Singer/Songwriter and Guitarist Anthony Crawford, From Neil Young's Band to Sugarcane Jane
Freedom comes in many forms, of course. What it ultimately means for Crawford, though, is making music on his own terms after nearly three decades playing second fiddle (or guitar, mandolin, or any other of the twelve or so instruments on which he’s proficient) to the likes of Vince Gill, Steve Winwood, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Dwight Yoakam — a gospel-tinged cover of the Crawford-penned “V's of Birds” appears on Yoakam’s latest LP, Second Hand Heart — both on the road and in studio sessions.
Then there’s his lengthy but intermittent association with Neil Young, something which Crawford seems to regard as creatively fruitful at times yet emotionally dispiriting in general. “He’s a fantastic musician,” Crawford says of Young, “but for the most part he’s a hard guy to belly up to. He doesn’t have that many true friends, but that’s his choice. I was a servant to him. That’s probably where I went wrong.”
Where he went right was in recruiting Savana Lee for Sugarcane Jane, whose rambunctious, acoustic-rich fifth LP, Dirt Road’s End, was released this week on venerable producer and album co-writer Buzz Cason’s ArenA Recordings. “When her voice was added to it,” says Crawford, describing the genesis of their musical chemistry, “it became like adding water to pancake batter. I mean, it’s just a dry mix until you [get] her involved and then you just stir her into it and add that instrumentation, which would be your hot griddle, and you’re making pancakes at that point.”
“We’re making a living and we’re doing what we love,” husband and wife sing on “The Ballad of Sugarcane Jane,” their voices as entwined as their hands on the album’s front cover, symbolizing a sense of fulfillment that, as Crawford suggests, could not have come soon enough.
“I wasn’t playing any shows,” he says. “I would just go out with Neil Young, make my money, come home and spend it, and then wait on him to call me again. But when I met her, I was actually excited to go and start playing music and have a career of my own. It made it where I didn’t care if Neil called me, and still don’t. She has made it to where I’ve got a career.”
Was there any sort of evolution or process between you and your wife — because you each have made music separately — in which you discovered your collective sound as Sugarcane Jane?
Our harmony is what sells us, I think, if you were really to break down the individual components of what it is. I would first of all say that that is what most people want if they could only have one part of it. They like the harmony, just the sound of our voices together. Of course I’m pretty wild on the guitar. I like getting the energy stirred up with that. And she’s over there playing the kick drum and snare drum. The evolution of it started when we first became a group together, we were playing restaurants where people were eating. We would play so quiet that people would tell us to turn up, and that’s the opposite of what everybody else was getting. Everybody else was being told to turn down. So we started out being really super quiet and singing real soft. Then somewhere we added a bass player and we got a little more raucous. I added that kick drum. Then she started playing the snare drum. All of a sudden we came on this full-on, full-blown energetic thing, and it just morphed into what you hear on that record.
When all of those elements came together, did you realize why it was working?
I think I did, yeah. When you’re playing a guitar lick and all of a sudden you start putting that four-on-the-floor with the kick drum and you look at people eating their shrimp and bobbing their heads, you go, “Huh, we’re onto something here.” We eventually got better shows, like opening for Randy Travis. When we play a forty-minute show, I think we are at our best. When we do forty minutes to an hour-fifteen, we can just lay down some deep, deep groove and get in and get out and nobody gets hurt…. There was a time, when we first started doing that particular aspect of what you hear on the record, you could see the excitement from people that couldn’t believe that much music was coming from what they were looking at. It was confusing to them, like, “How do you get that? That just sounds like more than two people.” It was like we had a little magic show.
Can you discern how your environment — and by environment I mean the South, living and working in Alabama — contributes to the music you’re making now?
Believe it or not there is a bunch of people who love music down here, and there’s a lot of people that make music. The environment that I love about it is that nobody’s searching for a hit. Nobody’s trying to write the next song that is a chartbuster. People are just playing music and drinking beer and eating food and making people happy. It’s just a fun environment to play music [in] because ultimately it boils down to, “I’ve got a song and you’ve got some ears. Let’s just have some beers and sing and play until the night is over and get up and do it again.” I love it down here because there’s a love of music and the people down here appreciate the music so much.
