Rodney Crowell got his start in the 1970s as a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, a key point of departure for the artistically ambitious side of contemporary country music. In Nashville he was best known for a while as a songwriter and producer, with a gift for fitting unusual images and oblique assonantal rhymes into the most transparent pop hooks. The list of recordings of his songs runs to seven pages on the All Music Guide website and extends well beyond the usual boundaries of country music: Bob Seger’s “Shame on the Moon” was one of his. Harris was a continuing client, recording several of Crowell’s sharp probings of the emotional downside of the sexual revolution: “Just like a wildfire, you’re running all over town./As much as you’ve burned me, baby, I should be ashes by now”; “Speakin’ of spreadin’ it thin,/That’s what you do, flashing your soul.”
In the 1980s Crowell produced hit albums for Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne. Her songwriting interests ran parallel to his own, and the two married. Crowell had his own moment in the commercial spotlight with his 1988 release Diamonds and Dirt, which produced five taut number-one country singles in the new-traditionalist vein of the day. He and Cash both lost momentum with albums rehashing their messy divorce, but Crowell has bounced back, to a degree Cash has not, with a series of releases showcasing his skills as a pure singer-songwriter—which is really what he was all along. Most of the rest of the Nashville songwriting community is still a step or two behind him.
Listen closely to older songs like “Ain’t Livin’ Long like This” and you’ll hear hints of Crowell’s back-of-the-tracks Houston upbringing. He addressed it head on with his 2001 album The Houston Kid. A track called “The Rock of My Soul” delivers this searing recollection: “I’m a firsthand witness to an age-old crime:/A man who hits a woman isn’t worth a dime./ Five, six, seven, eight, nine
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