Rodney Crowell Teams with Jeff Tweedy on The Chicago Sessions

Music Reviews Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell Teams with Jeff Tweedy on The Chicago Sessions

Rodney Crowell has done a little bit of everything over the years. He’s been a sideman and a bandleader. He’s won Grammys and various country awards, and landed No. 1 hits (five of ’em in the U.S. as a performer). He’s been a record producer for himself and others. His list of collaborators includes Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Guy Clark and, with his new album, Jeff Tweedy.

For The Chicago Sessions, Crowell’s 18th solo album, he set up at Wilco’s studio and turned over production duties to Tweedy. If their collaboration seems unlikely at first—Crowell’s approach to country music and, more recently, Americana is pretty different from Tweedy’s indie-rock/alt-country roots—it’s one that works. Maybe that’s because of where they overlap. The middle ground that Crowell and Tweedy share comes here on a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall.” Tweedy is a fan of Van Zandt’s. Crowell, of course, was friends with the man; both were part of a Nashville songwriters’ circle in the ’70s that also included Clark and Steve Earle.

Crowell’s take on “No Place to Fall” is more polished than most of the versions Van Zandt ever committed to tape, but still simple and direct. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, with piano, subtle bass and a subdued banjo interlude coming one by one as the song unfolds, Crowell captures the lonesome feeling of the tune with his worn-in tenor. It’s a moving tribute to one of the foundational songwriters of what’s now called Americana.

Elsewhere, Crowell has no thematic agenda with these songs. He’s written topical albums before, drawing from his own experience on a trilogy of LPs starting with his deeply compelling 2001 release The Houston Kid. This time, it seems like Crowell showed up with a collection of songs showing different facets of his abilities as a writer and musician. There’s a low-key honky-tonk vibe on opener “Lucky,” which rolls along on roadhouse piano and Crowell’s jaunty vocal melody. He takes a more sensual turn on “Loving You Is the Only Way to Fly,” singing in close harmony with Sarah Buxton, who co-wrote the tune, over brushed drums and gleaming accents on guitar. There’s a bluesy feel here and there, particularly on the electric-blues shuffle “Somebody Loves You,” and on “Ever the Dark,” with its fuzzed-out guitar licks.

At least one of the songs took shape on the spot. Crowell and Tweedy co-wrote “Everywhere at Once,” and the track seems to split the difference between the two songwriters’ styles as they trade vocals, and sing in unison, on the whatever-will-be lyrics, backed by trebly guitar and rich piano. The pair strikes a balance between assertive and deferential, belting out their respective parts without stepping on the other’s toes, but the result is a song that feels lived-in and true. In fact, that’s the case with the album as a whole. It’s the work of a singer and songwriter with nothing left to prove, which means that Crowell can simply enjoy himself.

Watch Rodney Crowell perform at the Paste Studio in 2017:

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