What does it sound like?:
There’s a dapper man who frequents your local, quiet, unassuming, mid-sixties, well-groomed, clean shaven, expensive aftershave, shock of grey hair, chiselled face, still with a twinkle in his steely blue eyes. If you get a chance to talk to him, you will find he is quite the raconteur, with tales of loves loved, loves lost, of roads well-travelled, lessons learnt the hard way, all told with considerable charm and a self-deprecating sense of humour. That man is Rodney Crowell.
Rodney Crowell has been writing songs and performing in bands in Nashville for fifty years. He was a member of Emmylou’s Hot Band for three years, married Roseanne Cash and became close friends with Guy Clark. His songs were covered by Emmylou (Bluebird Wine is on 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky), Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, Crystal Gayle and many others. His biggest selling album is 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt, which spawned five hit singles. His long association with Emmylou Harris was rekindled in 2014 with their duet album, Old Yellow Moon and its follow up, The Travelling Kind. Both are exemplary Americana. Now, he has released another solo album, Close Ties, which looks back on his long, rich career and all the complicated personal relationships intertwined therein.
The album oozes with the calm confidence of a man who knows exactly what he’s doing. He isn’t arrogant, he’s just right, he is very good at this singing and songwriting business. These are his stories and they are as familiar to him as the backs of his hands.
He has gathered around him a very professional group of musicians, who are all very skilled at delivering a song. His own guitar playing is pretty nifty too. He does recruit some old friends to help. It Ain’t Over Yet, a song about survival and longevity, features Roseanne Cash and is the first time Crowell has worked with his ex-wife since their divorce. Young John Paul White’s role on the song seems to be a buffer between the pair of them, like a loveable child, but Mickey Raphael’s gritty harmonica in the lay out brings them back to Earth. There is a duet with Sheryl Crow, I’m Tied To Ya, which articulates the responsibility that comes with long-term commitment. I imagine it would have been too much for all concerned if Roseanne had stepped up to Sheryl’s mic instead.
East Houston Blues recounts his impoverished childhood. The lyrical imaginary is bleak but there isn’t a hint of bitterness in his burnt ochre voice (with the occasional sibilant whistle). Nashville 1972 is frankly autobiographical, listing all the people he encountered when he first arrived on the Nashville music scene. Both Reckless and Forgive Me, Annabelle are confessionals. It seems those twinkling eyes used to rove. However, Forty Miles From Nowhere and I Don’t Care Anymore accept his lot as an elder statesman, less able to be as wild as in his youth. He sounds very comfortable in his own skin.
Sometimes, albums as personally revealing as Close Ties can be toe-curling and too cosy. Mostly, Crowell tip-toes the fine line between personal and universal with aplomb, with just a couple of slips across ten tracks. He may lack the authority and the hint of darkness that Johnny Cash had at the end of his career but he has pop smarts and a seductive romanticism that more than compensate. You can see why Emmylou loves working with him.
Next time you encounter a neatly turned out gent at the bar, with a feather in his hat, see if he’ll tell you about the time he puked in Willie Nelson’s back yard after playing him a song.
What does it all *mean*?
Part of me worries that Close Ties is a swansong, there is so much of it immersed in the past. However, there is enough quality material rooted in the here and now to give me hope that Rodney Crowell isn’t finished yet.
Goes well with…
A pie and a pint.
Might suit people who like…
Americana. Crowell was there at the start, if ever there was a start to Americana. However, if you simply like some good honest music, you’ll enjoy this.