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(Sugar Hill 1065 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/14/2001)
Though Nashville is the headquarters of the commercial country music scene, it has also provided a home for a good number of first-rate rock and folk-influenced singer-songwriters, many of whom also write for the some of the country music stars. The city of full of veteran artists whose musical reputation extends beyond the country scene.
One of those is Rodney Crowell, who has just released his first new recording in several years, called The Houston Kid. Interestingly it's a kind of concept album, such as the rockers did way back in the Sixties, with almost all the songs related to each other lyrically and revolving around a theme, in this case the Texas city contained in the album's title.
Rodney Crowell was born in Houston in 1950 to musically-inclined parents, who themselves met at a Roy Acuff concert in Tennessee. His father was a part-time musician, who played in honky-tonk bands, and young Rodney was recruited to play drums in his father's group at age 13. So it's not surprising that music became a major part of Crowell's life. After college, he left for Nashville in 1972 and was the typical starving artist for a while, living out of his car. But he soon met another influential songwriter, Guy Clark, who steered him the right direction musically. Crowell eventually became a part of Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, playing guitar and contributing songs to Ms. Harris. His compositions were also recorded by artists ranging from Waylin Jennings to Bob Seger to The Oak Ridge Boys to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
He put together his own band by the late 1970s, and also worked as a record producer, most notably for Rosanne Cash, to whom he was married for 12 years, as well as producing recording projects for actors Robert Duvall and Sissy Spasek.
His own albums, including What Will the Neighbors Think, and an eponymous release, in the late 1970s and early 1980s won critical raves. But it wasn't until about 1988 that he began to enjoy commercial success on his own, with an album called Diamonds & Dirt, which yielded some number one country singles.
After a period without many recordings under his own name, Crowell turned up on the small, independent bluegrass-oriented label Sugar Hill, which has also become the home of Guy Clark. Crowell used the relative artistic freedom of the smaller label to create one of the finest albums of his career. It is by no means a conventional country record, but instead an album of a storytelling singer-songwriter who draws on his own town of birth to create a series of character-based stories, most of whose protagonists are people who are down on their luck, petty criminals, or suffer from the effects of abuse. While the characters can sometimes be less than attractive, the music itself comes across with great honesty and the quality of the writing is first-rate. That makes The Houston Kid something of a rarity these days -- an old-fashioned concept album.
The recording was made in several different studios with varying personnel and co-producers for the different tracks, but the album has a great consistency. Among the guests are John Cowan of New Grass Revival providing some harmony vocals, and Crowell's ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash singing on a song in which he is a character.
The album opens with a seemingly autobiographical sketch of his hometown, Telephone Road, series of reminiscences set to a great rocking beat. <<>>
Several songs revolve around a father figure who is often less than virtuous. The gist of The Rock of My Soul, with its more acoustic musical setting, is "like father, like son," with the son getting into trouble like his Dad. <<>>
I Wish It Would Rain tells the story of a drug-user looking for help, from an interesting perspective. <<>>
One of the most touching songs is Wandering Boy, the story of twin brothers who re-unite after one runs off and presumably contracts AIDS. <<>>
A more optimistic note comes on I Walk the Line (Revisited), which celebrates the influence of Johnny Cash's famous hit, while Cash himself provides the refrain from his song. <<>>
Another intriguing narrative song is Highway 17, which tells the story of a career robber who buried his loot along a highway, and hoped to recover it after he finished his long prison term. Not only does he find that his family changed after he is released, but he discovers that there is now a superhighway over the spot where his booty was stashed away. <<>>
Another musical reminiscence, this time in a more positive mood, is Banks of the Old Bandera. Crowell's mostly solo performance is one of his best on the album. <<>>
One of the strongest rockers is Topsy Turvy whose lyrics are tell the stark story of life in a household of an abusive husband. <<>>
The album ends with another of its gems. I Know Love Is All I Need, whose principle character is an orphan facing his situation with stoicism. <<>>
Rodney Crowell's new release, The Houston Kid is one the finest in the lengthy career of his veteran Nashville-based musician and songwriter. It's also rare these days for a singer-songwriter to create a concept album such as this one, with the songs so much related to each other and to the album's title. Though the characters may not be the most pleasant or happy ones and are hardly typical of pop songs, he creates fascinating narratives and gives his characters surprising depth within the constraints and context of his songs. The musicianship is also first rate, as is the understated production by Crowell himself and co-producers including Steuart Smith and Peter Coleman.
For sound quality, will give this CD close to an "A." The mix is very good and largely devoid of distracting studio effects, even reverberation, and the clarity is very nice. But one can hear occasional artifacts from the analogue recording process the recording could use a bit wider dynamic range.
Nashville may be the home of the commercial country scene, and Rodney Crowell has been part of that, but his new release The Houston Kid, is a reminder of the quality of the songs being created in the Tennessee capital.
(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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