There was a glorious moment in country music. It was wedged right between two distinct eras and didn’t last long, but it was beautiful.
It was near the end of the 1980s, just as a largely forgettable era of pop-country radio was ending. It was just before Garth Brooks landed like a comet on the airwaves, enthralling suburbanites with a new kind of crossover music that would fill the exploding new industry of country dance halls with neophyte line dancers, all dressed in those wildly patterned button-up shirts.
Standing at the pinnacle of this moment in 1988 was Rodney Crowell. That spring, his Diamonds and Dirt album was at the top of a reinvigorated Nashville, what some were calling the “neo-traditional” movement. Throughout the 1980s, a growing number of successful artists were abandoning the pop-inflected “Countrypolitan” sound that had dominated since the end of the Outlaw Country era. Acts like George Strait, Randy Travis, the Judds, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo were changing the sound of country radio by drawing stylistic influence from older, more traditional forms of country music as well Gram Parsons-influenced country rock.
Diamonds and Dirt was a massive hit, both critically and with fans. Its 35-minute runtime produced five #1 singles, and its artistic and commercial success helped define the era. But the album is important in another way as well. Diamonds and Dirt and Rodney Crowell can be understood as a signpost in American music history.
Diamonds and Dirt and American Traditional Music
Soon after Diamonds and Dirt’s release, the mainstream country music industry would spend the next several decades water skiing in Garth Brooks’ pop-country wake. The artists that would continue the work of the neo-traditionalists would help forge an emergent musical format, what was initially sometimes called “alt-country”, then more commonly, “Americana”, which would freely mix traditional country music with other genres and styles, such as blues and folk. Americana music has become an essential genre for some of the most talented and artistically significant musicians working today. Artists like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Sturgill Simpson, and Old Crow Medicine Show have all thrived under this label, as have older acts who found themselves alienated by the pop-directed trajectory of country radio, including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Crowell himself.
Rodney Crowell, in fact, was a major artist long before Diamonds and Dirt and the so-called “Neo-Traditional” movement. The native Texan had long established himself as a skilled songwriter and musician, back to his days as a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in the mid-1970s. A classic singer-songwriter in the tradition of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Crowell wrote numerous hits for other musicians and had already released four classic solo albums by the time Diamonds and Dirt hit. His longevity and artistic success make him an essential artist in American music, bridging three distinct eras and helping to define Americana as a genre as he has produced several of its most significant works. His great collaboration with Emmylou Harris, Old Yellow Moon, was awarded the Grammy for Best Americana Album in 2014.
At its 35th anniversary, it’s an excellent time to recognize Diamonds and Dirt as an essential album, not just because it was a massive commercial and critical success. It also serves as a bridge between two vital eras in American music.
Why Diamonds and Dirt Still Shines
In the last years of the 1980s, Diamonds and Dirt’s singles were in constant rotation on country radio. Listening to the record three and a half decades later, it’s easy to understand why; it’s bursting with highly-crafted music, and the meticulous songwriting stands out. Crowell had penned hits for artists ranging from Waylon Jennings to Emmylou Harris to Jewel. This list doesn’t even include the Crowell covers that became hits for other acts, including Bob Seger and the Oak Ridge Boys, to name two. Crowell brings that wealth of experience and craftsmanship to the songs of Diamonds and Dirt. The album contains one cover song, a lilting, euphoric version of Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond”, but the rest are Crowell’s compositions.
Indeed, the songs on Diamonds and Dirt are among the finest of Crowell’s career. Three, “Crazy Baby”, “Brand New Rag”, and “The Last Waltz”, were co-written with the prolific songwriter Will Jennings, and “She’s Crazy for Leavin'” was a collaboration with Crowell’s friend and mentor, Guy Clark. The rest are Crowell’s handiwork, and they bear his distinct style, humor, and poetic craft. The expert songwriting is the foundation for exuberant and polished singing and musicianship.
The songs remain, in a word, catchy. “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” combines a bouncy melody with fiddle and steel guitar and ties the composition up with a tight rhythm section that makes the whole thing irresistibly danceable. Add to this infectious mix the beautiful tenor of Crowell’s mid-career voice, and the track still retains its kick.
