Rodney Crowell - Texas
Texas, America’s biggest state, is the main theme in either the montage of tales he compiles and the origin of his collaborators. Crowell, a Texan, had the idea for several years of pulling together a Texas concept album; now he’s delivered.
I approach elderly icons’ modern releases with low expectations as I usually discover the music is weary or sub-optimal compared to the dizzying heights they once scaled. However, Crowell’s creativity and relevance is still peaking judging by his last three releases. It helps to be an exceptional lyricist who can paint a vivid picture with few words. Add a selection of contemporary sounds that drip with new melodies, diverse arrangements and you are approaching legendary status.
Crowell wrote most of the songs and the other artists’ contributions are more of an invitation to enjoy a splendid outing rather than bringing significant influences. This is especially true of “Flatland Hillbillies” where Country fixtures Lee Ann Womack and Randy Rogers join this easy rolling mid tempo song to paint a picture of the lifestyle of blue collar folk. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons brings his unmistakable chugging rhythm, guitar licks and gruff vocals to a couple of tracks. One of these is “56 Fury” and it is a homage to a chromium-drenched Detroit gas guzzler. Crowell enjoys himself and it’s nice to see him step away from some of his more earnest compositions.
Other A-List guests litter the album: Vince Gill, Willie Nelson (what! you again?), Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. Earle covered “Brown & Root, Brown & Root” in the 80s. He’s back with Crowell and this is the oldest composition on the album.Brown & Root were a large-scale construction company set up in 1919 and, after a spoken introduction by Earle, this folky acoustic duet recounts a story of hard labour, miserable conditions and uncertain wages.
I never thought I’d write that the highlight of the album involves the former Beatles drummer (and that isn’t because you can’t hear him sing). “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable“ is a tongue in cheek rocker with a loping beat and Ringo pounding around delightful guitar fills. Crowell tells his morose and contrary paramour that they are parting. The last few seconds throw up an unmistakable Beatles 60s harmony: wonderful.
“The Border”, tells a story of Texas” ongoing burden/opportunity: the interface with Mexico. John Jorgensen plays some exquisite acoustic strings to give the track a delicacy and Latin flavour that contrasts with the gritty story that requires the Border Patrol Agent to wear a bullet proof vest as he greets his wife at home.
The instrumentation throughout is mainly a full electric band. The different vocal harmony arrangements, genre switches and quality of the melodies make this an imposing and important work. It’s also noticeable that with his history of collaboration and production he really does extract the best out of others. No doubt this will rightly receive some Americana accolades at the end of the year.