Diamonds & Dirt was always going to be a hard act to follow. The resulting album, released in 1989, is certainly more uneven than its predecessor, but there are some very fine songs here. All the material was written by Rodney, and much of it feels very personal. Rodney produced once more with boss and friend Tony Brown, and his own road band, the Dixie Pearls, provided the nucleus of the backings with guests including another old friend, Vince Gill, on backing vocals.
The first single, the folky ‘Many A Long And Lonesome Highway’ broke his streak of #1s, peaking at a still-respectable #3. It has a gentle melody and introspective lyric about a troubadour-type songwriter’s rambling life, written with Will Jennings, and is an excellent song:
I heard a wild world calling,
I saw a lone star falling
I caught a song and set it free
And many a long and lonesome highway
Lies before us as we go
And in the end I’ll do it my way
Look for me where the four winds blow
The album’s second top 10 hit came with a more contemporary sound. ‘If Looks Could Kill’ incisively depicts a troubled relationship which it is all too tempting to read as a portrait of Rodney’s crumbling marriage to Rosanne Cash, which was to culminate in divorce a couple of years later. It is notable that this record, unlike its predecessor, did not see a duet between the pair.
The insistent ‘My Past Is Present’ (written with Steuart Smith) is a bit lacking in melody but has a bluesy groove that won’t let you go as Rodney is afflicted by the presence of an ex in an “hourglass dress” with her new man. However, it was not received particularly well at radio and missed the top 20.
‘Now That We’re Alone’ did a little better, peaking at #17. The song is melodic and introspective and is another that sounds as though it could have been written about Rosanne with its offer of a sympathetic hearing when:
Too many smiling faces
Try to turn your head around
Too many times and places
When those uptown dreams
Just drag you down
Final single ‘Things I Wish I’d Said was barely played on radio, but is an outstanding song. A delicately tender reflection inspired by his father’s deathbed and their reconciliation, it is the most nakedly honest and personal song on the record, and has a beautiful melody.
The album bogs down a bit in the middle, with a trio of songs which while not bad fail to match the standard of the remainder. The funky bluesy rock of ‘We Gotta Go On Meeting Like This’ written with Larry Willoughby is quite sexy with its story of repeat encounters with a woman “they call … trash”, but there is not much of a tune. ‘The Faith Is Mine’ is an interestingly written song, but repetitive, while the insistently bluesy rock’n roll of ‘Tell Me The Truth’ is definitely too repetitive and feels self-indulgent musically.
In general, the slower songs are the most effective. The song which provides the album title ‘Don’t Let Your Feet Slow You Down’ is truly excellent, a downbeat ballad about a relationship about to come to an end, with a lovely melody as a resigned Rodney generously offers his loved one a graceful exit:
Now you feel like going and you know I’m knowing
The keys to the highway hang right on the wall
If you’ve gotta go, hell, you oughta know
Your blue eyes said goodbye a long time ago
I know you’re hearing sounds of those bright lights downtown
I know how you sparkle when I ain’t around
Your heart is young and my time has come
So don’t let your feet slow you down
‘I Guess We’ve Been Together For Too Long’ is another breakup song, but one with a relatively cheerful mood. Once more, Rodney accepts “something’s wrong” in a relationship which has simply run its course, but here he sounds more than ready to move on himself. Written with Guy Clark, it is quite catchy and might have made a successful single.
Also potentially radio friendly is the wistful and melodic mid-tempo ‘Soul Searchin’, which tells of a past lover, Jessie, and the effect on the protagonist of her enduring memory. The reflective ‘You Been On My Mind’ ends the album on a pensive note as the protagonist thinks once more about an ex he can’t forget. A pretty melody and sensitive vocal make this one another winner.
The singles’ uneven performance was matched by sales which failed to meet those of Diamonds & Dirt (the only gold album of Rodney’s career). It has been overshadowed both because it came in the wake of Diamonds & Dirt, and because his mainstream career slowed down after this, but while it may be a mixed bag, the best songs are great and worth catching up with. Used copies are available cheaply.