There is a distinctly rocking sound to Diamonds and Dirt. Most of the songs practically beg to be cranked up and sung along with while speeding along the highway with the windows down. This is due in no small part to the record’s expert production and performances, which seem designed in a lab for 1980s country radio success.
There are ballads, of course. One of Rodney Crowell’s greatest contributions to American music is his ability to write and sing a heart-wrenching ballad. There would be a massive hole in country music without “‘ Till I Gain Control Again”, “Song For the Life”, and “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway”.
Diamonds and Dirt adds “The Last Waltz”, “I Didn’t Know I Could Lose You”, and the bona fide classic “After All This Time” to Crowell’s achievements in the country ballad form. Stanzas like “There were ways I should have thrilled you / There were days I could have killed you / You’re the only love my life has known” still have their tear-producing power.
Listening to “After All This Time”, one cannot help but think of the marriage, divorce, and long-term collaborative friendship Crowell has shared with Roseanne Cash. The mercurial power couple were married in 1979 and divorced in the early 1990s. They have collaborated on numerous projects before, during, and since their marriage. Crowell produced Cash’s landmark album Seven Year Ache in the early years of their marriage and several others as well.
Diamonds and Dirt features one of their best collaborations, “It’s Such a Small World”, which still thrills with its concoction of desperation, longing, and hope. Both Cash and Crowell are immensely talented artists, and their distinct, soulful voices mesh perfectly in this classic track.
The Move Into Americana
Diamonds and Dirt was a commercial high point for Rodney Crowell as well as an artistic triumph, but the best work of his career was yet to come. The 2000s have seen Crowell release an unbroken string of masterpieces since 2001’s The Houston Kid. Any fan of traditional American music will want to explore his incredible creative resurgence during the last two decades.
Yet fans of the Americana genre, who discovered Rodney Crowell during this dynamic phase of his career, may listen to Diamonds and Dirt and be distracted by the production values that made it such a popular record in the 1980s. One might sum it up with a single word, “reverb”, which still sounds much better than today’s ubiquitous Auto-Tune. The album is a document of the recording styles of the decade in which it was produced, to be sure. I argue that there is a distinct pleasure in listening to the country music of the latter half of that decade, and the “Nashville Sound” of the time is part of the reason why.
The excellent band Highway 101 (for whom Crowell and Harlan Howard penned the classic “Somewhere Tonight”) is but one example of a great band that flourished in the era. At the same time, I understand that the sound isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Diamonds and Dirt’s production is so much “of the 1980s” that some listeners might miss the timelessness of its songs.
If you are one of those listeners, I’d like to point you to Crowell’s 2018 album Acoustic Classics, dedicated to re-imagining key songs in his discography and stripping them down to their essences, bringing wise new perspectives to them. On that record, Crowell re-records “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”, “She’s Crazy for Leavin'”, and “After All This Time”. These new versions of the songs are almost entirely faithful to the original recordings, except in how they strip away the trebly 1980s production values. In place of that style is a warm intimacy that lets the listener hear the songs in new ways. The effect of these self-covers is almost designed to re-situate the songs as Americana, songs that transcend the limitations of their radio moment. In these covers, Crowell brings the artistry of his late-1980s hits into the present, and in doing so, he connects an essential thread in the history of American music.
Diamonds and Dirt is not a career outlier for Rodney Crowell, its commercial success notwithstanding. It is a vital part of career evolution. The record can also be considered a moment of transition in country music. At a particularly vibrant moment in country radio history, Crowell taps into the artistry and creative energies of traditional country and country rock to create an album that points forward to the future development of Americana music. It remains a pleasure to listen to but is also a significant historical marker in American music.
- Poetry and Passion: An Interview with Rodney Crowell
- With 'Acoustic Classics' odney Crowell Revisits His Repertoire in a Warm, Intimate Setting
- Rodney Crowell: Sex & Gasoline
- Rodney Crowell: The Outsider
- Rodney Crowell: Diamonds and Dirt
- Rodney Crowell: Close Ties
- Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris: The Traveling Kind