In 2005, Rodney Crowell once again found himself on the roster of Columbia Nashville, but The Outsider is a far cry from the earlier work he released for the label during his commercial heyday. This time around he was clearly not targeting the mainstream country audience; there’s very little fiddle or pedal steel guitar to be found. Instead the album leans more towards rock, with electric guitars dominating the arrangement of most of tracks. More importantly, it differs from the mainstream fare with the substance of the songs’ lyrics. Crowell wrote ten of the album’s eleven songs, which delve more into social and political commentary than his previous efforts. Although the songs are often critical of contemporary culture and the political system, Rodney manages to make his points in an even-handed manner that is not overtly partisan, which makes the album less polarizing than much of what was being played on country radio at the time.
Peter Coleman acts as co-producer, as he had done for Crowell’s previous two efforts, 2001′s The Houston Kid and 2003′s Fate’s Right Hand. The album opens with “Say You Love Me”, a re-recording of a song that had originally appeared on Jewel of the South a decade earlier. The lyrics aren’t as heavy as most of the album’s songs, but beginning with the second track, the album takes a sharp turn into the realm of political and social discourse. “The Obscenity Prayer” takes a swipe at a culture that is often greedy, superficial and demands instant gratification, with the line “give it to me” constantly repeated throughout the song. “Don’t Get Me Started” is even more critical. This song deals with a variety of topics from corporate greed and crooked Washington politicians, to the wars in the Middle East, to the ever-growing US national debt. “Ignorance Is The Enemy” starts out as a prayer sung by a chorus, including Buddy and Julie Miller, that sounds like a church choir, with special guests Emmylou Harris and John Prine joining Rodney on the verses’ spoken lyrics. Though well done, this tune comes off as a bit preachy, which makes it a little less effective than the other political/social commentary tunes. These songs all have weighty topics, which can leave the listener with a feeling of great despair, but the closing track “We Can’t Turn Back Now” — a plea for people to get involved — offers some hope that all is not lost.
Not all of the album’s songs deal with political and social issues, and the ones that do not are the ones to which I am most drawn. My favorites are “Glasgow Girl”, a song about a Texan who finds romance while traveling in Scotland and “Shelter From The Storm”, a cover of a Bob Dylan tune, which is performed as a duet with Emmylou Harris. As one of the few songs on the album to feature the steel guitar, “Shelter From The Storm” has a more country feel than the rest of the album, and in a more sane radio environment would have had hit single potential. However, only two singles were released — “The Obscenity Prayer” and “Say You Love Me”, neither of which charted.
Though The Outsider peaked at a modest #37 on the Billboard country albums chart, it received a great deal of critical acclaim. Though not everything on the album will appeal to hardcore country fans, the songs are all well written and tastefully produced. Inexpensive copies are easy to find and are worth seeking out.