In 2001, Rodney Crowell released an album called The Houston Kid, a loose collection of autobiographic sketches reflecting on his upbringing in the Space City. His latest is called Texas, the very title suggesting that he’s panned the camera outward and made something closer to a landscape painting than to a self-portrait. Indeed, in a body of work that’ noteworthy for its sharply-drawn character sketches and memoir-specific narratives, Texas stands out for its celebration of local color; here, the Lone Star State isn’t just the setting but the main character. Crowell’s too smart to draw sharp lines around Texas music traditions, and instead allows for a cheerfully porous intermingling of country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, troubadour traditions, and faint signifiers of bordertown eclecticism. It’s lively enough to feel like a party album, and Crowell’s assembled a Texas-sized guest list to help him keep the momentum flowing: Billy Gibbons sleazes things up on the greasy “56 Fury,” Lyle Lovett is endearingly droll on “What You Gonna Do Now,” and Steve Earle wraps his gravelly authority around words like “Haliburton” on the prickly political number “Brown & Root, Brown & Root.” There’s even an appearance from Ringo Starr, because who would say no to a chance to record with Ringo Starr?
Crowell’s songwriting is skewed and impressionistic, rich in gnarled vernaculars and regional particulars: His “Flatland Hillbillies” zeroes in on a specific genus of redneck, while the sadsack “I’ll Show Me” tips its Stetson to the great Texas storyteller tradition that stretches back to Guy Clark and forward to Hayes Carll. The most haunted song might be “The Border,” where Texas becomes a microcosm for the kind of psychic strain and moral contradiction we all live with every day. But the best is probably “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas,” where Crowell revels in the music of Texas drawls. First Ronnie Dunn rhapsodizes about chiggers and beer in his smooth, operatic twang; then comes a never-rougher Willie Nelson, asking for a “dimebag of dirt weed”— astonishingly, the first time he’s ever sung those words into the public record.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 6