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Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, <em>Old Yellow Moon</em>

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Old Yellow Moon

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The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?

Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.

In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.

Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.

Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid

cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.

The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”

“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.

The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.

Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”

“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.

“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.

But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.

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Single Review: Jason Aldean, "1994"

jason_aldean_1994 Jason Aldean’s new single “1994” sounds like what you might get if you threw “Johnny Cash,” “She’s Country,” and “My Kinda Party”  into a blender with a dash of Colt Ford, and added fourteen Joe Diffie namedrops.  While the name of nineties country star Joe Diffie  is rarely cited as often as the usual Cash, Haggard, Nelson, Jennings, or Jones, Aldean ostensibly seeks to balance things out by chanting “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie” at the end of each chorus, while throwing in references to assorted Diffie hits such as “Pickup Man” and “Third Rock from the Sun.”

But just as “Johnny Cash” had nothing to do with its namesake except for the statement that “the Man In Black is gonna rock your ass again,” the references to Joe Diffie and to the year 1994 serve as little more than window dressing,

and are essentially the song’s only characteristics that do not feel completely expected.  The lyrics comprise little more than a hodgepodge of radio-baiting backwoods clichés, with Aldean loudly declaring himself to be “just a country boy with a farmer’s tan” who’s “’bout to bust out my honky tonk attitude.”  The lyrics are so haphazardly thrown together that’s it’s hard to tell what the song is even meant to be about.  The aggressive rock overtones are nothing new for Aldean, while the cheesy “hick-hop”-style verses only affirm that Aldean’s rapping skills have not improved since “Dirt Road Anthem.”

It will be a huge hit because everything Aldean releases is a hit.  But “1994” doesn’t work as a tribute to Diffie, and doesn’t work as art appraised on its own merits, and ultimately takes up residence somewhere in the valley between “unlistenable” and “unintentionally hilarious.”  Either way I’d rather listen to Diffie.

Written by Barry Dean, Luke Laird, and Thomas Rhett

Grade:  F

Listen:  1994

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The Day the Music (Chart) Died

“300” height=”80″ />So, Billboard decided to completely change its chart methodology today:

Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Latin Songs charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, the country singles chart included both sales and airplay data for decades, until

switching to airplay-only in 1989. Declining availability of retail singles made this change necessary.

Since the digital market emerged, I’ve been an advocate for bringing sales data back into the mix. There have been a few songs that were very popular with country audiences that radio didn’t embrace, like “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Hurt”, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, but were mainstays on country video outlets and sold plenty of digital downloads alongside impressive album sales. The digital singles market also indicated the budding popularity of acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, who have since become core radio acts.

So what’s the problem with the change? This:

The immediate beneficiaries of this week’s methodology change are Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Mumford & Sons.

Swift, who holds down the top two slots on Hot Country Songs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red.” Her new country radio single “Begin Again” jumps 37-10. The pop-crossover No. 1 title ranks at No. 36 on Country Airplay (but also gets points associated with its pop-crossover play) and No. 1 on Country Digital Songs, while “Red” is absent from the Country Airplay list, but ranks No. 2 on Country Digital Songs. “Begin Again” appears at No. 29 on Country Airplay and No. 3 on Country Digital Songs.

There are so many problems here. First, and probably worst, pop airplay is now counting for the country genre chart. This week’s “#1 country song” would’ve been #36 if the methodology hadn’t changed. A song that was most notable for being the first song that country radio refused to play by Taylor Swift, because it had no business being on country radio in the first place. It is not a country hit that crossed over to pop. It’s a pop hit that failed to cross over to country.

#2 isn’t even a country single. It’s an advance download track previewing Swift’s new album. It will drop like a stone next week, much like it will on the Hot 100, where it enters at #6. But the Hot 100’s breadth is able to absorb tracks like this more easily, and it is almost impossible to get that high without at least some radio support. The #2 country single of the week wasn’t played on country radio this week.

Billboard says it’s modeling the new genre charts after the Hot 100, much like the way the genre album charts mirror the Billboard 200:

The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre’s songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre. Because of the switch to new methodology, the week-to-week movements on the charts for some songs (in either direction) could be quite dramatic.