In Nashville where I was living — not to put down Nashville at all; it’s a beautiful town — I got caught up in trying to get connected with somebody who could do something for me. I’ve realized, no one can do anything for me. I’ve gotta do it myself and want people to come; I’ve gotta make people want to come to me. I can’t force it on anybody. Being down here has changed my outlook on what music “business” is. I’m doing my business by playing music. I was trying to search for the right lawyer or manager to make something happen, and now I’m just playing music and it’s happening. I was confused up there. Now I’m not. That’s the difference.
Because you’ve worked with so many legendary artists, do you ever feel intimidated in trying to carve out your own identity as an artist?
How can you not think the song “Expecting to Fly” is not one of the most beautiful songs ever written and recorded? Or “Can’t Find My Way Home”? Or, for that matter, with Steve Forbert, “Romeo’s Tune”? All these people write these great songs, but somewhere in the last few years I’ve accepted the fact that, indeed, if I could just get some airplay that made mine exposed to a lot of people for a long time, the songs are there. It’s just, they’re not in cement. They’re not carved in stone. They just haven’t been proven.
I started my career late. I gave my career, my life, to Neil Young. Pretty much. That didn’t do anything for me other than make me some temporary really good money. But as far as being, like, really good friends with him… He came to Mobile and played the Saenger Theatre [in 2010] and didn’t ask me to open for him. He got somebody else from New Orleans [Allen Toussaint]. I find that to be strange.… Something about Neil’s changed. His policies have changed. He’s doing things to me that… I’ve seen him not compromise his art — or following his muse he puts it — for anybody or anything.
When I was out on the road with him — back in the ‘80s I was in the band International Harvesters and as well with the Shocking Pinks — we were all just having fun. Neil was still a young guy. He was thirty-five, and we were having fun. We were just jamming together on the stage, really having fun.
However, when I met back with him years later and we started doing touring in 2007/08/09/10 — we were touring all over Europe and the United States — it was all just so controlling and no fun.
I was out making these little vignette movies called On the Road with a Rock Star, and so I put them out on my YouTube channel. Very few of them had him in it at all. It was mainly what I do on my time off on the road with a rock star…. Well, he emailed me one day and said, “In my circles you’re not very popular for having those ‘blogs,’” as he called it, “your rock-star blogs. You should take those down.” I wrote back and I said, “Wow, coming from the guy that never does anything anybody ever suggests — and you’ve taught me one thing and one thing only, to never compromise your art for anybody — that is surprising to me.”
Was he upset because he was in it or because he just didn’t like it?
He was in it, like, just passing. They all knew I was doing this. It wasn’t like they said, “Put your camera down.” They all knew it. I’ve got like twenty hours of just us off the stage, walking around and doing stuff, all over the world. But everything about him is totally classy. If he’s ever in it he’s not compromised at all.
He just doesn’t like me, really, but yet he used me all those years to do something. I think my connection to him was probably Ben Keith and when he died so did my relationship with Neil. I don’t know. It was just really weird how he wanted to snuff that out. So I just feel like that was a little bit of a hypocritical thing. He’s a great guy for a lot of people, but it’s tense between me and him, that’s for sure. We’ve had it out several times.
Oh, gosh, yeah. I was making a lot of money and after a while I didn’t care about the money anymore. I wanted to get away from him. And I did. My life is better. I mean, I’m struggling financially more so, but man I gotta tell you, that energy he has is just overwhelming. He is so powerful, but he’s dark. It’s just like being around a big cloud all day. I get with Savana and start doing Sugarcane Jane and it’s just like I’m at the beach in the sun getting a tan.
The time you played with him in the ‘80s was such a weird time to be a Neil Young fan. That was back when David Geffen sued him for not sounding “Neil Young” enough.
