Rodney Crowell in gritty detail

The chance to see Nashville wunderkind Rodney Crowell in a setting as intimate as Hugh’s Room was, for me, a dream come true. Grammy-winning songwriting legend cult favourite Rodney Crowell. Accessible, in an intimate setting, no less.

And as soon as I saw the block-length, touring RV obliterating the entire front of Hugh’s Room’s exterior, there was little question we were talking the same Rodney Crowell.

Crowell is a survivor. A highly accredited singer-songwriter, he’s probably done better from others covering his songs than he has by recording them himself. At the same time, he’s released 13 albums, many of them to critical acclaim. His many contributions to country music, if not progressive country music and the spin he’s added to it, are well documented and, as always, this two-night performance at Hugh’s would reveal another side of the Nashville giant. He was here to play. Kicking off with The Houston Kid’s “Highway 17” left no question about it.

Yet he was also here to sell some hardcover copies of his new book – Chinaberry Sidewalks (Knopf). This night was divided between animated readings from his childhood memoirs and a generous set of songs to remind anyone who’d forgotten just how talented and prolific a singer-songwriter he really is.

Selecting many tracks from ‘08’s brilliant Sex & Gasoline, including “Moving Work of Art” and “Closer To Heaven”, Crowell injected many delightfully long-winded intros to most of his compositions.

His readings had the effect of digging deeper into the man’s life as he peeled away years of Nashville cool to break down – in gritty detail – why his life was often, indeed, harder than anyone else’s. They didn’t interrupt the musical portion of the show but seemed to embellish the overall performance in an intimate way – a pause for effect.

I learned many things I didn’t know about him – an added bonus. For example, I had no idea Crowell idolized fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins, revealed in his spry cover of “Come On Baby”, complete with surprisingly accomplished fretwork. We were treated to new songs (“Sister oh Sister”) and old songs (a rockin’ “I Ain’t Living’ Long Like This”, from his first album and “‘Til I Gain Control Again”) plus some well-chosen tracks in between (“Still Learning How To Fly” and, from ‘05’s The Outsider, “Glascow Girl”).

An added treat was inviting his daughter Chelsea to the stage to join him on one of his songs, allowing her to showcase one of her songs on her own (“Where the Hell is Robert E. Lee?”). It was difficult to not hear and see traces of her mother (Rosanne Cash), although she’s clearly got some miles to cover to catch up to her prolific parents.

Although the combination of song and spoken word filled the evening, with so many songs to draw from, an encore was in order. He dipped into hilarity with the song he penned with Vince Gill for the one-off Notorious Cherry Bombs: “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night that Chew Your Ass Off All Day Long” followed by an all-involving version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, inspired by Crowell’s visit to Yeats’ grave outside Sligo, Ireland.

All this plus a hilarious aside in which an audience member suffered a crippling kidney stone attack, his partner too bewitched by Crowell’s performance to rush him to the hospital. Crowell played the woman a request, begging she be on her way.

It was that kind of a night.


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