In 2010, Rodney Crowell took a notion. He called up most of the band that had played with him on his 1988 commercial breakthrough album Diamonds & Dirt and got them together in a recording studio. Here it was, two decades later. Bass player Michael Rhodes, drummer Eddie Bayers and guitarist Steuart Smith had become Nashville session royalty. Crowell had become one of the most admired songwriter/artists in America. But even they don’t often take the opportunity to record like this. In a circle, facing one another and truly hearing one another, with no headphones or glass walls to separate them, they cut live as a band, with the honesty and no-fixes spontaneity of the records that first inspired all of them as teenagers.
Crowell and his old friends laid down a lot of great music in a timeless rocking country vein, but before a full album’s worth of material was finished, other projects intervened. Crowell made the album Kin with his literary confidant, author Mary Karr, and a host of top roots and pop vocalists. Then came Old Yellow Moon with lifelong friend Emmylou Harris, which led to a triumphant tour and a Grammy win for Best Americana Album. But eventually, that unfinished project beckoned, and after the band regrouped and it was all pulled together, Crowell realized he had something special. He’s called it Tarpaper Sky, an allusion to the rickety house with a bad roof in which he spent much of his Houston childhood.
And suddenly here he is – 63 years old – coming off two acclaimed projects, singing with the depth and nuance to which he’s always aspired and writing with his trademark blend of literary precision and plainspoken country soul. Crowell is a multi-Grammy winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the recipient of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association. His songs have been covered and performed by an eminent group of musicians, including Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Etta James, George Strait, Royksopp, Tim McGraw and Bob Seger. Yet he’s taken his place among America’s greatest songwriters not with laurels and banquets but with excellent new work.
Crowell says the songs on Tarpaper Sky are mostly pastorals – pictures from an imaginary countryside that tell unadorned stories with straightforward language and energetic musicianship. It begins with “Long Journey Home,” whose archetypal folk title speaks to its ageless theme of wanderlust and its uncomplicated melody. Then as “Fever On The Bayou” segues into “Frankie Please,” we realize we’re in for a rich and varied roots experience.
The former features accordion and mandolin, evoking The Band playing on a back porch, while Crowell sings a love song to a Louisiana belle. Then it’s twisting rock and roll rhythms and passionate vocals that definitely make us want to get a look at Frankie. It’s under three minutes long, but it worked for Chuck Berry then and it works for Crowell now.
We also find some graceful ballads scattered through the project, including the poignant country waltz “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” and the self-explanatory and vulnerable “God, I’m Missing You.” And the artist’s inclination to search his own story for material comes forward on “Jesus Talk To Mama,” where he celebrates the mystery of his mother’s faith, and “The Flyboy & The Kid,” an allusion to his relationship with Guy Clark. Helmed by the production team of Justin Niebank, Steuart Smith, and Dan Knobler, the album is a rich sonic experience as well, with guest vocals from Vince Gill, John Cowan, Ronnie McCoury and Shannon McNally, plus instrumental contributions by Nashville’s finest, including Jerry Douglas, Will Kimbrough, Fats Kaplin and Steve Fishell. The continuity comes from that core of musicians and old friends with whom Crowell made some of his career defining music.
Crowell’s remarkable story was not unknown during the years he achieved fame as a country music radio star, but it took on a vivid, cinematic quality with the publication of his 2011 memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks. There, we learn the details of his Houston childhood, marked by poverty and tumult. His father, volatile though he was, pulled Rodney into country music, taking him to seminal shows and recruiting him to his hillbilly band. Crowell began to write songs in college and moved to Nashville in 1972, where he was drawn to a bohemian community of future legends that included Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Crowell’s suspicion that he was born to be a songwriter bore fruit in that fertile ground. Some of his greatest and most beloved songs came early in his Nashville career, including “Til I Gain Control Again,” “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” “Song For The Life” and “Ashes By Now.” So his reputation as a songwriter grew substantially, even if his own recording career required patience. He released four albums before Diamonds & Dirt fulfilled the commercial promise that so many had seen in him, producing an astonishing five number one singles in succession.
Crowell has conceded he didn’t accept or handle well the fame that came with that radio success. But if his prickly and independent spirit alienated him from some parts of the radio industry, it led him back to the artist’s path. And while some wondered for a time in the late 1990s if Crowell’s best work was behind him, some downtime gave way to a trio of semi-autobiographical albums in the 2000s that redefined his legacy. The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider were uniformly praised as his most revealing and musically complete albums. Crowell believes with these projects he finally hit his stride as a singer and performer. The historians will tell you they were the projects that sealed his elevated place in American music at large.
With that comes freedom, so recent years have seen Crowell pursuing the directions he felt he needed to go, from spontaneous recording sessions with old friends or collaborations with admired colleagues.
And if Old Yellow Moon was a historic reunion and Kin was a literary adventure with his prose writing mentor, Tarpaper Sky is that more ordinary and yet blessed thing – an opus of new songs, tracked with a common sensibility and put in a carefully considered sequence.
It’s an album, and as we’ve come to expect from Rodney Crowell, a very fine one. It’s the sound of Crowell fusing his considerable experience with the same unbridled passion for American music that drew him to music as a kid and to Nashville and his road to greatness forty years ago.