Rodney Crowell’s recently reissued Diamonds & Dirt (Columbia, 1988), the first country album to produce five number-one singles, wasn’t just a smashing success. It was also damn good, a polished mix of rockabilly, old-fashioned honky-tonk, and Beatlesque pop, all sung with a lilt reminiscent of Roy Orbison. And in his heyday, Crowell was a triple threat: as a songwriter, he sold tunes to artists as disparate as Bob Seger and the Oak Ridge Boys, and his production on records by people like Jim Lauderdale, Guy Clark, and his ex-wife, Rosanne Cash, balanced good taste with the requisite Nashville gloss. But as the 90s passed he slipped from the charts, and eventually he parted ways with his second label, MCA. He hadn’t made a record in four years when he set about recording the new The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill) on his own dime. The subject matter, his own rough-and-tumble childhood and the people he knew growing up in Texas, might in lesser hands come off as merely pathetic, but Crowell finds compassion, dignity, and even joy in the details of misery: “Telephone Road,” for example, delivers a rush of vivid images with lines like “Mosquito truck blowing DDT / Barefoot heathens running wild and free / Air raid buzzer at a noonday scream / Living in a dream on Telephone Road.” In “The Rock of My Soul,” the narrator is drawn into his father’s brutality even as he disdains it. And in “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Wandering Boy,” a pair of twins, one homophobic and one bisexual, have to face their differences when the latter is stricken with HIV. There’s no denying the recharged power of Crowell’s writing–it burns right through any remaining traces of Nashville production. Dolly Varden’s Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen open. Sunday, April 29, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nancy Lee Andrews.