After decades as a popular performer, successful record producer and acclaimed songwriter at the heart of the alternative country movement, Rodney Crowell wanted to try something different.

After decades as a popular performer, successful record producer and acclaimed songwriter at the heart of the alternative country movement, Rodney Crowell wanted to try something different.


“I began tinkering with teaching myself how to write sentences,” said Crowell on the phone from his home in Nashville. “I kept at it, and eventually came up with a manuscript.”


That manuscript became “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” his memoir of growing up in Texas in a musical family, with parents whose tempestuous relationship was not always easy to accept.


Crowell has just started his “Chinaberry Sidewalks Tour” in which he’ll mix songs with storytelling, performing a variety of his tunes and reading from the new book and explaining how it came about.


Crowell had migrated in 1972 to Nashville, where Jerry Reed was an early fan of his writing. Emmylou Harris covered several of his tunes, and eventually recruited him to play guitar for three years in her band. Crowell had become close friends with fellow Texan Guy Clark during this time, and his writing began pushing the boundaries of country music. Crystal Gayle’s version of Crowell’s “’Til I Gain Control Again” vaulted to the top spot on the country charts in 1983, even as he was establishing a solid gold reputation as a producer.


By 1979 Crowell had married Rosanne Cash, and through the 1980s he produced some of her biggest-selling albums – “Seven Year Ache,” “Somewhere in the Stars” and “Rhythm and Romance” – which seamlessly melded rock and country elements. Crowell’s own recording career hit a high point with 1988’s “Diamonds and Dust” album, which yielded five No. 1 country hit singles. Crowell won a Grammy in 1990 for best country single for “After All This Time.”


But life in the spotlight was tearing the talented couple apart, a view reflected by both Cash’s “Interiors” album, and Crowell’s own “Life Is Messy” in 1992. The couple divorced that year. They remain friends and occasionally perform together. Crowell has been married to Claudia Church since 1998.


Crowell’s solo career began a creative resurgence with 2001’s “Houston Kid” album, his first in six years, which incorporated many autobiographical scenes. “Fate’s Right Hand” in 2003 continued that trend, along with some social commentary, and “The Outsider” in 2005 took it all a step further. The songs on those three albums are often intensely personal, honest and powerful, yet interspersed with tart perspectives on contemporary life and times. The song “Fate’s Right Hand” was named by the Americana Music Association as Song of the Year in 2004, and in 2006 Crowell was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting by the AMA.


Crowell’s 2009 album “Sex and Gasoline” sought to examine the role and images of women in modern America, inspired by an eating disorder one of his daughters was struggling to overcome. It was nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary country album.


“That particular time in my life, my writing was fueled by the pain of having one of my daughters going through a difficult time,” Crowell, 60, said. “That overshadowed everything at the time. But, like everything else, eventually you see if you can make some art out of it, and use it as raw material. People did make some funny assumptions. Early in the publicity phase for that album, the idea was bandied about that I was trying to write from the point of view of a woman – I was surely not. I was writing as a man trying to find out what was going on, and how to understand it.”


He’s been working on “Chinaberry Sidewalks” over the past several years.


“I suppose it is part of the process that began with ‘Houston Kid,’” Crowell said. “All these memories just started catching up to me, and it just came naturally. It wasn’t something I expected or looked for, just the natural flow of how inspiration works with any artist.”


Crowell said the tour is a book and music event. “It will be a storytelling affair for sure, with some reading from the book. But there are songs, like ‘Houston Kid,’ which work very well in sustaining the narrative. Others strike a certain tone that I’m looking for. It is definitely NOT the kind of quiet book-tour event you might see at a coffeehouse or library.”


Crowell also had a watershed moment last year, when his daughter Chelsea Crowell released her debut album. His daughter did not solicit his help.


“I admire Chelsea’s work, and the way it was produced,” said Crowell. “Listening to it, she is definitely my daughter, but she didn’t want my thumbprint on it at all, and I understand that. She did it herself, and wants it to be hers. I hope someday she does ask for my help, because of course I’d love to work with my daughter. Right now, she doesn’t need me. But I do see the eye of a poet there in her writing, and I’m vain enough to think she could help me out by coming out to do a few shows with me sometime.”


Even producing country singer Chely Wright’s album “Lifted off the Ground” last year was a one-time diversion, Crowell noted.


“Chely is my friend and she needed some help,” said Crowell. “I truly felt that her music should be in the world, so I helped her. But I’m a retired record producer. I got into that side of the business some years ago, simply because my girlfriend at the time – and later, wife – Rosanne Cash needed someone to produce her records. I sort of backed into that whole producing thing. I’m a songwriter and performer first, and right now I will only consider occasional projects to produce.”


The Patriot Ledger