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