[17 April 2014]
In the pantheon of esteemed singer-songwriters, Rodney Crowell certainly takes a place front and center. Having written certified classics like, “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, and “Till I Gain Control Again” entitles him a bit of royalty status, and the immense commercial success of 1988’s career-defining Diamonds & Dirt album ensured that Crowell’s name would always be a viable one when it came to the attention of the Music Row tastemakers. Interestingly though, his writing has not been limited to country appeal. For every sensible artist covering his music—George Strait, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw—there have been just as many “out of left field” artists reinterpreting his work—Etta James and Röyksopp being the two most noteworthy examples. And, fittingly enough for a man whose career has now spanned 40-plus years, for Crowell it all comes back to the craft and the lessons learned in long ago Nashville when he sat alongside elders like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and determinedly worked to earn the approval and honest evaluation of their watchful eyes.
“I figured if I could look Guy in the eye and say it or sing it, and not have to look away, I could stand behind what I had to say,” Crowell recently told The Tennessean. This mindset has seemed to shape all of Crowell’s work over the past decade and a half as he’s moved farther and farther away from his commercial country wanderings and back into the realm of honest, unfiltered Americana. Fresh off of a Grammy Award for last year’s collaboration with Emmylou Harris on Od Yellow Moon, Crowell is back with Tarpaper Sky, a set of songs he began working on some four or five years ago. Cut live in the studio with longtime musicians and associates Stuart Smith, Eddie Bayers, and Michael Rhodes, the album’s 11 tracks offer an organic synthesis of all that Crowell does well and all that has made him such a revered and honored presence.
The diversity of the material’s arrangements may be one reason why so many varied artists are drawn to Crowell’s work. Here, that versatility is on display as the album tracks swing back and forth along a range of emotion while still finding time to sound crisply familiar. After kicking off the proceedings with the tastefully done mid-tempo arrangement of “Long Journey Home”, Crowell and Co. take a variety of soundscapes out for a spin. There are the friskily frenetic blues stylings of “Frankie Please” (Contains the line: “You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park” which takes second place in the Americana metaphor department to the Bottle Rockets similarly phrased line about the Weedeater tearing through a poor man’s heart in “Perfect Far Away”) and “Somebody’s Shadow”, that serve as a nice compliment to the rockabilly swing of “Jesus Talk to Mama”. Elsewhere, “Fever on the Bayou”, a song that has been taking shape for 20 years now, breezes by with effortless aplomb, while “The Flyboy & the Kid” expertly crafts together a timeless tale of a lifelong relationship (perhaps a nod to Crowell and his mentor Clark).
The album is weighted down at points as the subject matter drifts a bit maudlin at times, particularly with the overly sappy arrangement of “Grandma Loved That Old Man”, a song that carries its’ saccharine bent a bit too obviously. There’s a tendency for Crowell’s music to be a tad too literal from time to time and a few tracks suffer from this perspective. The hits outweigh the misses, though, and by the time he ties a bow on Tarpaper Sky with “Oh What a Beautiful World”, its’ rather pedestrian title notwithstanding, Crowell sounds as convincing in his subjects and engaged in the musicianship as he has in years and seems determined to keep adding worthy titles to his already Hall of Fame caliber catalog. Ever the craftsman, it’s a safe bet that he’ll continue adding titles to his canon, note-by-note and word-by-word.