Rodney Crowell was one of the most gifted songwriters of the Texas honky-tonk
school of the 1970s and 1980s.
His early singles Till I Gain Control (1977) and
Ashes By Now (1978) were already notable, but Crowell's stellar
songwriting was fully revealed by his debut album,
Ain't Living Long Like This (Warner, 1978).
The sprightly I Ain't Living Long Like This, the
harrowing Song for the Life, the catchy
Voila An American Dream and the evocative
Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight
cover an impressive emotional territory.
In 1979 he married country star Rosanne Cash.
By comparison, But What Will the Neighbors Think (Warner, 1980) was
a major disappointment, but Rodney Crowell (Warner, 1981) added at
least Stars on the Water and Shame on the Moon,
his existentialist masterpiece, to the
classics, and delivered strong performances throughout
(Victim or a Fool, 'Til I Gain Control Again,
Street Language (Warner, 1986) veered towards rock'n'roll and
rhythm'n'blues (Looking For You, Stay,
The Ballad of Fast Eddie).
The lyrics went with the sound: honest, direct, scary
(When I'm Free Again, When the Blue Hour Comes).
Diamonds & Dirt (Columbia, 1988) was his most commercially
but also a lot lighter than the previous one:
pure entertainment by his standards.
A few of them were meant to please a broad, conservative audience
(Crazy Baby, I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried,
The Last Waltz, It's Such a Small World,
She's Crazy for Leaving) and only one was meant to make people
think (After All This Time).
Surprisingly for someone who had largely been ignored by Nashville, Crowell
became the first artist in history to reach the top of the charts five times
in the same year with five of his own compositions.
The mood turned tragic again on Keys to the Highway (Columbia, 1989),
that includes an impressive parade of lugubrious meditations:
the hard-rocking My Past Is Present,
The Faith Is Mine,
Now That We're Alone,
Things I Wish I'd Said,
If Looks Could Kill,
and one of his masterpieces,
Many A Long & Lonesome Highway.
In 1992 he divorced from Rosanne Cash and celebrated the event with the single
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993).
This confessional trip continued on
Life is Messy (Columbia, 1992),
which is devoted to his divorce but lacks the same inspiration
(What Kind of Love,
Lovin' All Night,
Life Is Messy).
Following albums were less and less original:
Let The Picture Paint Itself and Big Heart, from
Let the Picture Paint Itself (MCA, 1994),
Please Remember Me, from Jewel of the South (MCA, 1995),
We Want Everything, from The Cicadas (Warner, 1997),
were among the few interesting songs.
Crowell's genius surfaced again on the autobiographical
The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill, 2001), his best album in a decade,
both soulful, tuneful and sorrowful (Telephone Road,
The Rock Of My Soul, I Wish It Would Rain,
Wandering Boy, Highway 17).
It turned out to be the first installment of a personal self-examining trilogy,
that was completed by
Fate's Right Hand (2003), with Still Learning How to Fly
and the harder The Outsider (2005), devoted to sociopolitical sermons.
Sex And Gasoline (2008) is a profound and at times ironic meditation on
the contemporary world, but with little or no interest in the musical aspect of his songs.
Kin (2012) was a collaboration with writer Mary Karr, but neither the
lyrics nor the music amount to much.
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