On his last album, 2001’s The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill), longtime Nashville hit maker Rodney Crowell began to make music for himself. Between 1978 and 1997 Crowell released nine albums of commercial country, among the best of which was 1988’s Diamonds and Dirt, an artful blend of honky-tonk, rockabilly, and Merseybeat. But in the late 90s he went low profile, producing records for other singers and spending time with his new family. When he returned a few years later his new songs were deeply personal explorations of his Texas childhood quite out of sync with the freeze-dried soccer mom fodder coming out of Nashville. He financed the record himself and released it on an indie label, and would have done the same with his new album, Fate’s Right Hand, if T-Bone Burnett, guiding light of Columbia’s DMZ label, hadn’t stepped in to help absorb the risk. And a risk it is: there’s not much room on country radio for artists who ponder the philosophical and spiritual hurts of midlife. On songs like “Still Learning How to Fly,” “Earthbound,” and “Time to Go Inward,” Crowell confronts his fear that he’s past his prime and struggles “to solve the riddle of what it is I have to offer to this world.” On other tracks he pokes fun at his own self-righteous tendencies: in “Riding Out the Storm” he offers his coat to a homeless man and receives a dignified rebuff, while in “Preachin’ to the Choir” he admits, “I used to like to think I had a special way with words / But right now I’m convinced I’ve more in common with the birds.” A couple of songs–“Come On Funny Feelin'” and “This Too Will Pass”–dabble in psychobabble, but Crowell’s gift for melody and the rich country-rock arrangements help it all go down smoothly. Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez open; the show is sold-out. Friday, November 21, 8 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/John Scarpati.