After his impressive 1978 debut with Ain’t Living Long Like This, Rodney Crowell’s had something of an uneven career, one characterized by albums of both outstanding and patchy quality, peaking in 1988 with Diamonds and Dirt, his only US Country Top 10 album and one which spawned five No 1 singles, while the latter two of his three 90s releases failed to chart at all.
Briefly signed to Sugar Hill, he made a comeback with 2001’s reflective The Houston Kid, building on his critical and commercial revival with Fate’s Right Hand, The Outsider and 2008’s disappointingly overlooked Sex And Gasoline, his first and only release on Yep Roc.
However, although there’s been two collaborative offers, notably last year’s hugely successful Old Yellow Moon teaming with Emmylou Harris, there’s not been any solo material for the past six years. Reuniting with guitarist Steuart Smith and rhythm section Eddie Bayers and Michael Rhodes from the Diamonds & Dirty sessions (not to mention Vince Gill providing harmonies), alongside contributions by such names as Will Kimbrough, Jerry Douglas, Fats Kaplan, Steve Fishell and Ronnie McCoury, with all songs either self-penned or co-writes, Tarpaper Sky is by far his most consistent and immediate release in years.
After mining a topical socio-political seam over his last three albums, this is a much more personal collection, often reflective and concerned with relationships and, now in his 60s, mortality. Memories of wild youth and wanderlust mix with a sense of finally finding peace on chugging, guitar-ringing anthemic opener The Long Journey Home, sliding into Will Jennings co-write Cajun accordion flavoured good time roller Fever On the Bayou about the ubiquitous Jolie Blon with its sly innuendo line ‘I love to see her come and hate to see her go’.
From here, it’s straight into Frankie Please that comes straight out of the Jerry Lee Lewis school of rock n rolling boogie piano, albeit filtered through a Dave Edmunds style production (after all, they both recorded Hank DeVito’s Queen of Hearts) before he shifts the pace and mood completely for God, I’m Missing You, a re-work of the achingly tender song he co-wrote and recorded with Mary Karr for the joint album and from which the title comes.
That same theme of loss and memories also permeates Grandma Loved That Old Man, a warm tribute to his “crap-shootin’ crazy” grandfather and the enduring love his grandma bore him, while he turns up the bluesy gospel flame on Jesus Talk To Mama where, in a track you could hear Elvis singing, the born again tearaway asks his redeemer to let mom know he’s saved.
He’s in bluesy mood too on Somebody’s Shadow, John Hobbs providing the piano on a number with a similar groove to Dylan’s Rainy Day Women and a great line about “how she shed me like a tear.” Indeed, there’s a fair few touchstones in evidence, the simple acoustic love pledge country waltzer I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You pure Willie Nelson while the album’s two closers both come with dedications. Adopting a ‘may you ever’ approach akin to Dylan’s Forever Young, the easy rolling The Flyboy & The Kid tips the hat to mentor Guy Clark and, celebrating the small moments, both bitter and sweet, that make life what it is, Oh What A Beautiful World was both written for John Denver and incorporates the classic melody line from Take Me Home Country Roads. I must have played this a dozen times over the past week and everytime time it comes up fresh. An album of the year, no question.
Review by: Mike Davies
Fever on the Bayou (KXT Live Sessions)
Released on New West, April 14
Order via: Amazon