The Houston Kid

by: Rodney Crowell

At least impressionistically, this is a soundtrack to a documentary about the life of Rodney Crowell, who grew up in East Houston (the same neighborhood as the Ghetto Boys, but 25 years earlier), a rough and rumble neighborhood lying in the shadows of downtown Houston. It also happens to be the finest record Crowell has recorded since Diamonds & Dirt, and it's better than that one by a mile. After being tossed off by the major labels, it took a big-time indie like Sugar Hill -- a label founded to showcase bluegrass artists (but also home to many fine singer/songwriters including Crowell's running mate and inspiration Guy Clark) -- to release The Houston Kid. The album comes off as a song cycle; first, in "Telephone Road," the atmosphere is painted onto a backdrop. Showcasing the dark underbelly's finest sights, smells, sounds, and tastes, it's a country shuffle that moves ahead straightforwardly offering the stage for the creation of a rounder. On "The Rock of My Soul," Crowell tells all about the boy growing up in such circumstances. Fact and fiction are interwoven in a moving narrative that has plenty of twang and punch. Steel guitars and acoustic Fenders carry the melody along until the story reaches its nadir. "Why Don't We Talk About It" is Crowell's "accept me as I am because this is the real me" narrative. The band sounds like Rockpile playing country music. Truly, the backing vocals and the mix could be pure Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. Crowell has always hidden his brashness under a sheen of Nashville style, which is why his songs always sounded truer coming out of other people's mouths. But that's not the case here. It feels raw and immediate, full of something he's never revealed before. "I Wish It Would Rain" is a folk/country song so down and out that it could have been written by deceased writers Townes Van Zandt or Blaze Foley (both Texans and both friends of Crowell). It's a confessional. There is no braggadocio, no posturing. It's a song of regret but not remorse. The guitars are spare, just enough of a skeleton to hang the lyric on, and as he spills his tale of woe, the listener becomes as haunted as the protagonist is hunted. The craziest moment is Crowell's rewiring of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." With an electric country-blues shuffle (à la Merle Haggard), Crowell tells the story of how he first heard the song, and then Cash himself comes in on a completely rewritten narrative and chorus! Cash reportedly told Crowell he had a lot of nerve to rewrite his classic song, to which Crowell brazenly replied, "Yes sir." Though the record closes two songs later, "Banks of the Old Bandera" is where it could have -- and maybe should have -- the first song Crowell ever wrote. Author Tom Robbins told him he should write a bunch more songs and tour them in art galleries! Thank God he didn't. The Houston Kid offers listeners Rodney Crowell the performer in a way they've never heard before; the songwriter who has been been missing in Nashville for quite some time is back. ~ Thom Jurek

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