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Rodney Crowell says he’s at his zenith: ‘I’m the best singer I’ve ever been’

“If I’m patient enough and willing to put in the work, the song will eventually tell me what it wants to be,” says Rodney Crowell, who performs Thursday at Knuckleheads. Crowell’s 18th studio album, “Close Ties,” will be released March 31.
“If I’m patient enough and willing to put in the work, the song will eventually tell me what it wants to be,” says Rodney Crowell, who performs Thursday at Knuckleheads. Crowell’s 18th studio album, “Close Ties,” will be released March 31. AP

Rodney Crowell has been a solo recording artist for more than 40 years. The two-time Grammy winner has recorded 17 solo albums, including “Diamonds & Dirt,” his most-acclaimed and successful, and “Old Yellow Moon,” a collaboration with Emmylou Harris that won a 2014 Grammy for best Americana album.

On March 31, he will release “Close Ties,” his 18th studio album. Crowell, who performs at Knuckleheads Saloon on Thursday, recently talked to The Star about the upcoming album and the art of songwriting.

Q: You have a new record coming out at the end of this month, “Close Ties.” What can you tell us about it?

A: It’s good. The best record I’ve ever made. You need to get it. … I sounded a little bit like Donald Trump there, didn’t I? It’s awesome. Really great. It’s the best. Take my word for it.

Q: Do you say that about every record?

A: Of course I do. If you don’t, why bother making it? You only really know for sure six to nine months later, when it’s like, “Well, I fooled myself on that one.”

Since you haven’t heard it, you have no way of knowing if what I’m telling you is the truth. Here’s what I can tell you: It’s a collection of 10 songs I wrote, most of them pretty new. A lot of them are about long-term relationships I had. There’s a couple about Guy and Susanna Clark, who both passed away while I was writing these songs. There’s a song about guilt, songs about pleasure, loneliness, joy, a song about tornadoes coming down and the apocalypse and also the redemption.

Q: What frame of mind were you in going into the studio?

A: One thing I can say with complete conviction: Where I am at this stage in my career, I’m the best singer I’ve ever been. And that’s a fact. You could argue all day with me about that, but I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know what it’s taken for me to get to the place where I am as a vocalist, and I have more confidence in that now than I ever have. So that’s good news.

I think it’s biological and a matter of experience. My voice needed years to develop the kind of gravity I wanted to have way back when, but it wasn’t there. Now that it is there, I’m able to accomplish things with my voice I was unable to accomplish before.

So the question was, what frame of mind was I in when I went into the studio? Well, I was in this frame of mind: I can’t wait to do this because I can bring to bear skills I didn’t use to have.

Q: Do you know how many albums you’ve recorded?

A: I’ve lost count. I’ve heard several numbers called out. I mean, I made a couple of bad records with bands, I made a collection of duets with Emmylou. … Somewhere between 17 and 20.

Q: Do you have memories of most of them?

A: I have memories I want to forget. If I sat down and quietly looked at it, I could probably recall parts of the sessions on every one.

Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned about songwriting?

A: If I’m patient enough and willing to put in the work, the song will eventually tell me what it wants to be, and when I try to superimpose something on it, I don’t get anywhere. So I have to find the willingness to wait it out and let it tell me what it wants to be.

Q: What advice would you give to a young or inexperienced songwriter?

A: Listen very closely to Jimmie Rodgers. Listen very closely to Leonard Cohen. Listen very closely to Tom Waits and very closely to Bob Dylan. Listen very closely to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Listen very closely to Elvis Costello. Live inside of Chuck Berry. As long as you can, listen very closely to Howlin’ Wolf and Lightin’ Hopkins. Pay close attention to what Ray Charles put together. You follow the drift.

Once you’ve done that, go to school and break down Guy Clark starting in 1972, and also break down for yourself, write it down on paper, how Townes Van Zandt was able to make those songs so heavenly and seamless. You can’t find the artist at work in those songs. You don’t feel or see or sense the sweat of the brow. It seems effortless. If you can do that, you can have a career.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Thursday

Rodney Crowell performs Thursday at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester Ave. Jamie Lin Wilson opens. Show time is 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $29.50. KnuckleheadsKC.com

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