The first thing longtime fans will notice about The Chicago Sessions, Rodney Crowell‘s first collection since 2021’s Triage, is the similarities between its cover art and that of his solo debut, 1978’s Ain’t Living Long Like This. One might see such a choice, suggested by Crowell’s daughter, as an ironic wink of defiance in response to the debut’s title. Whatever the reason, many miles have been traveled in the 45 years that separate the two. From 15 of his songs going to number one on the country charts (either as performer or writer, or both) to numerous awards and accolades, Crowell is the rare artist that was able to transition from progressive country singer-songwriter to commercial radio hit-maker to critically-acclaimed father-figure of roots music and Americana.
The Chicago Sessions was produced by Jeff Tweedy, engineered by Tom Schick, and recorded at the Loft, a 5,000 square-foot third-floor warehouse studio Wilco have used since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s also where recordings from Mavis Staples to Richard Thompson were crafted. As with those and other artists whose albums he’s produced, Tweedy’s method is not to impose his sonic imprint but to allow the artist the space and tools to create their vision. As such, Crowell sounds comfortable, confident, and at ease throughout The Chicago Sessions while gifting us some of his best material in years.
That comfortable confidence is apparent from the start with “Lucky”. Featuring vibrant, driving piano from Catherine Marx, Crowell celebrates making a life with someone who allows him to be himself. “Loving You Is the Only Way to Fly” (co-written with Jedd Hughes and Sarah Buxton), on the other hand, finds the narrator pining and carrying a torch, most likely in vain. Crowell’s influences come to bear on the laid-back groove of “Oh Miss Claudia” by way of fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins and the country roots of the Everly Brothers.
Meanwhile, “Somebody Loves You” tackles cultural decay, cynicism, and racism in an arrangement that wouldn’t sound of place on any of Bob Dylan‘s albums from the 2000s. The album’s first single, “Everything at Once”, a co-write and duet with Tweedy, most strikingly reflects the producer’s band’s influence and sound. Throughout The Chicago Sessions, Crowell, Tweedy, and Marx are joined by Jedd Hughes on guitar and mandolin, Zachariah Hickman on bass, and John Perrine and Spencer Tweedy, Jeff’s son, on drums. Everyone serves the songs without getting in the way. The sound is communal, informal, and easygoing.
Just as the album’s cover art nods to the past, a couple of songs on The Chicago Sessions reach back to the 1970s as well. The incredible “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good”, first recorded by Emmylou Harris on 1977’s Luxury Liner (when Crowell was a member of her legendary Hot Band), is given new life. The arrangement here is more immediate, boosting its inescapable melodic hook while boasting a fine falsetto from Crowell. The other is Townes Van Zandt‘s “No Place to Fall”, a song Crowell first heard while sitting across from the man himself at one of the many jam sessions that took place at Guy and Susanna Clark’s house. Crowell’s take here is quietly brilliant. It manages to pay tribute to Van Zandt while emphasizing the attributes that make Crowell such a remarkably nuanced and underrated vocalist.
The Chicago Sessions ends with “Ready to Move On”, one of Crowell’s most simple yet moving songs, acting as a meditation of sorts. It could be interpreted as self-elegy, or maybe just a wish for a more peaceful world, united in kindness, unencumbered by an increasingly suffocating and inescapable media influence. “You know there’ll come a day when none of this will matter / It will all be so much mindless chatter / And we won’t look at each other and scoff / The day we turn the TV off.”
It’s a nice thought. Crowell proves in The Chicago Sessions that both his pen and voice are still as vital as ever.