If I were to challenge you to name a more authentic, living voice of Texas than Rodney Crowell who would you say? Willie Nelson? Lyle Lovett? Steve Earle? Well, if you named one of those, perhaps you’d have a valid point. My answer leans more towards Rodney Crowell, but it’s a win/win discussion to be sure. What makes it even better is that they’re all present and accounted for on Crowell’s newest effort, aptly named TEXAS, available August 15th via RC1 Records/Orchard Music.
TEXAS is an aptly named collection of songs featuring the Lone Star State as the main character and a supporting cast that includes cars, oil and gas companies, border tensions and all things Texan. The collection is presented impeccably by Crowell and co-producer Ray Kennedy as well as a collection of artists like only Rodney could assemble. Crowell’s authenticity is distinct and convincing. These songs travel Texas from the Rio Grande border to the Piney Woods of East Texas and everywhere between, and they’re rendered masterfully.
The Texas tales commence with the witty quality of “Flatland Hillbillies”, featuring Lee Ann Womack and Randy Rogers, and gets followed by “Caw Caw Blues” which showcases the crafty guitar work and harmonies of Vince Gill. The guitar theme continues, and with no disrespect to the previously mentioned Okie guitar slinger, there’s no guitarist more Texas than Billy F Gibbons. Proof lies in the rollicking and fun “56 Fury,” which is ‘built for comfort, built for speed’. It’s distinctly Gibbons, yet more importantly, it remains distinctly Rodney. Even with all of the guest appearances throughout the album, it’s never lost on the listener that this is a Rodney Crowell record. As do all of his albums, TEXAS contains a constant, hard to define component to it that is undeniably unique to Rodney Crowell. That component is never more apparent than in the star laden “Deep In The Heart Of Uncertain Texas” (Ronnie Dunn, Willie Nelson, and Womack again). It’s a fun, ramblin’ song that perfectly sums up the allure of Texas. “I tried hard to leave here, but never did could.” The song suffers slightly from a distant and remote sounding vocal from Willie Nelson, but it’s a small and solitary grumble.
Crowell’s songwriting prowess is most prominently displayed with “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable” (featuring Ringo Starr) and the bluesy saloon-style piano fueled “I’ll Show Me.” Both songs display Crowell’s special ability to capture the best and worst of human nature. These are inward looking, and deeply personal songs that accentuate Rodney’s masterful songwriting style, as well as his zen-like persona. That style and ability continuously weaves its magic through the second half of the album, which proved to contain the majority of my favorite tracks. “What You Gonna Do Now” features my other favorite Texas songwriter, Lyle Lovett and immediately became my favorite cut. “The Border” allows the accordion and Mexican styled guitar to set a scene, as Crowell recites a story of anger, fear, corruption and desperation from a border agent’s point of view. Things begin to wind down with the Piney Woods outlaw tale “Treetop Slim & Billy Lowgrass, and the history lesson of “Brown & Root, Brown & Root” which simply shines with the deep rasp of Steve Earle cutting deep like he only can. Lyrically, Crowell’s words grab your attention, painting a vivid portrait that again touches flawlessly on the human condition: ‘Pa was mean when he drank, and he always drank, and he never said three words to me’ .
Crowell though has one last trick up his sleeve. Closing the album out is the beautiful Beatle-esque, yet still distinctly Texas flavored “Texas Drought Part 1”. The song gives us one last example of the beauty that is Crowell’s songwriting…. “The blues in the night have a mind of their own”. It doesn’t get much better than that, though Crowell would probably humbly disagree. A star studded album often comes across cumbersome and underwhelming, and that was my initial fear with early reports of this release. I’m extremely relieved to say that nothing could be further from the case with Crowell’s TEXAS. The guests remain just that. Guests, with Crowell effortlessly and seamlessly guiding them through his tales and into their roles allowing them to bolster his talents. As it should be, Crowell’s star shines brightest here, like a sun at it’s zenith.
The ‘Houston Kid’ will undoubtedly be touring incessantly behind TEXAS, including an album release show at Houston’s Heights Theater on August 15th. Definitely don’t miss this special album or a chance to see the Zen Master of Americana ply his trade live.