding. But
I woke up and wrote this down. And it came out like this.
(Soundbite of song, "I Know Love is All I Need")
Mr. CROWELL: (Singing) So I'm an orphan now, out here on my own, and
it's hard to know where I belong. It comes as no surprise. It happens to
us all. Just like the sun will rise, night will fall.
Oh, I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. I know love is
all I need. That's all I know.
An image I recall, a picture on the wall, of my mother on her wedding
day. Young and naive, nothing up her sleeve, but the things that just
got lost along the way.
Oh, I know love is all I need. Oh, I know love is all I need. I know
love is all I need. That's all I know.
There's a voice I hear. It comes in loud and clear. It's my father voice
teaching me. He says to be a man, you've got to be true to your word.
Then when you make a stand, you'll be heard.
Oh, I know love is all I need. Oh, I know love is all I need. I know
love is all I need. That's all I know.
I can see it in my children. I can feel it with my wife. And I know it
with these friends I have who are so important to my life.
I had a dream last night. I saw my mom and dad. They were happy now, and
I was glad. They had this brand new house that they'd just moved in, and
when I awoke they were gone.
But I know love is all I need. I know love is all I need. I know love is
all I need. That's all I know.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell, thank you so much. This was really wonderful. I
really, really appreciate the singing and playing that you did for us
and talking about your life. Thank you.
Mr. CROWELL: Thank you.
GROSS: Rodney Crowell's new memoir is called "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
He's currently on tour. You can read an excerpt of his book on our
website: freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our
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