Rodney Crowell used to be a young hot-shot singer and songwriter and then he grew up. After a string of successful albums on the Columbia label his personal and professional life hit some rough spots. His last Columbia album was aptly titled Life is Messy. It was co-produced by Jon Leventhal who went on to marry Crowell's ex-wife, Rosanne Cash. After a pair of albums on MCA that didn't move the sort of numbers required to remain commercially viable, Crowell dropped out of sight. His first resurfacing was the self-produced release The Houston Kid for Sugarhill Records. It was easily his best release in years, may be among his best ever.
What makes Houston Kid so special? Its honesty. Crowell has always written catchy tunes, but his lyrics weren't any deeper than they had to be. Here he digs down far enough to hit paydirt. The album opens with an acoustic guitar chopping away at a boogie beat while Crowell attacks "Rain came down in endless sheets of thunder...." And he doesn't let up 'till he admits that "I know love is all I need, that's all I know....". In between he tells tales of an abusive father, a young hustler who dies of AIDs and his twin's growth of compassion, and finally a hold-up man who buries his booty in the wrong place. Perhaps the most daring musical coup was getting his ex-father-in-law, Johnny Cash, to sing on a song called "I Walk the Line". No, this isn't THE "Walk the Line", but a new song Crowell wrote about his experience of first hearing Johnny Cash's version of the song. Crowell admits it's like asking Johnny to paint a moustache on his own Mona Lisa.
Super-guitarist and Crowell long-time accomplice Steuart Smith plays and co-produces several cuts here. The core band also has Michael Rhodes on bass, Paul Leim on drums and percussion, and John Cowen on harmony vocals. Four different studios were used for the project and the whole melange was mastered by Hank Williams at Mastermix in Nashville. The final results sound as good as anything Crowell has ever recorded.
It's ironic that the same week that I received Houston Kid from Sugarhill, I got a copy of the new re-release of Diamonds and Dirt from Columbia's Legacy division. This album was Crowell's most successful commercial release; five cuts that became number one singles. In 1988 Crowell was on top of the country charts most of the year, touring with a band he shared with his wife Rosanne Cash. Twelve years after it's initial release, Diamonds and Dirt still sounds smokin'. This slick urban rockabilly is the sort of kick up your heels music that makes "Hot Country" radio tolerable. Steuart Smith's sizzling guitar licks coupled with Crowell's catchy tunes and honky tonk lyrics makes this a tasty confection.
In addition to all the material on the original release, Columbia included three songs from the Diamonds and Dirt sessions that never made it on the album. "I've Got MY Pride But I Got To Feed The Kids" is a wonderfully retro Bakersfield elbow-bender, while "It's Lonely Out" is a dark brooding number that would never have gotten airplay back in 1988. "Lies Don't Lie" is an Eagles-like cynical little ditty that is more rock and roll than country.
Reissue producer Bob Irwin and mastering engineer Vic Anesini did a fine job of freshening up what was already a very good sounding album. Now it's the sonic equal of any current big-budget high-tech Nashville release.
If I was only going to buy one Rodney Crowell album this week I'd choose newer Rodney over older Rodney. But if you want to know where someone is going, you have to know where they've been, so I recommend buying Diamonds and Dirt a couple of days after getting Houston Kid. Both are worth your attention.