Even before he started tagging along with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark in the early '70s, before he joined Emmylou Harris' Hot Band on rhythm guitar, before he and Vince Gill founded the Cherry Bombs, before he worked with (and then married) Rosanne Cash, and before he emerged as a bona fide country star in the late '80s, Rodney Crowell was a top-shelf songwriter.
His earliest compositions — "Bluebird Wine," "Till I Gain Control Again" — were instant classics, and became modern standards before the end of the 1970s. Revered by his peers, Crowell's work has been passed around and covered by everyone from Bob Seger to Crystal Gayle to Waylon Jennings to Johnny Cash to Blue Rodeo. It's hard to think of a singer-songwriter who has had a more enviable career, or has been so central to the development of this thing we call "Americana" music.
For Tarpaper Sky, his self-produced 14th solo record, Crowell has reassembled much of the band that helped him on his best-selling 1988 LP Diamonds and Dirt. But a crack band isn't worth much unless it has crack songs to play, and Crowell came prepared. Opening with a grown-up anthem in "Long Journey Home" (with its echoes of Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom," accidental or not, infusing the song with a nostalgic gravitas) and moving through several characteristically heartfelt autobiographical numbers, this is Crowell's best record since his 2001 masterpiece The Houston Kid.
Dripping with hard-won wisdom, workbench poetry and Crowell's sensitive, delicate touch, songs like "Frankie, Please" ("You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park" is the best line I've heard in forever), "The Flyboy & The Kid" ("Here's to you, here's to me: some old mad-dog mountain flyboy and a kid from Tennessee") and "Somebody's Shadow" ("She shed me like a tear") have an immediate impact, but they wield an ineffable staying power. You will carry them around long after they've wound down. This is just vintage Crowell, which is to say that Tarpaper Sky is an essential record by one of the best. (New West)