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Americana has had a banner few years, to put it mildly, and the roots of its current incarnation can be traced back to Rodney Crowell. The Texas-born songwriter has collaborated with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Waylon Jennings, all while maintaining a solo career that's netted him two Grammys and an induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
It's fitting, then, that Crowell's new album Close Ties unfolds like a history lesson, both of his personal mythology and the music that shaped it. Produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie, the 10-song collection considers Crowell's influences while looking to the future, each song delivered with Crowell's slight growl and poet's eye for detail.
Opener "East Houston Blues," a rollicking shuffle buoyed by acoustic slide guitar, offers a glimpse into Crowell's difficult childhood, a topic the artist has never shied away from. (In his revealing 2011 memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, he shared, among other painful details, that at the age of 5 he broke up a fight between his parents by firing a shotgun.) He continues to reckon with his past throughout Close Ties, from the mournful, twangy dreamscape of "Reckless," to the plainspoken regret of "Forgive Me Annabelle," an affecting piano ballad that revisits past romantic indiscretions through the unforgiving lens of time and age.
"Life Without Susanna," one of the album's standout tracks, is a bittersweet goodbye to Susanna Clark, an established country songwriter who formed quite the team with her husband, Guy Clark. Crowell references her again in the album's closing track, "Nashville 1972," a star-studded roll call of the musical luminaries (Steve Earle and David Olney, among others) he encountered upon moving to Nashville that year.
If "Nashville 1972" is a paean to the good old days, "It Ain't Over Yet" is Crowell's history — musical and otherwise — reconciled in just over five minutes. Featuring John Paul White and Crowell's ex-wife Rosanne Cash, the song is a gently triumphant ode to life's ups and downs, "ship[s] rolling in" and others "right back out." The choice of Crowell's ex-lover and one of his genre's brightest new stars can't be a coincidence.
There's no doubt that Crowell was an architect of Americana as we know it, and with Close Ties, we're fortunate to have a look at his blueprints.
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