The Godfather of Americana. The Houston Kid. The Poet Laureate of Country Music. For decades, Rodney Crowell has assumed these monikers (OK, I made up that last one, but it fits) and garnered countless accolades for his singing, songwriting, and musicianship, and while his name may not be on the tip of the average rock music fan’s tongue, it should be. The Texas native may stick primarily to the country, folk, and bluegrass lanes, but the songs he writes have a timeless appeal that transcends genres. It’s not all aw-shucks odes to farmer’s daughters and pickup trucks – he may be the only songwriter alive whose songs have name-dropped everyone from Tom Waits to the Dixie Chicks to Seamus Heaney to Epictetus.
With that in mind, Crowell’s latest career move may initially come off as lazy (or at the very least, a bit of laurel-resting), but it sure gives his songs the opportunity to shine. Acoustic Classics is pretty self-explanatory: 12 songs from Crowell’s arsenal – ones he’s written for himself as well as others – re-recorded in a loose, acoustic setting. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Randy Newman’s recent Songbook series in that these classic songs are reimagined in a new light and given the opportunity to be rediscovered by longtime fans (or perhaps discovered by new ones). But they also serve as resume bullets for anyone who needs proof that Crowell is a top-shelf songwriter with sharp and enduring tunes.
Forgoing the more predictable route of simply a voice and a single acoustic guitar, Crowell enlisted a small unplugged combo to accompany him through this winning set, and the results are spectacular. Crowell’s still in fine voice, and the band is top-shelf. The breezy shuffle of “Earthbound”, originally from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand, is an upbeat, reflective essay on the joys of a long life well-lived. “With each new day that passes / I’m in need of thicker glasses,” he sings, “But it’s all OK.” He’s getting older, but we all are, and that’s life.
It’s a delight to hear the songs he wrote that were hits for other artists. “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, one of the album’s high points, was originally a smash country hit for the Oak Ridge Boys, but it fits the original songwriter like a glove. Using the song’s locale as a musical cue, it’s transformed into a rollicking New Orleans-style campfire singalong, with accordion and fiddle providing the perfect accompaniment. “Shame on the Moon” was a huge pop hit for Bob Seger in 1982, but Crowell reclaims it in his own inimitable style, offering up the verses in spoken word, while angelic female vocals take the choruses.
Swinging between ballads and up-tempo barn burners is a common theme of Acoustic Classics, but it never seems awkward or badly paced. “She’s Crazy for Leaving”, the honky-tonk classic from Crowell’s 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt (which garnered him five number-one country singles) is followed seamlessly by the aching beauty of “After All This Time” (another Diamonds & Dirt hit). “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” (the title track from his 1978 debut album and a sizeable hit for Waylon Jennings) falls somewhere in the middle in terms of tempo and feel – it’s got a loose, funky swagger and a first-person bad-boy narrative (“You looked for trouble, and you found it son,” the song begins, “Straight down the barrel of a lawman’s gun”).
On the closing track “Please Remember Me” (co-written by Will Jennings, from Crowell’s 1995 album Jewel of the South), Crowell sings a fond farewell to a love with no regrets and no harsh feelings. “When all our tears have reached the sea,” he sings in a world-weary style reminiscent of John Hiatt, “a part of you will live in me.” The harmony-filled chorus is sure to bring goosebumps to any listener. “You’ll find better love / Strong as it ever was / Deep as a river runs / Warm as the morning sun / But please remember me.” Damn, Rodney. I think I have something in my eye.
Acoustic Classics serves multiple purposes. Not only is it a valuable reminder of the artistic gifts Rodney Crowell has bestowed on the world, but it’s also a chance to hear classic songs in fresh surroundings. It’s unassuming yet undeniably gorgeous. Is Crowell resting on his laurels? Maybe, but he sure deserves it.