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Chicago Brings Out the Best in Rodney Crowell

Rodney Crowell teams up with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on his latest album "The Chicago Sessions"

Rodney Crowell’s reputation as a meticulous – if not perfectionist – songwriter is no better illustrated than on his latest album The Chicago Sessions, produced by Jeff Tweedy and recorded in the Wilco front man’s studio in the Windy City, as the title suggests.

And it is Crowell’s down-right clinical treatment of one particular song on the album which further enhances this reputation. He wrote “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good” back in the 1970’s and Emmylou Harris included it on her classic 1977 album Luxury Liner. Until now, Crowell had never recorded or even performed the song himself – though he played acoustic guitar on the Harris version when he was a prominent member of The Hot Band.

He finally debuts his version on The Chicago Sessions with a treatment which contrasts with the Harris track, both musically and, even, lyrically.

Crowell told No Depression that as much as he admired Harris’ version, her treatment “was not close to what I had in mind for the song.” He added: “It took me years to own the musical composition of it."

And he does with an introduction which is acoustic and somewhat gentle. Then, as the song progresses to the chorus, he employs a popish, upbeat rhythm – aided by guitarist Jedd Hughes - which takes “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good” into a more sympathetic space than the lyrics originally implied in Harris’ version.

And speaking of lyrics, Crowell also takes a splicer to these. Just compare the opening verses he wrote for Harris to those in his new version:

Harris Crowell

Soul mate I see you down there Soul mate I see you down there

Waiting for morning to softly be coming Waiting for daybreak to soften your heartache

I find I’m only in deeper Last night I treated you badly

And you’d be a leaver But I love you madly

If you weren’t so scared Come high tide or low

Your true love has made you feel better Old wounds

But look out for later From God only knows when

When she makes you feel worse Doing us both in

Times change in daydreams and flashes Is a hard way to go

A taste of the past is all I have seen Here’s what I know

The opening stanza in the refrain too gets different treatment:

But you’re supposed to be feeling good You’re supposed to be feeling good now

Everybody said you would Everybody said you would

Honey does it blow your mind Did you ever wonder why

That the prophets would lie It all comes down to one big lie

Re-writing the lyrics was central for Crowell to achieve what he termed “ownership” of the song. "I've even re-written some of the lyrics to some degree to reflect the differences between the early version and this one," he said.

There is one other Crowell song from his distant past and that is the album closer “Ready to Move On.” He wrote it around 15 years ago and it sat in his in-tray until he found the right album to give it an outing. Again, this wordsmith delights as he stitches together a clever list of opposites:

No right, no wrong/no weak, no strong/no black, no white/no dark, no light/no in, no out

There is only one cover on The Chicago Sessions and it is the beautiful Townes Van Zandt “No Place to Fall.” Crowell told No Depression: "I first heard the song when I was sitting at the breakfast table at Guy and Susanna Clark's place. Townes said he had a new song he wanted to play for me, and it's been on my mind to record it ever since."

He added:"I mentioned it to Jeff, and right away said we had to have it in the album."

The other seven Crowell compositions are all contemporary, most of them written in his studio during the pandemic. “Everything At Once” is actually a rollicking co-write with Tweedy, who also contributes vocals and guitar on the song. In fact, Tweedy’s role as producer was somewhat substantial, with Crowell actually giving him final approval for track selection.

"Jeff was the perfect host, and he's a great producer," Crowell said. "He inspired me to keep it simpler than I might have. I tend to overthink things."

"Ive produced quite a few of my own records over the years. But I think I'm a better performer when someone else is wearing that hat. I feel so much more relaxed and present when all I need to do is play and sing, and Jeff's studio was like a playground for us to let go and lose ourselves in song."

The decision to record at Wilco’s The Loft studio in Chicago came from a long-standing invitation made by Tweedy when he toured together with Crowell on a Cayamo cruise, the annual music fest around the Carribean.. But it was only prompting by his daughter sometime later that actually convinced Crowell to head for Chicago.

"This is where Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry recorded at Chess Studios," he said. "There is also the connection to John Prine and Steve Goodman. That's why I called it The Chicago Sessions."

Whatever the inspiration, and Tweedy's influence, the 72-year-old Crowell can be proud of his back-to-the-future production in the Windy City. Just listen to the delightful lover's lament "Making Lovers Out Of Friends" and you instantly know it is from the same musical wisdom that all those years ago gave us "'Til I Gain Control Again" - one of the greatest love songs of a lifetime.

For you can take the boy out of Nashville, and put him in Chicago, or wherever, but you can never take Nashville out of this boy.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation


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