Until now, only country stations contributed to the Hot Country Songs chart, or R&B/hip-hop stations to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; the same held true for Latin and rock. The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100’s formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it is only just the radio portion of Billboard chart calculations that includes airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.

Big mistake. Albums sales are album sales. If x sells more than y, it’s higher on the album chart. Apples to apples. Each genre singles chart has its own idiosyncrasies, reflecting the different ways that music is received by the audience.

Despite all the new methods of delivery, country music’s primary method of distribution remains the radio. It may be the only thing left that is identifiably “country” in mainstream music. The vast majority of country artists do not pursue the pop market in lieu of the country market. At most, they pursue pop as well as country, but usually wait until the song’s a hit at their home format first.

The big crossover hits of years past – “Need You Now”, “You’re Still the One”, “Before He Cheats” – would’ve done very well under this new format, but would likely have spent more time at #1 when they were dominating top forty radio and the song was already a recurrent at country stations. Instead, they went #1 on the country chart when country radio was playing them, then flew up the pop charts a few weeks later, while a new single was hitting the country market.

This new chart methodology is bad enough as it is now. But what will happen when the labels realize the only way to have a #1 country hit is to get your song to be a pop hit, too?

There are so many other problems with this, including the increased challenges of breaking new country acts and the likelihood that digital single releases will now become more strategic than ever. (Remixes! Acoustic versions! Buy them separately so they each count as their own sale!)

I guess I just don’t see the point of having a country chart at all if it isn’t going to measure just the country market.

 

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, “Song For the Life”

Visit this link n-Jackson-Song-for-the-Life.jpg”>1995 | Peak: #6

The list of distinguished artists who have recorded “Song for the Life” is a long one, but Alan Jackson is the only one who managed to make a hit out of it.

That radio played this pensive and philosophical ballad at all is a testament to Jackson’s incredible popularity at the time.  Its mere presence on the airwaves elevated the genre for the handful of weeks it was in heavy rotation.

When you have some time, check out the other versions of this by the Seldom Scene, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alison Krauss, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, and its writer, Rodney Crowell.   It’s one of those songs that reveals quite a bit about where a singer is in their life and how they feel about the meaning of it all.

For my money, Jackson’s reading is the best, though I suspect he’d hit it even further out of the park if he recorded it again today.

Written by Rodney Crowell

Grade: A

Next: I Don’t Even Know Your Name

Previous: A Good Year for the Roses (with George Jones)

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100 Greatest Men: #48. Kris Kristofferson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Though his Hall of Fame career has now stretched several decades, Kris Kristofferson will forever be defined by his legendary songwriting in the late sixties and early seventies.

An intellectual of Swedish descent, Kristofferson’s father was in the U.S. military, and as a result, he moved around quite a bit while growing up.   His twin passions were writing and rugby, and he pursued both vigorously while completing his undergraduate studies in California.   He earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and while studying there, he gained distinction in boxing, and more importantly, he began writing songs.

He briefly pursued a performing career while in England, with hopes that success could help him toward his real goal of publishing a novel.   When this was unsuccessful, he succumbed to family pressure and joined the army in 1960.   Five years later, he left the army, which resulted in estrangement from his family, and he arrived in Nashville to pursue his songwriting craft full time.

The cuts came slowly, but after having a few chart hits by artists like Dave Dudley and Roger Miller, he became established around town.   As the sixties turned into the seventies, Kristofferson’s pen became legendary, thanks to a string of hits for other artists.   Sammi Smith’s recording of “Help Me  Make it Through the Night” won him a Grammy for Song of the Year, while he earned the CMA trophy for “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Johnny Cash) and the ACM trophy for “For the Good Times” (Ray Price.)  Janis Joplin, who Kristofferson had dated for some time, found her greatest success after her death, as her recording of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” topped the pop singles chart for several weeks.

Kristofferson’s notoriety as a writer piqued enough interest in him to lead to a successful singing career of his own.  He had several well-received albums for Monument, two of which sold gold.   Radio was mostly indifferent to the projects, with the glaring exception of his stunning #1 hit, “Why Me”, in 1973.

