Rodney Crowell: Playing to the A Student

Rodney Crowell-red line-2

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

“If I could influence someone’s description of me I would say, ‘he was curious and he was humble. And somewhere way back in his emotional mindset he was very self-assured.’” – Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell grew up in Texas. His childhood was a hardscrabble one. It didn’t hit him until years later that he had been traumatized by it. His father was a hardcore alcoholic who wasn’t opposed to hitting his mother on occasion. Rodney carried that shame with him long into his adulthood.

His mother was epileptic and belonged to a fanatical, Pentecostal church. Rodney was shaken to his core after witnessing church members shouting at her, while having a seizure, to spit out the Devil. Despite having no use for organized religion of any kind he considers himself a spiritual person. “I’ve always had faith. I’ve never been without it. Ever.”

Rodney began playing drums in bars for his dad’s band when he was 11. His parents neither encouraged nor discouraged their only child’s musical aspirations. At 15, Rodney left home to join a rock and roll band. His dad and mom waved goodbye at the door. He doesn’t even remember if they said, “good luck.”

When he moved out, it didn’t occur to Rodney that playing in a band wasn’t a practical way to make a living. “I never considered anything else and I think for that very reason I’ve had a career that’s lasted. I’ve paid the bills making music since I was fifteen. Music was the catnip. And I was one of those cartoon cats that was just floating through the air following the sound. I’ve been pulled along since day one, really.”

These days Rodney is known primarily for his work as a grammy award winning country music singer/songwriter. His compositions have been recorded by Keith Urban, Bob Seger, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash. His acclaimed memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is a continuation of the door he opened into his childhood in his semi-autobiographical album, The Houston Kid. He has continued to weave the narrative of his life throughout the albums he’s made since then.

By the time Rodney was 22, he had made his way to Nashville. He had fallen in with group of songwriters who mentored each other through the learning process. At the helm of them was Guy Clark. He gave Rodney a book of poet, Dylan Thomas’s to study. He wanted to make clear what they were doing was creating art. Rodney poured over it. For the first time in his life, he came to the conclusion that songwriting wasn’t something you just do to make money. Being an artist was about sharing your deeper self.

Around 1998, the stardom Rodney longed for began to materialize. At the time, he was married to singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash. They were raising Rodney’s daughter from his first marriage and three of their own girls. That same year his album, Diamonds and Dirt yielded five consecutive No.1 singles. It looked like Rodney had hit the big time. Blinded by churning out music for the masses, he had lost sight of the artist he envisioned himself being in his early twenties. Rodney felt like he had fallen into mediocrity. The celebrity he counted on making him happy had become a detriment to his psyche. “In my youth I craved fame because I was a young man unfulfilled. I was trying to fix the holes in my soul that were there from childhood.”

With the realization that he had lost his way, Rodney shifted gears and self-financed his album Houston Kid. It was risky. He made it with the cash he had on hand, even bouncing a couple of checks in the process.“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.” Eleven albums later he has never veered from that path.

No longer chasing fame, Rodney’s focus is on a career with longevity. “As T-Bone Burnett said to me a long time ago, ‘Oh Rodney, I get it. You don’t want to be rich. You play to the A student.’ He was being funny and sarcastic, but if you’re going to follow your own heart, you have to be prepared to have a small following because it’s singular sensibility as opposed to board stroke sensibility.”

Rodney has learned much over the 50 odd years he has been in the music business. One thing is for certain, he no longer allows fear to dictate his actions. “I remember forming the mindset that if I was afraid of something, I would do it. As a matter of a fact, I made Houston Kid  because I was afraid to expose a lot of material in that. I was afraid to write about my father being an abuser of women…so I did it. And it transformed the way I go about doing things. Maybe for awhile I was too revealing. But maybe not.”

Looking back Rodney is at peace with his childhood. In fact, he says he wouldn’t change a thing about it. It’s the trajectory that brought him to where he is today. His faith in God has taken a real departure from the perimeters his mother gave him. “For one thing I wouldn’t call it a him. It’s male and female. It’s beyond gender. It’s singular. It’s mainly love and supreme intelligence. It’s an internal thing that’s outwardly expressed. And I think if that particular discussion even comes close to the coffee table it’s missing the point.”

Today Rodney still follows his heart.  It is something that spills over into all areas of his life.

He acknowledges his parents did the best they could with what they had. What they weren’t capable of giving him Rodney made sure he gave to his daughters. He owns that he’s done right by them, “I’m a good dad, that’s for sure.”

As far as Rodney can tell they are all following their dreams. “Of course they are. I raised them that way. My girls grew up with the example of following your heart or muse right in front of them, sometimes frustratingly so. Sometimes it was hard for them to get my attention because my head was elsewhere. But they understood although my head may have been elsewhere, my heart never was.”

“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

On the cusp of his 70th decade Rodney has an unwavering faith that he’s doing exactly what he was put on Earth to do. He is a man whose talents are fully realized. That is no accident. The resolve to be true to himself has brought him to that place.”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..”

Rodney Crowell has come to terms with his days on Earth being numbered. That awareness makes time precious. He no longer puts off being with the people he loves. And when he’s not doing that he’s making art.

**************************************************************************************In 2019 Rodney was awarded the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award

*Rodney’s 21st album, Texas, came out on Aug. 15, 2019 *************************************************************************************

*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

susan-branch-edit

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.

susan-branchs-home

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.

DSC05193

DSC05229.jpg

DSC05187 (1)

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.” 

IMG_7968

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

Susan Branch dishes.jpg

*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. 

51gksoyy-l-_sx356_bo1204203200_

51juah7xipl-_sx356_bo1204203200_

6148i7xRWrL._SX361_BO1,204,203,200_

*************************************************************************************

*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!