Rodney Crowell Enlists Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Keith Urban for Benefit Compilation

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Chris Willman
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Rodney Crowell has an excellent e-Rolodex, and it’s on display in a new compilation album, “Songs From Quarantine Vol. 1,” which has an all-star cast of singer-songwriter, country and Americana VIPs sending in tracks from their own splendid isolation.

Six of the 13 artists represented — Ry Cooder, Elvis Costello, Joe Henry, Ronnie Dunn, John Hiatt and Crowell himself — contribute original songs that have never been released before in any context. The remaining seven offer demos or otherwise stripped-down or alternate versions of numbers they’ve put out in full form before, with Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Keith Urban, Jeff Tweedy, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Taj Mahal rounding out the guest list. (Download the album here.)

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The “Quarantine” collection, available digitally on Bandcamp for $13 for the next two weeks, benefits a charity Crowell has rounded up support for for years — the Music Health Alliance, which aids struggling musicians worldwide and which, like most orgs of its kind, has been pressed to offer assistance to those suffering with COVID-19 to its previous lists of medical and psychological aid. “They’re angels in denim over there,” Crowell tells Variety about the cause.

When he began calling up pals, he notes that Cooder took the prospective title most to heart and “wrote a song for the times,” sending back the album-opening “Baby Started Wearing Her Mask.” “I just said, hey, can you contribute something to this compilation that I’m making? I think I’m gonna call it ‘Songs From Quarantine’ — that’s sort of the idea, because we do have time on our hands. And Ry sent it to me and said, ‘Tell me if you like this.'” Cooder’s semi-comic acoustic blues number includes pro-masking verses like: “Now if they find a good vaccine, there’s one thing on my mind / Some folks will get it but some folks gonna be left behind / And if the president said it’s time to party like it’s 1932 / Just tell him thanks a lot but you have to be excused” (apparently reflecting having been penned in the waning months of the previous administration).

Oddly enough, Costello’s contribution may also more subtly name-check the 1930s; his new “Maud Gone Wrong” seems to reference the Spanish revolution.

With Hiatt, Crowell says that represented the only time he gave one of the artists an instruction. “I didn’t really get specific at all with anybody about” their tracks, he says. “I didn’t want to try to fuss. But I did tell John, ‘Hey John, we have a preponderance of ballads, so if you have anything kind of up-tempo, it’ll help.” The result was the sprightly — but still acoustic-based — “Goin’ Back to Nashville.”

Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn fame, didn’t get any such brief, but he went the extra mile energy-wise with “Train to Glory, the one full-band track on the comp. “Ronnie’s, I had to put it at the end of the sequence, because it’s so big. The sequence goes out with a bang. They’re rocking a gospel song where they’re just flat-out making a mess,” Crowell laughs.

Crowell’s own “She’s Back in Town” is “something I almost recorded that for my ‘Texas’ album, and as a matter of fact I took a swing at it, now that I mention it. But I didn’t like it as much as I did just our little demo from my home studio” with just two guitars and a piano.

As far as self-covers go, Earle’s “Time Is Never On Our Side” is a starker version of a number from 2020’s “Ghosts of West Virginia” album. “Steve recorded his on an iPhone. It sounds really good, and we mastered it and there it is. Nobody was stressed out making the music!”

Although Tweedy’s “Even I Can See” — also a song that first appeared on a 2020 studio album — is the only track specifically labeled as a demo, Crowell says, “He might call it a demo, but everything he does is a master, as far as I’m concerned.”

Crowell does think Williams’ rendition of “When the Way Gets Dark” from her own 2020 studio album is “probably her original scratch recording of it, her original demo of the song before she recorded it.” Cash’s version of “Western Wall,” meanwhile, a song she previously recorded on both a 1990s solo album and as the title track of a subsequent joint project with Linda Ronstadt, features the Milk Carton KIds and was recorded last May for an episode of the latter duo’s web series “The Sad Songs Comedy Hour.” Harris’ “Gold” goes all the way back, in its original form, to her career-changing “Wrecking Ball” album. Urban’s “Polaroid” is a quieter version of a song he issued on his latest project last fall.

Of the genesis of the album, Crowell says, “I’ve been on the Music Health Alliance board for going on five years now. And my fundraising activity started when I did barn dances and what have you to raise money, but the production costs” were stifling. “Then I’d hit on an idea where I would call upon performing artists that I know to donate 5% of the net from one of their shows each year. I thought, ‘If we do this, then nobody has to do anything other than what they’re already doing. Only the accountants have to do any work.’ And that worked really well then COVID came around this year and we were all shut down, and I thought, ‘Oh God, what do I do?’ That’s when it hit on me that I would call up some of the same folks who’ve been generous with their time for Music Health Alliance, and I said, ‘This should not be a lot of work, seeing how we’re all quarantined. How about you dig out something from the archives or record something and make it as simple as you want to and we’ll have a compilation of songs from quarantine?'”

Though he doesn’t necessarily want anyone to tarry, if you miss this two-week window that the album will be available digitally, all will not be lost. “I think after we do Bandcamp, we’ll probably produce some CDs and go a little more traditional. I have my own label imprint, RC1, and we can put it out there and still all the funds go to Music Health Alliance.”

A Vol. 2 is already in the works for later this year. Crowell doesn’t want to mention everyone who’ll be on it, since the tracks haven’t come in yet, but he can say some of the friends whom he deliberately stalled till Vol. 2, because he didn’t want the first volume to consist solely of BFFs — including Vince Gill, Mary Gauthier and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

Crowell has been busy with more than just charity comps. “For my own purposes, COVID’s been good,” he says. “Actually I finished two albums. The first one that we’re gonna release later this year, we had a lot of fun making it. Then I got the bug and made another!”

The full “Quarantine” track list:

  1. Ry Cooder – “Baby Started Wearing Her Mask”

  2. Elvis Costello – “Maud Gone Wrong”

  3. Emmylou Harris – “Gold”

  4. Jeff Tweedy – “Even I Can See” (Demo)

  5. Keith Urban – “Polaroid”

  6. Taj Mahal – “Sitting On Top Of The World”

  7. Lucinda Williams – “When The Way Gets Dark”

  8. Steve Earle – “Time Is Never On Our Side”

  9. Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal and The Milk Carton Kids – “Western Wall”

  10. Rodney Crowell – “She’s Back In Town”

  11. Joe Henry – “Mission”

  12. John Hiatt – “Goin’ Back To Nashville”

  13. Ronnie Dunn – “Train To Glory”

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