While he continued to sing and write songs, Kristofferson’s career took a surprising turn toward Hollywood, and he became a legitimate film star, winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor starring opposite Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born.   He also had successful musical collaborations with his wife, Rita Coolidge.   Meanwhile, Nashville stars continued to record his songs, with friend Willie Nelson even recording a platinum-selling tribute album in 1979.

His last major success as a recording artist came in 1985 as part of the supergroup The Highwaymen with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson.   That same year, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, while the Country Music Hall of Fame elected him in 2004.

Over the past two decades, he has continued to release albums of self-written material, while continuing to tour and appear in various films, including a prominent role in the Blade trilogy.
Essential Singles:

  • For the Good Times (Ray Price), 1970
  • Sunday Morning Coming Down (Johnny Cash), 1970
  • Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin), 1971
  • Help Me Make it Through the Night (Sammi Smith), 1971
  • Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends (Bobby Bare), 1971
  • Why Me, 1973
  • The Highwayman (with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson), 1985

Essential Albums:

  • Kristofferson, 1970
  • Me and Bobby McGee, 1971
  • The Silver Tongued Devil and I, 1971
  • Jesus Was a Capricorn, 1972
  • To the Bone, 1981
  • Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco, 2003

Next: #47. Rodney Crowell

Previous: #49. Toby Keith

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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100 Greatest Men: #64. Jerry Reed

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

A first class singer, songwriter, and musician, Jerry Reed’s talents ran far deeper than his tongue-in-cheek persona might have indicated.

Born and raised in Georgia, Reed played guitar from an early age. Music brought him comfort and structure during a childhood of instability. By the time he was out of high school, he was already signed to Capitol Records.   Though he released several singles over the next few years, it was his songwriting and guitar playing that first earned him notice.

Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and others.  He also became an in-demand session guitarist, with a career highlight being the sessions he played with Presley, who feel in love with Reed when he heard his 1967 single, “Guitar Man.”

A strong working relationship with Chet Atkins led to a contract with RCA and further raised Reed’s profile.  By the late sixties, Reed was getting critical notice for his own records.   He had his big breakthrough in 1970, when “Amos Moses” became a gold-selling pop and country hit.   In 1971, ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” became his first #1 country single and another big pop hit.

Throughout the seventies, Reed matched popular singles and albums with high profile media exposure.  He was a regular on Glen Campbell’s television show, and he appeared in several films.   His greatest notoriety came as Cledus Snow in the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit film series.   “East Bound and Down” was recorded for the soundtrack of the first film, and became one of his biggest hits.

Reed’s recording career had a second wind when he released the 1982 album The Man with the Golden Thumb.   Often rated as his strongest studio album, it featured the classic hit “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).”  Reed quickly followed with the hit album, The Bird.  The title track had him mimicking both George Jones and Willie Nelson, and the album also featured a hit cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Down on the Corner.”

The nineties brought a fun collaboration with Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Waylon Jennings, a live album dubbed Old Dogs.   Reed also starred as the coach in the box office smash, The Waterboy.    Illness sidelined him as he aged, and he passed away in 2008 due to complications caused by emphyzema.

Essential Singles:

  • Guitar Man, 1967
  • Amos Moses, 1970
  • When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, 1971
  • Lord, Mr. Ford, 1973
  • East Bound and Down, 1977
  • She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft), 1982

Essential Albums:

  • The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed, 1967
  • Nashville Underground, 1968
  • Me & Chet (with Chet Atkins), 1972
  • Lord Mr. Ford, 1973
  • The Man with the Golden Thumb, 1982

Next: #63. Clint Black

Previous: #65. Asleep at the Wheel

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

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iPod Playlist: Originals And Covers

As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.

My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.

I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:

1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Rodney Crowell

As most of my favorite artists tend to be, Rodney is talented in multiple ways. Not only does he have a charismatic voice, he’s an accomplished musician, songwriter and producer. He has used these talents for himself, but has also shared them with many other artists. In fact, high-profile artists like Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Chely Wright, among many others, have benefited from his musicianship, compositions and producing abilities.

In this feature, we will focus on some of the best Rodney Crowell songs–whether they were big hits, minor hits or unreleased album tracks—but these twenty-five songs certainly do not do enough justice to this man’s contribution to country music. As a result, look for an accompanying Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters feature on Rodney Crowell to come soon.

