One August night in 72, young Rodney Crowell arrived in Nashville with $15 to his name. Crowell -- who plays the Neighborhood Theatre Saturday night -- was eagerly obeying Jim Duff, the mentor who'd encouraged him to leave his native Port Houston's music scene of canal bars, rodeo dancehalls and Holiday Inns and sign with Columbia Records, and tour with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Although Duff had already sold off the publishing rights to Crowell's demo tape and vamoosed back to Texas, things turned out okay. Crowell stole his demo back from the publisher's office, and started playing for tips at a Nashville dive. This local, Bishop's Pub, was also frequented by other resourceful young songwriters, including two who were already quite distinctive: Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
This fecund scene is preserved in the 1975 documentary, Heartworn Highways. A remarkable companion album (with more music than made it onto the screen) will be released by Shout! Factory on March 15. It includes "Bluebird Wine," which Crowell says is the first of his songs that Clark ever approved of (the late great Van Zandt was a harder sell, it seems.) Clark has denied wanting to be a taskmaster or teacher of Crowell; he's said he learned from the latter. But Crowell seems always to have felt the urge to both learn from and prove himself to some magical figure. "Bluebird Wine" euphorically celebrates being discovered by a woman who provides wine and creative inspiration.
Soon after writing "Wine," he met Emmylou Harris, who had been discovered and mentored in turn by the late mad genius, Gram Parsons. In Crowell, still relatively unknown in Nashville, Harris found her own private Gram surrogate, her secret stash of soulful, song-filled, ceaseless striving. Eventually, Crowell pushed himself out of what he's called "the Great School of Emmylou," and spent several frustrating years as a solo artist. He did have hits, but usually when other people covered his songs. The stash wasn't secret any more.
In the early 80s, he found himself schooling (and being schooled by) Johnny Cash's young daughter, Rosanne. He helped her have hits, and he even, finally, had five number one hits off his own album, Diamonds And Dust. This strange winning streak proved to be a fluke, although he tried to come up with a hitmaking formula -- like he and Cash were developing in her product. They both became sick of the whole hitmaking grind. The couple drove themselves and each other to push beyond safe songwriting, this compositional daring eventually applying to their attempts to make sense of their marriage's shipwreck.
In 2001, Crowell made an album with his own money, rather than feel compelled to try and please a major label "benefactor" one more time. He cannily shopped it to a well-heeled, intelligent indie label, Sugar Hill. This album bore his old nickname, The Houston Kid, but it was really a mix of his own tumultuous youth, exploring some of the lives Crowell might've lived (before dying), if music hadn't provided some kind of stability. The Houston Kid was highly acclaimed and deservedly so. It was masterful with no sense of anxiously overselling good material, as he'd tended to do previously.
Crowell followed this with Fate's Right Hand (2003), in which he tries to provide solace and sense to troubled friends, while struggling with his own paranoid compulsions on "The Man In Me." Last year's The Outsider is more overtly political, to put it mildly, but certainly redeems the clichéd aspect of "the personal is political." Viewpoints shift; moments, whole characters and whole lives melt away; but the people in these songs are connected, whether they want to be or not.
Although Crowell's mellifluous (Everlys to Beatles, Merle to Costello) twang is as reliable as ever, the most startling track is his reworking of Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm." The song's always seemed like grandiose self-pity, but suddenly here's Dylan's fantasy sorceress in eerie flesh: none other than Emmylou Harris, now trading verses with Crowell. Understandably, he sounds a bit spooked -- Harris keeps changing keys on him, yet they can still harmonize. You can tell Crowell couldn't stop singing if he tried, and he doesn't.
Rodney Crowell & The Outsiders play the Neighborhood Theatre Sat., Mar. 4, 8:00pm; $20. www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.