Once upon a time Rodney Crowell, one of the great Texas singer/songwriters, was hired to produce a country/pop album for Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne, also a writer of considerable strengths. It was 1977.
From the late 1970s, and through all of the ‘80s, they made one smash hit after another, with her singing, him arranging and producing, both of them writing. They raised the bar for country music, and for rock ‘n’ roll. Crowell and Cash were married for most of those years, and along with a bunch of great records they produced three daughters.
Chelsea, the one in the middle, has a mile–wide creative streak. She attended Belmont University in Nashville, and the Memphis College of Art, studying history, English and photography
Two or three years ago, she entered the family business. Crystal City, Chelsea Crowell’s second album, has just been released to glowing reviews. The supporting tour brings her to town for the Savannah Stopover this week.
That’s right, guys. She is Johnny Cash’s granddaughter.
Her official bio reads, in part: “She likes black coffee, has never been to rehab and usually brings extra clothes to the studio in case her body temperature or mood changes.”
We reached out to Rodney Crowell via e–mail, requesting a Chelsea–centric comment for this story.
His reply: “I knew Chelsea was a songwriter when, at the age of four, she sang confidently in the back seat of the car, ‘Old MacDonald had a farm and Bingo was his name.’”
Considering your family, was it a foregone conclusion that you would do this?
Chelsea Crowell: Writing, definitely. I didn’t know how much I was going to participate in it, but I knew that’s what I wanted to be around. Writing, I never had a question about. Maybe I had resistance towards music and getting onstage. I started playing guitar when I was 13, and then I stopped and started again when I was 17 or 18. I guess it’s a complicated matter that I try not to think too much about.
Your second album is out now, you’re on tour and you’re playing SXSW —what changed?
Chelsea Crowell: I loved the band I was in, and we had a lot of fun. Then my musical partner Stephen took off to go on the road with another band — I was doing something —and Loney Hutchins and I went into record an EP. Within the first three days, we realized that we had probably several albums’ worth of work. I don’t think it had ever really struck me before that I could make a record, but I just did it, didn’t really come up for air, didn’t think about it because all the material was there.
And it wasn’t until I was done with it that I though ‘Oh ... I’ve just done what the rest of my family does.’
It was a snowball, making that first record, being experimental. And since then I’ve stair–stepped leaps and bounds in terms of what I’ve learned. And I’m focusing now on what I’m going to do for the next record I’m going to make, starting in May. It becomes more and more focused with each one.
Crystal City, sonically, reminds me of the Emmylou Harris/Daniel Lanois collaborations. It’s like, there are no rules as to how a “country” record or a “singer/songwriter” record should sound like. You can put different things together.
Chelsea Crowell: I don’t think that it’s for everybody. I’m a really stubborn, headstrong person in the studio. With what you’re talking about, there’s a lot to cover. And it can be daunting, to say the least. Especially when you’re borrowing from every genre of music that you’ve ever fallen in love with at some point in your life. And I have a proper musical education, thanks to my parents.
So there’s a lot of borrow from. That kind of editing is not for everybody. It’s both liberating and daunting, I guess.
What do you want to happen, Chelsea? What’s the sort of nirvana situation for you in all of this?
Chelsea Crowell: I try not to go too far ahead. Maybe that’s how I avoid the huge, dark shadows and thinking about the judgment and stuff. I really enjoy being on the road. I really enjoy playing music. Breaking even, selling records is really satisfying. Making money, paying bills by selling records ... I think the first time I was able to pay my bills by selling records was one of those moments in life where I didn’t give in to anything, and yet still made enough money to pay some bills. I mean, even if it was just that one month, but then it kept on going! And of course, it goes backwards and forwards.
One last thing … Are you still writing an opera?
Chelsea Crowell: Oh yeah, it’s screaming at me from the desk drawer.
At 8:30 p.m. March 10, Telfair Museum