#25
“You’ve Been on My Mind”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

The lyrics are a little ambiguous, but it’s clear that this is a lonesome song about love lost. Crowell can do a lonesome song with the best of them and he does just that here.

#24
“Telephone Road”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

With an infectious, driving production, “Telephone Road” depicts Crowell’s childhood with fondness (an ice cream from the ice cream truck was only 5 cents), but without the irresponsible nostalgia that seems to afflict many such songs of today (I’m looking at you Bucky Covington). To be totally shallow, this is one to blast on some good speakers.

#23
“Adam’s Song”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

Anyone who has experienced the passing of a loved one knows the reality that Crowell sings about. As he knowingly observes, “We’ll keep learning how to live with a lifelong broken heart.”

#22
“Many A Long and Lonesome Highway”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

This is the first song I’d ever heard by Rodney Crowell. At the time, I had just gotten into country music and the song was already four or five years old, but I had no idea of his history. I simply thought it was a great, melodic song. I still do.

#21
“Song for the Life”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

To me, this song sounds mature and reflective, from a man who has lived and learned. However, in a 2005 20 Questions interview with CMT, Rodney reveals that he wrote this song when he was a mere twenty-one years old. And, is that Willie Nelson I hear singing background vocals? Yes, it is.

#20
“Fate’s Right Hand”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

The title track of the critically acclaimed Fate’s Right Hand explores changing times and injustices much better than Toby Keith’s “American Ride” does.

#19
“Topsy Turvy”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This song vividly paints the picture of Crowell’s parents’ abusive relationship. It’s from his perspective as the fully aware child who witnesses the turbulence. He doesn’t mince words throughout the song, but especially when he admits, “I cross my heart and tell myself ‘I hope they die’”. He also details the lack of meaningful response from neighbors and police officers.

#18
“Beautiful Despair

from the 2005 album The Outsider

It’s not a feeling that one wants to embrace often, but there are times when leaning into that feeling of despair propels one to action or at least some needed introspection. From this song, it’s likely that despair has played a beautiful function in his life.

#17
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

Emmylou Harris was one of the first people to record a Rodney Crowell song and what a gem it is. While Harris’ recording of it is the strongest and most exuberant version, Crowell’s version is great too.

#16
“This Too Will Pass”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

What I like about a Rodney Crowell penned inspirational song is that it’s not embarrassing to listen to. It’s inspiring without sounding like a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

#15
“My Baby’s Gone” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2003 album Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

From the excellent Louvin Brothers tribute album, one of the many shining moments is this duet from Rodney and Emmylou Harris. It just cements the fact that they need to do a duets album. Stat!

#14
“The Rock of My Soul”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

While this song is not strictly autobiographical, it is a chilling representation of Crowell’s tumultuous experiences with his father.

#13
“Dancin’ Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Here’s another example of Rodney Crowell inspiring without sickening.

#12
“After All This Time”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

If you’re not listening carefully, you might think this is a pretty love song. It, however, is a wistful love song to a relationship that no longer exists.

#11
“I Walk the Line Revisited” (With Johnny Cash)

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This is a joyful account of the first time Crowell heard Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” on the radio as a kid. It’s an obvious full circle moment when Cash sings an altered melody of the classic on Crowell’s song about it.

#10
“We Can’t Turn Back”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

In his gentle but no nonsense way, Crowell explores the notion that we can’t change the past, which means that we can only focus on the present and what we can do to make it better.

#9
“Artemis and Orion”

from the 2003 digital release Lost Tracks

Supported by a delightfully simple production and memorable tune, Rodney sings a version of the story of Artemis and Orion from Greek Mythology. I’m not sure of the origins of the song, since it seems to have been randomly recorded by Crowell, but it is fun to listen to.

#8
“’Til I Gain Control Again”

from the 1981 album Rodney Crowell

Crowell has written several songs that have become classics for him and for others. “’Til I Gain Control Again” was first recorded by Emmylou Harris in the mid-seventies, then made famous by Crystal Gayle in the early eighties and subsequently recorded by many artists over the years. Crowell’s own version is beautifully sung with just the right air of forlornness.

#7
“Things that Go Bump in the Day”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

I hardly even know what this song means, but I still love it for its bouncy production, unshakable melody and Crowell’s energy while singing it. I dare you not to get it stuck in your head.

