Artist: Rodney Crowell
Album: Close Ties
Label: New West
Release Date: 03/31/2017
Rodney Crowell has returned with his first solo work in three years after his chart-topping collaboration with his friend, Emmylou Harris. This may well be his most personal album yet, mining similar territory as his breakout “second career” album of sorts, 2001’s Houston Kid. Like that one, many of the stories and images appear in his soul-baring 2011 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, detailing his hard scrabbled childhood/ adolescence in lines like “I learned to drink and drive when I was twelve years old” (East Houston Blues”). And, going beyond both the book and Houston Kid, it sheds light on his early days as a fledging songwriter in 1970s Nashville, reminiscing about Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. It’s perhaps more balanced than any of his records in terms of finding the right mix of these personal recollections, literate poetry, and melodic tunes.
Crowell, as much as any single artist, is the flag bearer for Americana music. With tons of mainstream country hits in the ’80s, his career began to stall a decade later as radio airplay for him began to dry up. Since the turn of the millennium, Crowell’s albums lie somewhere between country and singer-songwriter fare. He comments, “I have declared my loyalty to Americana. It’s a hard category for people to get their heads around, or at least the terminology is. But all the people who represent it—Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and more recent stars like John Paul White and Jason Isbell—share a common thread, and that thread is poet. Whether they are actual poets or their music exemplifies a poetic sensibility, generally speaking, the American artist shuns commercial compromise in favor of a singular vision. Which resonates with me.”
All ten tunes are exceptionally well crafted and some are emotionally searing. “Life Without Susanna” is about Guy Clark’s wife, where Crowell speaks of her in an admirable, adoring way, much like Townes would have. “It Ain’t Over Yet” features vocals from John Paul White and Rosanne Cash over an indelible melody, punctuated by Mickey Raphael’s harp. The lost love of “Forgive Me Annabelle” is practically tears-inducing. “I’m Tied to Ya’” features a duet with Sheryl Crow, singing better than I’ve ever heard her on record. “Forty Miles from Nowhere” is another with a sneakily seductive melody and crisp imagery. “Nashville 1972” captures in a brief three minutes, what the early scene was like for writers like Crowell and Earle, mentored by Van Zandt and Clark, while aspiring to the seemingly unreachable status attained by Tom T. Hall.
Crowell has a special gift of expressing his memories economically and accessibly. That, in what I’m loosely terming his “second career” which began in 2001, perhaps differentiates him from his peers more than anything else. And Crowell seems fully aware of it. He has pared back even more here. Maybe this marks a third incarnation. “A few years ago I made a record called The Houston Kid that triggered Chinaberry Sidewalks,” he says. “Those memory muscles are pretty strong in me. They have a natural pull. And so many of these songs use those memories as raw material.”
This will undoubtedly prove to be of the strongest Americana albums of the year, likely leading to yet more awards for Crowell, Grammy and otherwise.