In 1988, Rodney Crowell was already known as a talented sideman and an impressive songwriter: he played guitar and sang in Emmylou Harris’ band for several years, and scored credits on hits for Waylon Jennings, Bob Seger and the Oak Ridge Boys. But that same year, he also released Diamonds & Dirt, an album that minted Crowell as a solo star, spawning five hit singles and earning Gold certification from the RIAA. His early career netted him two Grammys and an induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I wanted to have those hit songs, and I wanted people to think that I was cool,” Crowell says. “Now all I want is to be heard.”
Rodney Crowell is a master storyteller, especially when the story songs are his own. What you will notice about his newest work is that he is a man at the crossroads of his life, where he questions the relevancy of the fame and fortune of major label stardom— the measures of success, the hurt of failures, the hopes, dreams, loves that have been lost and the unknown that lies ahead. He is now comfortable writing for himself, reflecting on the real meaning of life and completely at ease with not worrying about writing hits, staying in the spotlight or having his sound dictated by others. His newest album, Close Ties, is simple, unadorned and beautiful.
“I’ve lived long enough now that some of my contemporaries are starting to pass from the earth, so those relationships started coming to the fore as I was writing songs,” Crowell explains. “Relationships that were so personal and so evocative in my life had passed away, but here I am, still tickin’, still slippin’ along. More than once I asked myself, ‘Who am I now?'”
It’s fitting, then, that Close Ties unfolds like a history lesson, both of his personal mythology and the music that shaped it. Produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie, the 10-song collection considers Crowell’s influences while looking to the future, each song delivered with Crowell’s slight growl and poet’s eye for detail.
The song “It Ain’t Over Yet” is Crowell’s history — musical and otherwise — reconciled in just over five minutes. Featuring John Paul White and Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash, the song is a gently triumphant ode to life’s ups and downs, “ship[s] rolling in” and others “right back out.” The choice of Crowell’s ex-lover and one of his genre’s brightest new stars can’t be a coincidence.
The single “I Don’t Care Anymore” sums up his current view from the crossroads and it is one I am glad to see and hear.
Crowell’s not writing hits but he’s writing better songs with perfectly chosen details, lively and flawed characters and stirring content.