Rodney Crowell's Fate's Right Hand mines the tunnels of a dangerous cave; issues of life, death, faith, and fate can easily sink the songs of a lesser writer. But Crowell's a master. The eleven songs here dig and redeem with luscious, quirky language and show us a man in midlife, looking back, looking ahead, and assessing the now.

Crowell started early in music — as the eleven-year-old drummer in his father's band, the Rhythmaires, which delivered a hard-core brand of honky-tonk, Texas swing, and Appalachian folk music to the good people of Houston's east side in the late 1950s. He arrived in Nashville in the early 1970s, determined to make it as a songwriter. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and fell in with a group of songwriters at Bishop's Pub — a combination soup kitchen and open-mike stage where he passed the hat alongside Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robin and Linda Williams, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, and others.

Crowell could have wound up as just another talented but unheralded Nashville songwriter (and there are hundreds, possibly thousands), but fate's right hand picked him up and spun him round. Two of his songs came to the attention of Emmylou Harris. She recorded "Bluebird Wine" on her first album and "Till I Can Gain Control Again" on her second, and soon afterward Crowell was living in L.A. as rhythm guitarist, harmony singer, and songwriter for Harris's renowned Hot Band. When he left the band two years later, a contract with Warner Brothers was waiting. A wide-ranging career in recording (ten solo albums to date), producing (Rosanne Cash, Guy Clark, and others), and songwriting (hundreds of versions of his songs covered by just about everybody) followed.

The years 1994-2001 were quiet ones that Crowell spent as a single dad with four daughters. He ended that "retirement" with the self-produced Houston Kid — which brings us back around to Fate's Right Hand, which Crowell himself has described as "a quasi-spiritual look at the complexities of living the so-called examined life. Most of the songs are born out of vulnerability of some kind — those things, if you will, that spring to life when we are least prepared."

It's a fascinating album. The title track (in constant rotation on Comcast's Americana station — that's channel 404 around here, and well worth tuning in to) is a gentle rant against a whole host of things, but more than that, it's a collection of great words strung together in unexpected ways:

Redrum dot com dim sum smart bombs
Double cappuccino and a heart like a tom tom
Ozone long gone — that's it, I quit
Natural inclination says enough of this
Fate's right hand, I don't understand it at all.

This dark, brooding, undeniably hooky song is followed up by the exuberant "Earthbound," a paean to all the messy, wondrous things that tie us to the planet — the setting moon, sex, good conversation. One thing's for sure: it's the only song ever written that mentions both Aretha Franklin and Seamus Heaney.

Rodney Crowell is at the Ark Friday, June 25.