Rodney Crowell at the Ark
Still on country's forward edge
Rodney Crowell got his start in the 1970s as a member of Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, a key point of departure for the artistically ambitious side of contemporary country music. In Nashville he was best known for a while as a songwriter and producer, with a gift for fitting unusual images and oblique assonantal rhymes into the most transparent pop hooks. The list of recordings of his songs runs to seven pages on the All Music Guide website and extends well beyond the usual boundaries of country music: Bob Seger's "Shame on the Moon" was one of his. Harris was a continuing client, recording several of Crowell's sharp probings of the emotional downside of the sexual revolution: "Just like a wildfire, you're running all over town./As much as you've burned me, baby, I should be ashes by now"; "Speakin' of spreadin' it thin,/That's what you do, flashing your soul."
In the 1980s Crowell produced hit albums for Johnny Cash's daughter Rosanne. Her songwriting interests ran parallel to his own, and the two married. Crowell had his own moment in the commercial spotlight with his 1988 release Diamonds and Dirt, which produced five taut number-one country singles in the new-traditionalist vein of the day. He and Cash both lost momentum with albums rehashing their messy divorce, but Crowell has bounced back, to a degree Cash has not, with a series of releases showcasing his skills as a pure singer-songwriter-which is really what he was all along. Most of the rest of the Nashville songwriting community is still a step or two behind him.
Listen closely to older songs like "Ain't Livin' Long like This" and you'll hear hints of Crowell's back-of-the-tracks Houston upbringing. He addressed it head on with his 2001 album The Houston Kid. A track called "The Rock of My Soul" delivers this searing recollection: "I'm a firsthand witness to an age-old crime:/A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime./ Five, six, seven, eight, nine
years old,/ That's what I remember 'bout the rock of my soul." The album also contained a trope on Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," which prompted Cash to say that rewriting that song took a lot of nerve. "Yes, sir," Crowell is said to have answered (according to Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide). Crowell's songwriting pace hasn't slowed down at all in his fifties, which is noteworthy in itself, and he continues to express a spiritual streak that was there in some of his earliest songs.
One of Nashville's few liberal voices during the Bush ascendancy, Crowell comes to the Ark on Monday, October 6 (see Nightspots), with a new album, Sex & Gasoline, that has a social and political tinge. The sense of the name comes from the title track: "This mean old world runs on sex and gasoline." Crowell will be appearing with an acoustic trio, and the Ark has proven to be a great place for audiences wanting to dig deeper into his large output of superb country songs.
[Originally published in October, 2008.]