When I was around 12 years old, my brother came home with a copy of Jerry Jeff Walker’s album, “Viva Terlingua.” It sounded out of control, rough, like a cross between a bar-fight and a church revival. But the songs…they brought you in and wouldn’t let go.
And a voice that was all gravel, whiskey and velvet.
I was already writing songs by then, but that album altered my stars and set me down the trail of the whole Texas music thing that was going on around that time. Guy Clark, Townes, Rodney Crowell…
Later, after my family had moved to Houston, I bought every Jerry Jeff album I could get my hands on. I used to go see him play whenever he was in town. I would sneak into the Texas Opry House to see the Lost Gonzo Band, and discovered others, John Prine, BW Stevenson, Michael Murphy, Steven Fromholz…it was my education. Stories, with a melody. Great songs. They showed us all how it is done. The sound of those records is scratched indelibly onto my brain.
But for me, it all goes back to Jerry Jeff.
Without him, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs, playing music. You could say he ruined my life! Or blessed it.
Every now and then I run into Jerry Jeff around Austin. We talk guitars, drink coffee. I love his stories.
At The Nobelity Project event this year he and I sang Railroad Lady together. If you would have told the 17 year old me that this would happen I would’ve called you crazy.
Aren’t you glad life doesn’t work out like we plan?
Back in 1979 I dragged two friends to Rockefeller’s in Houston to see J.D Souther. I was just a junior in high school but I knew that he was cool, that he’d written all these great songs.
Black Roses, White Rhythm And Blues.
New Kid In Town.
He was sick that night, barely had a voice, so instead of doing two sets, just did one. But the show was amazing. It was one of the nights that made me want to be a songwriter for a living.
Yesterday I stepped out of my hotel in lower Manhattan and there he was, standing by the door.
I think when you see a hero you should let them know. And maybe get a picture.
1996 – Nashville
Rodney Crowell is on his way to pick me up for breakfast. I’m standing in the lobby of the hotel wondering why this is happening. I don’t know Rodney that well. We’ve toured together a few times, ran into each other a few times in airports and on street corners in New York.
Like so many events in my life, I’m not sure how I got here, but here I am.
He shows up in a brand new Lexus. This is the first time I’ve been in one, maybe even seen one.
“Nice ride,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, “Pretty tall cotton.” (That has to be one of my favorite Texas turn-of-phrase.) “You know, I’ve done well, but I never did so well that I wasn’t hungry. I’ve always had to work. All my friends that don’t have to work? Their songs start to suck. They’re not hungry anymore.”
And looking at Rodney’s output, from songwriting, records, touring, producing, books, it shows. He works. He both wants to, and needs to.
Just as there are many ways to get paid, hunger comes in many forms. Call it drive, desire, passion, the need to pay the bills, it’s all the same. It’s that thing, that voice telling you to get busy, the motivating fire to make something. And to do it better, constantly pushing to find something new, to go a little deeper.
Always be a little hungry.
(I took this photo of Rodney Crowell in Nashville on 9.12.16. He sounds better than ever. And that is one nice hat.)
Years ago, David Kahne (the record producer and also my A&R guy atColumbia Records) told me that the magic of Bruce Springsteen is that he writes new folk songs. You feel like you’ve heard them for years.
This morning when I sat at the piano for an hour learning “Racing In The Streets” that statement made sense.
I woke up singing the song today, and lately when that happens, I have to learn whatever it is that’s bouncing around my head. Songs like “Autumn Leaves” or “My Funny Valentine.”
I like to explore how the songs are put together, why they work.
With those old songs, the melody and chords go together like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. There’s a lot of moving parts.
“Racing In The Streets,” has this incredibly deceptive simplicity that, when you really look at it, is so complicated and crafted, so beautiful, and haunting in it’s truth. The lyric just sits there on the notes. There is nothing fancy about it.
It’s just real, true.
You don’t have to be behind the wheel of that car to feel it.
And there’s only 6 notes in the song.
Almost twenty five years after David Kahne’s statement I found myself sitting at the piano, playing that same melody for an hour, singing the words over and over, marveling at what a truly great gift Bruce Springsteen is to the planet.
Writing a song with somebody connects you like glue.
You sit in a room and spill your soul, tell each other secrets that you can’t, or won’t, confess in any other setting.
You find the poetry that hangs around the edges of a life,
Sing about the beauty, the darkness, what’s lost and found.
Together, you put it all into a rhyme, a melody,
Sing it a couple of times, make a recording.
It might be that no one ever hears it, might turn out to be a hit.
Regardless, at the end of the day, you have something that wasn’t there before, something you couldn’t have made without each other.
There’s a connection that comes from doing this.
The song may not last, but that link does.
I’m grateful to have had the chance to write with both of these gents, Radney Foster and Jack Ingram.
The songs are usually pretty good, but the hang is relentlessly fantastic.