With a few exceptions, the country music establishment doesn’t have a lot of reverence for the old guard, and yesterday’s hit-maker is, well, yesterday’s hit-maker. Rodney Crowell spent his share of time in the upper reaches of the country charts in the 1970s and ’80s, on his own and with songs other artists recorded, including Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and then-wife Rosanne Cash. By the ’90s, though, acts like Shania Twain and Tim McGraw were dominating mainstream country, and two of Crowell’s three albums that decade failed to chart.
Overshadowed by the glitz and bare midriffs, Crowell shifted his focus somewhat with a trilogy of rootsy singer/songwriter albums in the 2000s that he has described as partly autobiographical: The Houston Kid looked to his past, Fate’s Right Hand looked inward and The Outsider took a look around him. He does some of each on his latest, Tarpaper Sky, Crowell’s first solo album since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline and the follow-up to last year’s Old Yellow Moon, his Grammy-winning album of duets with Harris.
Though these 11 songs aren’t always as sharply drawn as his best material, there’s plenty to love here. Crowell opens with “The Long Journey Home,” lofting his pleasantly weathered voice into soaring harmonies on a road song with plenty of long straightaways. He evokes shades of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Jambalaya” on “Fever on the Bayou,” muses on his mother’s faith on the soulful country shuffle “Jesus Talk to Mama” and shares the mic with Shannon McNally over a dark, taut bassline and glimmers of steel guitar on the duet “Famous Last Words of a Fool in Love.”
McNally is among a slew of guests on the album, which also includes contributions from Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Will Kimbrough and more. The core band, though, comprises guitarist Steuart Smith, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Eddie Bayers—the same crew Crowell used to record his best-selling 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, which spawned five No. 1 singles. All these years later, they still play together like they mean it.