After a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album. Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.
At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.
“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.
He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.
Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.”
Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.
The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.
Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.
“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.
Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.
When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.