Oh, I know. I know. I’ve been a part of his worst records of all time, they say. But I tell you what, you go get that record called A Treasure, it’s filled with fabulous music. I have to say that I’m in one of his best bands of all time, the International Harvesters, the first rendition of it with Tim Drummond, Spooner [Oldham], me, Neil, Ben Keith, Karl Himmel, Rufus [Thibodeaux]. It was fantastic. Then he got Pig Robbins and Joe Allen in there after Tim Drummond; I think he quit or somehow got fired. And Spooner got sideways with him, and so he got Pig. Neil had some great musicians around him. That’s one thing I can say. I learned a lot from that man. I know how to produce music because I was on a lot of sessions. Somebody keeps up with these stats that show how many shows people have done. I’m like sixth on the list of people in the world that have played the most shows with him. I’ve played like two-hundred and ninety shows with him. That’s an accomplishment for me to be around the guy that much.
You’ve had songs you’ve written recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny Rogers, and Dwight Yoakam, among others. Does another artist’s rendition of one of your songs ever give you new insights that you didn’t have when you wrote it?
Yeah. Dwight changed a word that actually made [“V’s of Birds”] make more sense. I can’t recall what it is, but I do remember saying, “Hmm, I like that.” As well, the fact that he liked the song years and years and years ago and always said he was gonna cut it intrigued me. Then to finally find out that he did cut the song, and then to find out that he’s putting it on his new album, was a real honor for me. His version and the way he does it is completely different from the way I do it. It’s interesting to see how the Oak Ridge Boys cut “Glory Bound.” It’s not how I would’ve envisioned them doing it, but… They took the lick that I thought was like a hook and they kind of changed it to fit Oak Ridge Boys. People do what they gotta do. I’m not really thinking that too many people are gonna cover my songs, but when I do get one, man, it’s very exciting to me. I don’t think I’m gonna be able to retire off of any of them. I had a Kenny Rogers cut and I made about three-hundred dollars. That’s just the way it goes for me.
The Dwight Yoakam album looks promising, though. That one’s got a lot of positive buzz.
My song is one of two songs that [were] recorded that he didn’t write, and the other one is “Man of Constant Sorrow.” So I’m in good company. I think he’s fantastic. He’s a real guy. Even though he kind of fell in love with Buck Owens and that whole Bakersfield sound and really tweaked his thing to go along with that, he’s still got some sort of original… There was still a piece of real estate that he could call his in that sound. You know what I mean? He’s not a knockoff. He’s the real deal. There was still something to buy in his deal. [Producer/guitarist] Pete Anderson helped him develop it. Those two guys were brilliant when they were working together.
Do you have to put yourself in a context to create and write songs or can you just be driving the kids to school and an idea hits you?
Well, it used to be I could just take a toke and get a beer and sit in my little room and make stuff up, but that was then and this is now. For me right now, songs come to me now almost in their entirety, and not [with] me sitting in front of a console or putting a drum loop down and just making up music. That’s what was wrong with my writing style a long time ago, was that I would love to medicate to some degree and just sit in there and just make music, but I’ve got so much responsibility these days that what comes to me about a song is delivered almost in full. If I do write a song, I do not have to be in any sort of, “I’ve got to stand this way or sit in this chair” [mood]. No way. Man, my daughter can say something or I can just see somebody…
I’m a real sensitive person, I’ll admit it. Some things make me really sad. I’d get tears over things you’d say, “What are you upset about?” I’ll cry, I admit it. I’m a person who has deep feelings for justice and just things in general and whatnot. And so I don’t think my creativity is a prisoner to any environment. It just is open to whatever, like Neil says, “the muse” of whatever it is that grazes my mind [and] lets me be privileged to catch it from the ethereal spectrum of life where it just comes by. If I see it I try to grab it. It’s like trying to grab a butterfly or something. You can’t sit in a room and entice the butterfly in there. You’ve got to be out in the environment, to me, these days to be able to have something worth saying. You’ve got to have something going on that’s relatable to other people.
Dirt Road’s End is available on ArenA Recordings. For more information, please visit Sugarcane Jane online.