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Grammy Nom Rodney Crowell Recalls Hot Band Roots

Rodney Crowell First Time in Variety
helen green; photo reference: Joseph Llanes

The recent Grammy nominations put country singer-songwriter legend Rodney Crowell at the even-dozen mark, with 10 nominations and two wins. But the record is still spinning on his latest nomination for “It Ain’t Over Yet,” a contender for American Roots Song honors to be handed out next year. This comes on the heels of Crowell receiving the ASCAP Founders Award last month for his impressive body of work. It was his association as musician and songwriter with fellow music legend Emmylou Harris that put Crowell’s career into high gear. After meeting the fast-rising singing star at Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters nightclub in early 1975, Crowell soon joined her backup group, the Hot Band. When Crowell penned songs for Harris’ 1975 album “Elite Hotel,” he made the ink in Variety for the first time.

You connected with Emmylou Harris in Austin, but you’d already left Texas for Nashville before that. What was Nashville in the early
’70s like?

I remember living in my car through the fall of 1972, then, in the spring of 1973 I got my first cut on one of my songs by Jerry Reed. Decca Music offered me $100 a week to become a staff songwriter. I met some interesting people.

Speaking of Emmylou, she already knew of your writing before you met in Austin.

That’s right. A great bass player from Canada named Skip Beckwith had heard some of my songs and in 1973 he took a tape of them back to Toronto and gave them to Brian Ahern, who was producing Emmylou’s albums. And she cut “Til I Gain Control Again.” But the story really starts at the Armadillo in 1975 when I sat in with her band and she said, “I’m going to L.A. tomorrow. You want to come with us?” And so I joined the Hot Band and moved to L.A.

Can you describe the Armadillo scene in 1975?

It was the epicenter of the Texas hippie counterculture. Willie Nelson was sort of the Gandhi of alt-country and still is. Back then, Willie was the drink, and Guy Clark, Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Murphy, B.W Stevenson, Rusty Wier, they were the ice cubes.

The Hot Band included some amazing musicians such as James Burton and Glen Hardin who played with Elvis and Buddy Holly. That must have raised your chops a
couple of notches.

Yes and don’t forget Albert Lee.
They were all amazing. But my constant connection with Emmylou was about songs. We harmonized and we collaborated and as a musician I may not have been quite ready to be in the band but I was at the top of my game in terms of my interest in good material.

So you weren’t just pitching your own songs.
I knew Townes Van Zandt a little bit. So I introduced Emmylou to Townes’ song “Pancho and Lefty.” Brian produced her version, which was the first cover of that song, and it turned out beautifully.

But you didn’t slow down on the musician side either.
In 1976, when Albert Lee joined the band, it really became itself. Around this time, people of taste were taking a good look at Emmylou and they were seeing my name. That was the birth of my career.