#6
“The Outsider”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

The effective use of horns in this bluesy soul infused song is enough to hook me, but the theme of being okay with being different is something to embrace too.

#5
“Things I Wish I Said”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

Much has been written and said about Rodney Crowell’s difficult relationship with his violent father, but the end of that story is that they found a way to heal their relationship and turn it into something healthy and tender. This song is personal to Crowell as it describes the relief that he feels that he has no regrets with the passing of his father. Likewise, it is a universal sentiment that most of us can relate to as well.

#4
“She’s Crazy for Leaving”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

I love this song because both the melody and the song’s vividly painted story are equally funky. The scene that’s created for the song is fodder for a hilarious and ridiculous comedy sketch.

#3
“Riding Out the Storm”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

A not so beautiful picture is underscored by a beautiful melody and poetic lyrics. That’s one of Rodney Crowell’s effortless songwriting talents.

#2
“Making Memories of Us”

from the 2004 album The Notorious Cherry Bombs

Keith Urban is who made this song famous and Crowell a little richer, but Rodney Crowell, backed by Vince Gill, is who makes it a fine treasure. Written for his wife as a last minute Valentine’s Day gift, it’s a tender love song that rivals most modern songs of its ilk. It’s one of those “action” songs that I especially love. He’s not just promising to love her, but also pledging to be an active part of their relationship in order to create meaningful memories.

#1
“Shelter from the Storm” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Again, there’s no reason that Emmylou and Rodney shouldn’t make a duets album together. With sublime vocal chemistry, they turn this Bob Dylan song into something entirely different than what it once was. Instead of having to dig for the gem, they put it out there front and center for us. It’s gorgeous and it’s their interpretation that makes it so.

In “Beautiful Despair”, Crowell acknowledges the depth of Bob Dylan’s songwriting and his feelings of inadequacy when compared to Dylan’s ability. He sings: “Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan/ When you’re drunk at 3 a.m. / Knowing that the chances are/ No matter what you’ll never write like him.”

As a Dylan fan, it may be heresy to think it, but methinks Rodney Crowell is being too hard on himself. It is not a knock on Rodney Crowell’s incredible songwriting that I chose a song that he did not write as my top Crowell song, but rather, a testament to his ability to interpret a legendary song well enough to make it his own.

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 30

And so it comes to a close, with the final category:

A Song That Makes You Want to Be a Better Person.

Here are the staff picks:

Tara Seetharam: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Aretha Franklin

Maybe it’s the way the gospel arrangement evokes a guttural reaction or the way the lyrics are shamelessly selfless. As with the best songs, I can’t quite put my finger on why it moves me – but this song makes me want to live for others.

Kevin Coyne: “Hell Yeah” – Neil Diamond

This is how I want to look back on my life when it’s all said and done. I’m about halfway there.

Leeann Ward: “Man in Black” – Johnny Cash

This is a tough and weighty category for sure. “Man in Black” could just as easily fit the “worldview” category for me, but then, “What You Give Away” could fit this one too. Somehow, these lyrics, however, make me want to try harder to be better toward those around me: “I wear the black for those who’ve never read/ Or listened to the words that Jesus said/ About the road to happiness through love and charity/ Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.”

Dan Milliken: “Square One” – Tom Petty

My worst vice is that I’m perpetually behind on several things at once. Not just long-term shoulds, like “I’ve been meaning to call my old pal Jan,” but short-term imperatives like “I need to start that paper that was due three weeks ago.” I’ve gotten away with play-first-and-maybe-work-later for most of my life, and while it’s made me less uptight and more understanding of others’ foibles, it also means I’m usually walking under an invisible raincloud of sorts. The burden of something unfinished – let alone several things – is like an awful condom on the fun you can actually experience, the care you can give to other people, the love or joy you can feel – everything good about living, basically.

I want to be Tom Petty in “Square One.” He’s fought his way through his respective “world of trouble” and finally come out clean. “My slate is clear,” he sings, in the sweetest Tom Petty tone ever; “Rest your head on me, my dear.” With his baggage cleared out, he can finally live fully in the present, taking full advantage of the people and experiences he’s blessed with.

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