MANHATTAN, NY—Rodney Crowell was born in 1950 in Crosby, Texas, to a poor but musical family. One grandfather was a church choir leader, the other was a bluegrass banjo player, one grandmother played guitar and his father sang semi-professionally. At age 11, Rodney starting playing drums in his father’s hillbilly band. In his teen years, he played in garage rock bands in Houston, performing a mix of pop radio hits and country songs. He began to write songs in college, and after college moved to Nashville, Tennessee, searching for a career in music. In short time, his songs began breaking into the country circuit. Emmylou Harris recorded a song and then invited him to join her band. After three years with her, he formed a short-lived band with Vince Gill before venturing solo. Crowell’s first albums received little traction, but his songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, The Oak Ridge Boys, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Etta James, Van Morrison, Jerry Reed, George Strait and Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. He married Rosanne Cash, produced her albums, and put his own career on hold in 1981.
Crowell finally had a successful album in 1988, Diamonds & Dirt, which produced five number one country hits. Crystal Gayle, Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Lee Ann Womack, Wynonna Judd and Tim McGraw then had country hits with Crowell’s songs. Crowell is now a multi-Grammy winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame, a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award For Songwriting from the Americana Music Association, and an inductee in the Music City Walk Of Fame. His Tarpaper Sky album was released on April 15, 2014; the title is an allusion to the rickety house with a bad roof in which he spent much of his childhood.
At City Winery on May 5, Crowell did nothing different than he has been doing for the past 40 years or so. He put on his hat, strapped on an acoustic guitar, stepped up to the microphone and sang original story songs from his heart. Dressed in a plain button-down shirt and dark pants, he administered a similarly casual simplicity to his performance. Backed by a three-piece backing band that included guitarist and collaborator Steuart Smith, who also backs the Eagles, Crowell mixed old and new catalogues. The songs were products of a meticulous literacy, paired with only a subtle musical polish; Smith offered a clever lead guitar fill here, another twang there, but ultimately kept everything very basic. Many songs were gently sweet and touching compositions, while other seemed tailored for a blue-jeaned honky tonk.
Crowell’s vocal range and timber were unremarkable except for its standout trait—an honest and unpretentious delivery. Older songs like “Stars On The Water” and “Til I Gain Control Again” revved up the audience, but then a striking song would paralyze all audience momentum. The most stunning example was performed solo; on “Wandering Boy,” Crowell’s introspective lyrics pondered on the inner cry of twins he knew from childhood, one of whom contracted HIV. In the end, what made the concert interesting was Crowell’s commitment to avoiding trends and simply tell his stories.
For more information on Rodney Crowell, go to rodneycrowell.com.