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Rodney Crowell's "Outsider" casts a critical eye

By Brian Baker, October 2005

Rodney Crowell chuckles a bit when he fields a question about the evolution of his latest album, "The Outsider."

"The evolution of it, eh?" he says wryly from his northern California tour stop. "After 'Fate's Right Hand' was done, the evolution was just going into the studio with some new songs and recording them, songs that I wrote mostly on tour."

Crowell may be hesitant to think about his more recent works in terms of something as structured as an actual evolution since that could infer a certain conscious effort on his part to effect a change in his music.

Since the creation of "The Houston Kid" in 2001, Crowell has made a concerted effort to get out of his own way and work from the heart when it comes time to write songs and translate them in the studio.

"I'm always looking to make sure I can stand behind the writing," says Crowell. "Lately, it's a result of a commitment to singular sensibilities. I really take the liberty of believing that my sensibilities are entertaining, whereas I think before I might have written broad strokes for the market. Not a lot...just enough to make me uncomfortable."

Crowell's creative epiphany came after a six-year hiatus from recording in order to spend more time with his children. His career prior to his break had been a marvel of songwriting success, with a number of compositions from his commercially ignored albums becoming major hits for other artists.

On the performance side, Crowell spent three years playing guitar in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band before embarking on a relatively underwhelming solo career which continued until his commercial breakthroughs (as producer and songwriter) with then-wife Rosanne Cash and then his own with 1988's "Diamonds & Dirt," which birthed a record 5 number 1 singles, platinum sales and a Grammy.

"It's been belabored about the five number ones and all of that," says Crowell about "Diamonds & Dirt." "That was a real instinctive record, and the writing was honest. It's not by any stretch of the imagination one of my favorite records; it's flawed as all get out for me. It's what came after. All the attention that came to me about that record made me self-conscious and made me second guessing what I was doing. I had to shake off the aftertaste of that. It took me a few years."

The first time Crowell used his own life to inspire an entire album was "Life Is Messy" in 1992, the year that he and Cash divorced. The album featured some harrowing looks at the disintegration of a relationship, but Crowell relented to label pressure and included a handful of commercially viable songs as well. He maintains to this day that he diluted the full emotional impact of the album by trying to wedge a few hits into "Life Is Messy" at his label's behest.

After a greatest hits package concluded his term with Columbia, Crowell recorded a pair of decent albums for MCA (1994's "Let the Picture Paint Itself" and 1995's "Jewel of the South") before re-signing with Warner Brothers, where he had done his first 3 albums. He had an idea to write an album's worth of songs detailing his childhood in Houston but he ultimately felt like the album he wanted to make would not fit the mold of commercial country radio, and he realized the direction he was moving was mirroring his compromise on "Life Is Messy."

Crowell asked to be released from his Warner contract, and he stepped away from the music business for nearly six years, concentrating on his family and recording completely on his own without any outside interference.

In 2001, Crowell finally released his self-financed masterwork, "The Houston Kid," in a distribution deal with Sugar Hill. The album was well received both commercially and critically, signaling Crowell's welcome return to the charts and the airwaves.

Two years later, Crowell once again returned to the Columbia family with his signing to DMZ/Epic for the middle aged reflection of "Fate's Right Hand."

Vowing to remember the lessons learned on "Life Is Messy," Crowell made the introspective album he had envisioned over a decade before without the pop clutter of self-consciously sellable songs. "Fate's Right Hand" was hailed as one of the best album's of Crowell's career and a fitting follow-up to "The Houston Kid."

At the time, Crowell sensed a trilogy forming with "The Houston Kid" and "Fate's Right Hand," saying, "The last album was looking back, this one is looking in, and on the next one, I think I need to look around."

That prophecy was fulfilled with the recent release of Crowell's "The Outsider," one of the songwriter's most socially and politically framed albums ever.

When he began work on "The Outsider," Crowell started with a song that he'd already written, "Ignorance is the Enemy."

"I had it around for awhile. I tried to bring it to life for 'Fate's Right Hand'," says Crowell. "I had a version of it, but I didn't like it, so I started over on it. And the first one I recorded was 'Dancin' Circles Round the Sun.'"

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