Rodney Crowell: : It Ain’t Over Yet

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

“I’ll bet that when you’re dying, you’re not going to think about the money you made. You’re going to think about your art.” – Guy Clark

I’ve chosen musician and author, Rodney Crowell, to feature in this Porch Light Profile. He is known primarily for his work as a country music singer/songwriter. His songs have been recorded by Keith Urban, Bob Seger, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash.  His acclaimed memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is the follow-up to his 2001 semi-autobiographical album, The Houston Kid, recounting his hardscrabble Texas youth. On March 31st, his new album, Close Ties, will be available on iTunes.

Rodney had a rough childhood. He didn’t realize until some years later that he had been traumatized by his upbringing. His dad was a hardcore alcoholic who wasn’t opposed to hitting his mother on occasion. She, on the other hand, was a member of a Pentecostal church that bordered on the fanatical. In 1965, at age 15, he moved to a town 30 miles from his home to join a rock and roll band. His leaving was met with no resistance from his parents. Rodney can’t even remember them saying, “Good luck.” Since that time, Rodney has supported himself through his music. He has never even considered doing anything else. “I’ve been pulled to it since day one. Music was the catnip, and I was just one of those cartoon cats floating in the air, following the sounds.”

By 1972, Rodney had made his way to Nashville. He fell in with a group of songwriters who mentored each other. At the helm was Guy Clark. He gave Rodney a book of Welshman Dylan Thomas’ poetry to study. He wanted to make clear that what they were doing was making art. Rodney poured over it and came to the realization that songwriting wasn’t just something you do. It’s an expression of your deeper, entire self.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Rodney continued to pay the bills with his music and songwriting. When he had five number-one hits off of his 1998 album, Diamonds and Dirt, it seemed he had arrived. The only problem was that he had strayed from the songs that rang true to him. Instead, he was writing music for the masses. “The 90s weren’t my finest years artistically. I wrote some good songs in there, but in terms of my vision of getting the paint on the canvas, that was not my best time. I didn’t like the fact that I had fallen into mediocrity,” Rodney said. That’s when he made the decision that, for better or worse, he was only going to  put out what came from within.

In 2001, no longer under contract, Rodney began work on his masterpiece, The Houston Kid. He made it with the cash he had on hand, even bouncing a couple of checks in the process. He stuck to his decision to be true to himself. “I had to fund that record on my own because I wanted to make the exact music I wanted to make. When I was doing something on someone else’s dime, I was inclined to try to anticipate what they wanted. I knew that wasn’t what an artist was supposed to do. In funding my own music, I found my voice.”

“Oh Rodney, I get it. You don’t want to be rich. You play to the A students.” – T- Bone Burnett 

In his newest album, Close Ties, Rodney continues creating from his center, writing about the relationships he holds dear. It’s timeless appeal makes it one of his best works yet. Some of the songs are so personal he knows they aren’t destined to be covered by other artists. He is fine with that, though. “I’ve earned the right to do exactly what I want and the people who are meant to find it will.”

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Today Rodney Crowell is a man who lives with no regrets. He’s following his calling, and has never looked back after making the decision to choose art over celebrity.

“I have an unwavering faith that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. I don’t think I can create anything of lasting value unless it comes from the heart. I’ve had this knowing all along, even when I lost a handle on how to do it. As a young man, I craved fame. I was trying to fix holes in my soul that were there from childhood. Now fame would be a detriment to my sensibilities. These days all I need is a following large enough to sustain the artistic process.”

At 66, Rodney knows that time is precious. He has made a conscious effort to spend it with the people he loves. And with the rest of his time he makes art.

How our paths crossed

Rodney first came to my attention in the early 1980’s when I heard his album, But What Will the Neighbors Think I was immediately hooked. After seeing a magazine photo of his wife Rosanne Cash with their darling little girls, I sent him a letter with some pictures of my paintings, asking if he would want to commission me to do a portrait of his daughters. I about fainted when he replied that he was interested in my offer. Nothing ever came of it but just that he took the time to answer made me believe in my gift a bit more. Not long after that, I was busy raising babies and lost track of his music.

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I still have the letter.

Rodney didn’t resurface again in my life until 2001 when he introduced his masterpiece, The Houston Kid. My sister and I caught his show in Chicago and were awestruck by it. I had to tell him how wonderful his new album and performance where. The next day I emailed Rodney’s management asking for an address where he could be reached. Would you believe the following morning there was an email in my inbox from Rodney himself? The subject line read, “Re: At your service.”  We struck up a friendship and talked about collaborating on a children’s book for awhile. Since that time, I’ve kept tabs on his career and purchased every recording he has put out since The Houston Kid.

 

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My ticket from the concert.

My Illustration

The face of Rodney in my watercolor is based on a compilation of photos of him performing. I took the hat he is wearing from the cover of Close Ties. My son, Brian, donned a blue shirt so I could snap an iPhone photo from which to work. The musical notes and letters pouring from his heart and wrapping around him came to me long before I interviewed him. I can think of no better way to describe who he is.

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

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My friend, Rodney, and I before his show in Chicago last week.

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*Coming up next: Profile of artist, Mary Engelbreit

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

 

Susan Branch: Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

“Believing in myself was probably the hardest thing I ever had to learn to do.”

