Starting in 2001, Rodney Crowell began taking a different approach to his music by recording a series of albums designed to build his legacy as a recording artist. These projects, starting with The Houston Kid on Sugar Hill Records, are among the most acclaimed of his career. Produced by Peter Coleman The Houston Kid proved a moderate success, peaking at #32 on the country albums chart and #19 on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart.
The album was preceded by a collaboration with Johnny Cash entitled “Walk The Line (Revisited),” which peaked at #61. A brilliantly executed fusion (Brad Paisley take note), it pairs Crowell’s distinct memories of first hearing the Cash classic with snippets of the original tune itself.
Crowell’s exceptional Steinbeck-like lyric places the listener as an unforeseen passenger listening to the radio along with him. In turn, a personal memory becomes universal:
I got my thrill behind the wheel upon my daddy’s lap
Grandpa rode co-pilot with a flashlight and a map
Cane pole out the window it was in the summertime
First time I heard Johnny Cash, Sing I Walk The Line
“Walk The Line” is a testament to Crowell’s otherworldly talents as a lyricist, the driving force behind the material on The Houston Kid. Clever turns of phrase and striking imagery abound throughout the eleven-song album and place the listener on a very enjoyable and autobiographical musical journey.
The self-penned “Topsy Turvy,” the story of his parent’s abusive relationship, told through the eyes of his childhood memories, exemplifies this perfectly:
Daddy’s in the kitchen fryin’ sauerkraut
Momma’s in the bedroom nearly all cried out
Daddy thinks that whiskey makes him big and smart
Momma thinks that daddy’s got a concrete heart
I wish I had a brother or a sister whom to I could turn
Bustin’ out the windows with a baseball bat
Daddy’s gone crazy as a bunkhouse rat
Momma’s on the sofa with a big black eye
I cross my heart and tell myself I hope they die
I wish I had a nickel now for every time a cuss word flew
The allure of the driving snare guitar and drumbeat plus the fully formed emotional core makes “Topsy Turvy” equal parts heartbreaking and intoxicating.
Another exhilarating tune is “Telephone Road,” Crowell’s story of growing up in Houston, TX that serves as the foundation of the personal journey he created with this album. It also doesn’t hurt that he filled the song with specific images from his youth, tiny details that elevate it beyond the average ‘where I’m from’ song:
I used to love them cherry Cokes down at the Prince’s Drive-In
And the cheeseburgers tasted so good I like to come untied
There’s a Chinaberry tree I remember
I used to climb in and out of my window
The night I left was on the day before my Grandma died
The biting “Why Don’t We Talk About It,” an angst filled lament led by an aggressive lead guitar, is another standout. The genius here lies within the introspective lyrics and Crowell’s ability to admit his many faults from deep within and those that (I assume) altered the course of his marriage to Rosanne Cash.
“The Rock of My Soul” is another heavy number and details Crowell’s tense relationship with his father. The opening lyrics, backed solely by an acoustic guitar, are nakedly chilling, as are the words from a deeply effected son to the father putting a permanent bruise on his family:
I’m a first hand witness to an age-old crime
A man who hits a woman isn’t worth a dime
5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years old
That’s what I remember about the rock of my soul
I told him I would kill him if he did not stop it
But the rock of my soul just would not drop it
Another very enjoyable track is the folksy “I Wish It Would Rain,” an inner dialogue on personal turmoil. The soft accompaniment of guitars and organ are the perfect backdrop to the story about a man wanting the rain to come and wash his troubles away. It features even more standout lyrics:
I know you’ve heard my story, or seen me on the street
Just another cracker jigalo dressed up like trick or treat
Now you may want to judge me or treat me with distain
I wish it would rain
Crowell also fills The Houston Kid with a sense of musical diversity. “Highway 17” is a gorgeously gritty recitation, “The Ballad Of The Old Bandera” is a Spanish-influenced number set in Bandera, TX – The Cowboy Capital of the World, and “Wandering Boy” is the most pop-influenced of the tracks.
But “Wandering Boyd” is a heavy lyric, detailing the story of a man’s journey towards reconnecting his boyhood self and to the worry free child within:
The blood that’s flowing through you flows through me
When I look in any mirror it’s your face that I see
And you’re my only brother I’m your twin
And you’ve come home to rest awhile and shed your dying skin
Overall, it’s impossible to pick a favorite track or standout out moment on The Houston Kid, one of the finest albums of Crowell’s career. By letting go of his inhibitions and leaving his mainstream career in the dust, he freed himself to make the music he was born to record. If only all artists allowed themselves such freedoms.
I strongly suggest, if you haven’t heard this album, you buy or download it right away. It’s an essential addition to the collection of any serious music fan.