Gulf Coast Jamboree
OSMF vets Sarah Jarosz & Rodney Crowell talk Texas
After missing last year, Sarah Jarosz returns to Old Settler's, the festival where she first learned to perform in front of a large audience. Originally from Wimberley and now living in New York after graduating from Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, the 24-year-old mandolin prodigy releases her fourth album, Undercurrent, in June. We asked her to interview one of country music's backbones, Houston native Rodney Crowell, since he also returns to the Dripping Springs hootenanny this weekend.
Sarah Jarosz: You played Old Settler's before. I have such strong memories with it, so I'm curious if you do as well.
Rodney Crowell: Yes, I've played there twice, if my memory serves me correctly. I remember the stage, and I remember the people. The antics going in a trailer backstage is what I retain [laughs]. Stoney LaRue and some other guys and gals were holding court. There was a lot of music going on in the trailers. The one time I remember, we got onstage pretty oiled up. It was music from the time you get there until the time you're gone.
SJ: One of my first experiences playing music on a festival stage was at Old Settler's. [Songwriter] Darrell Scott once said the landscape one grows in ultimately affects the type of music they make. I feel your music captures the rawness of the Texas landscape.
RC: Start with growing up in Houston, which is semi-tropical and a stone's throw – 50 miles – from the Gulf of Mexico, where we ran barefoot from March until October. We weren't inclined toward introspection for the most part, but I am in a lot of ways. I'm extroverted as well. In that culture, it makes [art] come from a deeper part of yourself.
Now if you break it down geographically, it's flat there, and whoever they are, you can see them coming from a good ways off. That lends a strange expansiveness to your self-expression. Whereas if you grew up back in the hills, there's a certain sound: the guitars and the banjo rings, and a tenor voice cuts through it. In Texas, it just sprawls. There's no hills to hold the sound.
I'd have to say that Texans, historically and culturally, are the best liars in the world. Somebody once said, "Anybody who's a writer is a liar." I don't know if that answers your question, but the ability to tell a story requires you to lie convincingly and that helps with writing songs.
SJ: Growing up in that environment, who inspired you? Were they writers?
RC: First and foremost, Hank Williams. From the time I was 4, there were 10 or 12 78s that I wore out on my own. He was the soundtrack to my mother and father's life. That honky-tonk culture was really prevalent in east Houston. The music just resonated with the working-class people of Houston. Hearing all the Hanks – Snow, Cochran, Hank Locklin – and Buck Owens during the early Sixties [was important]. Chuck Berry was around the house, too, then came the Beatles. There was a fusion of all this that started with Elvis Presley, really. There was also a television show called Gulf Coast Jamboree, with this guy Utah Carl. We would gather around on Saturday afternoons to see his, I guess you'd call it, folk-art television show.
Probably more influential than anyone was my father. He wanted to be a country singer, and he was a really good one. But he didn't have the sensibility to try to make a career out of it. He played local honky-tonks and he had good bands. He'd fill dance floors. I probably learned more from him than anyone.
SJ: Going back to Hank Williams: The last time I saw you, we were doing the workshop at the Wheatland Music Festival in Michigan. You brought along the actor Tom Hiddleston.
RC: I brought Hank Williams himself.
SJ: You did. That was early in the process of you preparing him for that role in I Saw the Light. How did that go?
RC: You were gracious. Tom flew in the night before I met you in Wheatland, and I said, "Get on the bus and go with us." We didn't know what we were going to do. I presumed I'd just stick him up onstage since he's an actor and a ham. He was a good sport. It was a good bonding moment for the work we had to do because I think the message from me was "I trust you. Let's get on the stage and start this process."
To be honest, I didn't know the depth of his popularity. I didn't know who Loki was. I just thought he was a British actor, but we get up there and the camera phones just started going off and I realized I wasn't protecting him. He spent five weeks at my house, and he only went out one night for a business meeting. The rest of the time he was working on that character. He did all the vocal work in the movie, and his dedication paid off. I think the music in the film is truly authentic from that time. We were lucky to use recording equipment from that era, the Forties and Fifties, and we were able to capture that sound. He's a hardworking young man, and I grew to love him like a son.
SJ: I worked on my new record with Jedd Hughes, who worked with you and Emmylou Harris on your duets tour. Do you have any plans to do more with her in the future? Also, how did you get to know Jedd to play with him?
RC: Emmy and I did two albums and around 150 shows together. The first tour was easy, because we hadn't played those places together. When we came back with another album pretty quickly after, and you would know this, it was, "Well, you guys were just here eight months ago." Touring on the second record beat us up. I was limping toward the finish line.
Emmy and I will always work together. I don't know if we'll make another album, but certainly we'll perform together. That was a beautiful rekindling of something we started in our 20s. She was generous back then. I was just a member of her band, and she reached her hand out and got me front and center. At the time, I was a songwriter and I was fine with that, but she got me to sing. At the end of that, I felt I could look at myself and say, "I'm a good singer."
And Jedd: I was traveling with Emmy on a bus during the Down From the Mountain tour. Along comes Patty Loveless with this Aussie kid. He was about 20, and it was instant notice. Six months later, I saw him play on his own, and he brought the fire. He's just the best cat. He's getting married in September in Oahu, and I have one of those online things were I can marry people, so I'm going to Hawaii to do that. He told me he was going to work with you and I thought that was perfect.
SJ: I was lucky enough to do some co-writing with him, and he plays a huge part on my new album. He's pretty special. You're so knowledgeable about so much music. I was wondering what it was you're listening to now. Is there any new music inspiring you?
RC: It would seem disingenuous to say I listen to you, Sarah. That's very true. I can say that from the first time I heard you play, the rhythm you lay down, you've got some magician in you. You're a musician with access to the kind of magic I always relate to, rhythm. Your natural singing voice is a gift. And when you're able to combine that rhythmic sense and phrasing the way you can, you hold my attention. I'd say that if someone else asked me the same question.
Rodney Crowell plays OSMF on Friday, 6:55pm. Sarah Jarosz performs there Saturday, 5:40pm.
Old Settler's Music Festival runs Thu., April 14, through Sun., April 17, at the Salt Lick Pavilion & Camp Ben McCulloch in Driftwood. www.oldsettlersmusicfest.org