Rodney Crowell's tender lyrics about a woman with "hair two shades of foxtail red'' in a song that features ex-wife Rosanne Cash makes it an easy leap to assume that he's singing about her. It's not like the thought didn't cross her mind.
"If I'm totally honest,'' she said. "Yeah, a little bit.''
But Crowell, whose new album "Close Ties'' is sure to be one of the year's cornerstone releases in the Americana genre, insists he had others in mind while writing "It Ain't Over Yet.'' He was thinking about old friends Susanna and Guy Clark, who both died in recent years.
That's fortunate, since he sings: "Takes the right kind of woman to help you put it all in place. It only happened once in my life, but man you should have seen.'' It might have made for awkward dinner conversation with Crowell's current wife, Claudia Church.
"Rosanne was a wonderful period in my life,'' Crowell said, "but the 'one' woman is the one I'm with now.''
Susanna Clark was a straight-talking muse for many aspiring Nashville songwriters in the 1970s who figured if she liked one of their songs, they must be on to something, Crowell explained.
Crowell understands why people might think he was talking about Cash, who appears on record with her for only the second time since their 12-year marriage broke up in 1992 (he sang backup on a song on her most recent album). They were once Country music's First Couple, taking turns at the top of the charts, and for both their artistry has deepened as the spotlight moved on.
They're both also of the school that appreciate listeners who can take their own meanings from songs.
Another song on "Close Ties,'' out Friday, was actually written with Cash in mind. More specifically, "Forgive Me Annabelle'' is about Crowell's own actions during their breakup. After an inevitably bitter period, they're friends now.
"I passed through a period where I simply did not like myself,'' Crowell said. "If you don't like yourself, you're not liking anybody else. You're pretty miserable. And that's what the narrator is apologizing for. It's saying, 'Forgive me for who I was then.' But, of course, I was already forgiven.''
Crowell recalls pawing through some albums at home and coming upon his own "Diamonds and Dirt'' from 1988, which yielded five No. 1 Country singles. He and his wife laughed at the mullet-haired guy on the cover.
"I wanted to be like Dwight Yoakam,'' he said. "He definitely owned 'cool' at that moment.''
He's fueled by a "look back with bemusement'' attitude now. After taking five years off at the turn of the century, Crowell returned as a focused writer, digging deep into his heart and leaving few wasted words. He learned to take his art more seriously than himself. In "I Don't Care Anymore'' he sings: "All those party dolls and favors that I savored from day one add up to next to nothing after all is said and done.''
The funny "Nashville 1972'' recalls his first meeting, at age 22, with Willie Nelson. At a party, of course. "There was hippies and reefer and God knows what all, I was drinking pretty hard,'' he sings. "I played him this shitty song I wrote and puked out in the yard.''
Like most people his age, 66, Crowell is affected by loved ones lost — the Clarks, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen — and it's reflected in his music. He's also recently rewritten some of his old songs, notably "Shame on the Moon,'' a 1982 hit for Bob Seger, where he wanted another crack at a verse he didn't like.
"He's actually writing the best songs of his life after 45 years, or however long it is,'' Cash said. "His level of commitment has deepened, and as his level of commitment has deepened, his songs have gotten better. That's very inspiring. He's not a dilettante. He's not just out there showing up at the next gig. He's completely devoted to his work and his songwriting and it shows.
"As Leonard Cohen said, he's completely employed in the tower of song.''