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Americana singer-songwriter, Houston-born and long-time Nashville resident Rodney Crowell has been among the finest, and for periods near untouchable when it comes to his art. Crowell’s take of Americana country is honest and true. His lyrics cut to the bone as he bears his heart and soul, and with him critical of negative actions he has taken in life it could be argued he is on occasions a hard on himself as he reflects on a colourful past. Cultivated on long friendships with fellow singer-songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt he learnt well from the masters.
Ever since Emmylou Harris covered his songs ‘Till I Gain Control Again” and “Bluebird Wine” plus a co-writer with Harris, “Amarillo” on her first two albums (Elite Hotel and Pieces Of The Sky) on Warner Brothers his talent has been treasured by many. Close Ties is something of a rocky journey as it stubs its toes on a couple of occasions as his material, though well meant falter. His song about Guy Clark’s wife, Susanna (“Life Without Susanna”) as he tries to explain how his feelings towards her changed after the death of Townes Van Zandt died took a lot of plays before I felt comfortable with it. It is like Crowell is torn between the helplessness he suffered as she became distant, and despite his best efforts was unable to open the door to her emotions. A door that previously had always been open.
“Eastern Houston Blues” kicks off Crowell’s first solo album in three years, it follows Tarpaper Sky (2014) and his duet album with his former boss when he was a member of the famed Hot Band, “The Travellin’ Kind” (2015) Harris. Crowell claims he is singing the best he has ever done and with the likes of his collaboration with his one-time wife, Rosanne Cash and the incredible John Paul White on “It Ain’t Over Yet” (plus harmonica ace Mickey Raphael drops by to add some additional flavours). JPW seems to be involved in most good things happening in genre at present and this is not by accident!
The album is bulging with class acts in Jedd Hughes, Michael Rhodes, Steuart Smith, Jordan Lehning, Audley Freed, Fred Eltringham, Lex Price, Ian Fitchuk, Jim Oblon, Jerry Roe, Chris Leuzinger and Richard Bennett plus guitarist Tommy Emmanuel on “East Houston Blues”. Plus you have vocalist Sheryl Crow duet on the moody “I’m Tied To Ya’. It’s nice enough but doesn’t match up to understated gem “Forgive Me Annabelle”, reason being Crowell’s vocals are warmed stylishly by the minimal support. With Mitchell on piano, especially during the early part the lyrics are underlined beautifully. “Forty Miles From Nowhere” has a sombre, but not overly so feel. In fact it is quite pretty, it is one of those songs someone else could take if good enough and reshape.
On “Forty Miles From Nowhere” eases along in typical Crowell fashion and it’s a good tune, but comes second to the likes of the more urgent “Storm Warning” as he speaks of a tornado alley and the destruction caused. “Nashville 1972” has him recall the days when he was but a struggling songwriter try to makes ends meet and learn the trade, and with more about Guy and Susanna and old school Nashville in Harlan Howard, Bob McDill and Tom T. Hall to go with mention of a certain Willie Nelson make it a winner. One of the best songs on the record it ends the album on high.
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