I was first introduced to Susan Branch’s art through a mutual friend. Margot had told me more than once that we had to meet. We were kindred spirits. After I began reading Susan’s memoirs and blog I was ready for Margot to make that happen. Learning about Susan’s world made me want to be a part of it.

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In her posts and memoirs, Susan shares musings, watercolors, and photographs of her life. I had become so familiar with her surroundings that pulling up to her house sparked a feeling of déjà vu in me. No need to introduce me to her partner, Joe. I felt like we had already met. My eyes soaked in every detail of her mid 19th century home. With a flash of recognition I saw her beloved Beatrix Potter figurines on her windowsill. Through that same window I could see the white picket fenced garden Joe had built for her. When I came upon her mustached cat, Jack, I knew for certain that her blog isn’t staged. It’s her living diary.

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Susan speaks to her followers (or girlfriends as she calls them) like old friends. She loves people but admits to being an introvert. “The worst thing that can happen to me is going to the grocery store and having to make small talk with people.”  Yet she has no problem bearing her soul to the 56,000 (at last count) subscribers who follow her blog.

Her books, calendars, and blog are filled with watercolors and inspiring quotations. They are a step back into a simpler time. Susan tends to look on the sunny side of life. At the same time she doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her readers love her more. Her most recent memoirs The Fairytale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams have become two of my all time favorite reads. They follow Susan’s quest to find her light and shine.

The Fairytale Girl begins with Susan’s childhood and ends with the break up of her marriage in the 1980’s. Like many women of the time, she had hitched her wagon to a husband. Being a stay-at-home wife did have its perks. Susan was able to turn homemaking into an art while honing her skills as a watercolorist. But in the end, it left her empty. All that centering around a man meant Susan had no life of her own. Leaving the marriage meant she had no way to support herself. “I was so confused because I thought I had done everything right. I mean I was married and supposed to live happily ever after. And then suddenly I find myself in the situation were I had absolutely no control over my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

With money from her divorce, Susan decided to go for a three-month stay on Martha’s Vineyard. She loved the island and needed time to reflect. What she thought was a hiatus to nurse her wounds ended up becoming a permanent home. She was determined that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. 

The decision to start over was the beginning of Susan’s introduction to herself. She now had plenty of time to explore who she was and where she was going. She soon realized that watching the news and soap operas was effecting her outlook. “One day I said, ‘You know I am feeding myself a steady diet of bad news. I’m turning it all off. The only news I’m going to listen to is what comes through my own open windows.’” That resolution left Susan even more time to discover who she was.

”So many times I’ve been asked, ‘what are you going to do with your life? Who are you going to be?’ I had no idea, and these questions tortured me. I read everything trying to find the answers. I wished I could find a nice short book called, The Secrets of Life. I kept asking, ‘Where is it?  Someone must have written it down. Like first you do this, then you do that, and voila!’ I never found that book but my search included lots of biographies about successful people and I started reading quote books like novels. They were filled with distilled genius. I was putting two and two together. It was all there. For one thing, you should never give up. And for another, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, we already have the power within.” 

Susan learned to connect to that power by taking a course on meditation,“For me, that practice is what opened the door to the gift of ‘within.’”

Next Susan began putting her energies into making her little house a home. “Just the tiniest thing, like putting a couple of flowers in a jar is so cheerful to see on your windowsill. It gave me a sense of having control of my life. I may not have been able to do a thing about the outside, but I had complete control on the inside.”

Susan now had the time to hatch a long held dream. She began filling her hours with writing and illustrating a cookbook. Combining her love of cooking and watercoloring was a natural progression. Once completed, she gathered her courage and submitted the manuscript to Little, Brown and Company in Boston. She was floored when they wanted to publish it. She had an exclusive contract with them from 1986 until 2006. During that time, Susan created thirteen books.

After 20 years of working together, Susan and her publisher parted ways. Little, Brown and Company had been successful with her cookbooks and weren’t open to trying anything different. Susan longed to create a book in the style of her handwritten diaries. Leaving Little Brown gave her the opportunity to “Branch out” and self-publish. 

“Making a book is like making a Christmas present. You want it to be wonderful. Now I could write what I liked. I could use the paper I wanted to use. I could give it a ribbon bookmark. Starting my own company, Spring Street Publishing, gave me all of those options.” 

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The Fairy Tale Girl came out in 2015 and Susan went on to publish its sequel the following year. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss and believe in themselves. “It was about finding your heart, finding your passion, and finding what you are meant to do in life.” Hope lives in its pages. 

Susan Branch never had a concrete vision of where her artistry would take her. Her career was a byproduct of living from her center. When she found her heart, her life’s work found her. Her best marketing has always been through word of mouth. In fact, that’s how her books were brought to the attention of a Hollywood screenwriter. A script for her memoirs is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If the world-weary are lucky the screenplay will soon be made into a movie or television series. Susan’s sphere is the perfect antidote for the harshness of life.

Go. Be. Love. The world needs you. – Susan Branch

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*Today Susan spends her time at her art table in her house on Martha’s Vineyard. She is painting and writing a new diary book, called Enchanted.

**My watercolor portrait of her is based on a photograph I took when we first met. After completing the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it had been in the photo. Susan Branch had decided to let it go gray. No point in not being who you are. 

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*Coming up next: Profile of singer/songwriter, Rodney Crowell

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!