Cicadas Buzz Through The Ripe Fields of Rock, Country And More
There's a buzz of country about 'em, but these bugs have a definite rock beat. Led by maverick artist/producer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, The Cicadas are one of those hybrid bands that refuse to lie down gently into a preformed mold.
Like The BoDeans in the '80s or the Eagles in the '70s, The Cicadas ratchet through a range of rootsy styles to come up with a singalong, head-nodding album of genre-defying songs.
"For years people have said, 'which side of the fence do you fall on?' and I've always fallen right in the middle," laughs Crowell, who opted to step back from his successful country solo career to immerse himself in Cicadas.
"For this project, we just did what the songs called for. I grew up listening to and appreciating all kinds of music, from rock to country to jazz to classical. I like bluegrass. And urban." That range of taste shows through in the Eagles-like dual harmony of "We Want Everything," the Steve Earle stomp country (with jazz cymbal breaks) of "Tobacco Road" and the '50s rock 'n' roll gallop of "Blonde Ambition" ("Chuck Berry with a wah-wah pedal," Crowell agrees.)
It's not just Crowell that brings the disparate influences to this band though. As he's quick to point out, The Cicadas is a band project, not a Crowell solo album, and its members bring backgrounds of glam and classic rock, as well as country to the mix.
Drummer/vocalist Vince Santoro has worked with Edgar Winter and Roy Buchanan, bassist Michael Rhodes comes from the camps of The Nerves and Steve Winwood. and guitarist Steuart Smith is currently also a part of Shawn Colvin's touring band.
Much of the material on The Cicadas bears the songwriting stamp of Crowell, however. The opening track was co-written by Crowell and eclectic songsmith Ben Vaughn (currently handling the music-score chores for TV's "Third Rock From The Sun." "He's a really fine artist," Crowell says, noting that the two got together through a mutual friend in Nashville-based songwriter Bill Lloyd. Crowell also shares songwriting credits with Stanley Lynch, Jim Lauderdale and Guy Clark.
There are also a couple covers on the disc; the throwback rockin' "Blonde Ambition" was a track written by Crowell's cousin Larry Willoughby and Jimbeau Hinson ("I always liked the song; it had a nice feel to it," he says) and the spare but effective wordplay of "Wish You Were Her" hails from the pens of T-Bone Burnett and U2's Bono.
"T-Bone's a friend of mine," Crowell says, recalling that after he first heard the song, he had a major revision of his self-image. "After I heard that song, I took down all my gold records from the wall. I haven't had any gold or platinum records on my wall since. That song brought me back to my art, reminded me that I still had things to do. I didn't need to have a shrine to myself as an artist."
Crowell wrote two of the album's most heartfelt tracks without collaboration.
"'We Want Everything' was about a friend who chose suicide. It really made me angry at the time, but eventually I learned to accept it as the choice he made. And 'Learning How To Fly' is about a friend who faced serious cancer with great dignity and courage. Those two songs are very personal to me."
The emotional work of recording "Learning How To Fly" continued beyond the Cicadas album; Crowell also produced the latest album by Beth Neilsen Chapman, the wife of the friend eulogized in "Learning How To Fly." Her entire album is dedicated to the memory of her husband.
"We started working on her album before the Cicadas, but it took a long time to finish," he says. "Recording that album took a lot on her part. I brought a lot of emotional support to the studio. There were times when we'd be in mid-take on those songs and she just couldn't finish. It was a very courageous record for her to make."
Whether he's producing an artist like Chapman or The Cicadas, or writing songs for a solo project, or recording as a member of a band, it's all part of Crowell's art as a musician. "I don't mean to be pretentious, but that's the truth. If I'm producing, I'm almost like a director or photographer for somebody else. I was watching a show on A&E the other night where they were interviewing Paul Newman, and he talked about the psychology of directing. Basically, it's using a talent of getting people to do things they wouldn't normally do — but that are still them. That's what producing is all about."
As for songwriting?
"It's all part of the same thing," he adds, noting that he has no set habit of how he writes songs. "I'm just available. I've announced to the universe that I'm here to write. I have no set way I work on things, I just take whatever inspiration comes along. I write on planes. I have a studio in my house. Whenever I hear that knock knock in the back of the brain..."
Whatever that knock brings is what Crowell records — style or record store divisions be damned.
"My idea is that there's an audience out there that just likes good music," he says. "I've always thought the music we were making was 'for adults,' although I've found out lately that some of the kids are getting into The Cicadas album. But country radio isn't going to play us; mostly it's been adult alternative radio stations."
The biggest change in joining The Cicadas instead of hiring a backup band to play his songs under the Rodney Crowell trademark has been the absence of a safety net.
"When I was a solo artist, I hired a band to cover the music I put on the records. With The Cicadas, I had a whole lot of musical responsibility — a lot of stuff that made me come face to face with nerves. When we tour, I have to remember guitar parts and solos and if I fall on my face...I just have a lot more musical responsibility. When I tour as a solo artist, I play in my own band, but any time it's dicey, I'd give those parts to someone else to do. With The Cicadas, I have to face the dicey parts right on. And I've had a couple of gigs where I blew it!"
Responsibilities aside, Crowell says he's enjoying the collaborative band experience. "It's just like joining a gang," he says. "For me it was how to take the pretense out of what I was doing. Checking my ego..."
The Cicadas is one gang worth joining. Like the bug they take their name from, they recognize no artificial boundaries, are constrained by no fences. The fields of rock and country are ripe for harvest.
Enter The Cicadas.
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