Wouldn’t Be the Same Port Arthur: Rodney Crowell’s uncertain Texas

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In 2001, Rodney Crowell released an album called The Houston Kid, a loose collection of myths and memories based on his own upbringing in the Space City. It’s one of several superb Crowell albums to set sharply-drawn character studies and propulsive narratives against the backdrop of his native Texas, local color inevitably spilling across the margins and tethering the stories to a specific piece of American soil. But if The Houston Kid was a portrait of the artist as a young man, the new Texas is more like a landscape painting, its very title suggesting a wide-angle view. It may be the first Crowell album where characters and stories cede the spotlight to cultural topography; here, local color is the protagonist, the animating force that gives Crowell’s songs their pungent flavor and narrative weight. In this stew of local vernaculars, the big picture looms in and out of focus, but all the little details are evocative and specific. Indeed, Crowell’s guided tour of the Lone Star State is biased and idiosyncratic, and probably not approved by the tourism bureau; it maps out landmarks and legends with the casualness that only a native son can muster, and its candor about the state’s shortfalls and contradictions only bolsters the sincerity of its hometown pride.

Crowell is much too smart to try to draw clean lines around the musical legacy of Texas; as a field guide to what Texas really sounds like, it’s abridged, lovingly curated, and more intent on capturing feel than recording a proper musicology. What might have been a sampler platter of country, rock, blues, troubadour traditions, and bordertown imports is instead a cheerfully porous intermingling of all of the above, its relationship to genre emphasizing fluidity over precision. Texas has a restless energy and jostling momentum that make it feel like a party record, even though it slips often into folksy introspection; imagine a jocular get-together where Guy Clark holds court with songs and stories, but Doug Sahm commands the playlist and provides a freewheeling ambiance. Crowell’s celebration comes with a Texas-sized guest list, and he slots local legends into supporting roles with the savvy of a great casting director (or a hitmaking rap A&R boss). When Billy Gibbons stops by, it’s to sleaze things up in the grease ‘n’ grind of “56 Fury.” Lyle Lovell croaks the chorus of “What You Gonna Do Now,” adding just the right touch of droll surrealism; Steve Earle shows up on “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” affixing his gravelly authority to words like “infrastructure” and “Haliburton” and grounding Crowell’s fragrant impressionism to real-world political ambivalence. Even Ringo Starr is present, sending cymbals clanging and clattering across the pounding “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable.” (When you’re a Beatle, you belong to the world; perhaps Lubbock has nearly as much claim to him as Liverpool does.) Crowell hears the particular music in the crags and crevices of great Texas accents, and orchestrates it with precision: “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” finds Ronnie Dunn wrapping his smooth, operatic drawl around a rhapsody of chiggers and beer; then, a never-seedier Willie Nelson uses his roughed-up twang to request “a dimebag of dirt weed”— astonishingly, the first time he’s ever sung those words into the public record.

Texas revels in regionalism. More than any other Rodney Crowell album, this one suggests a songwriter who is as watered by the poetic tradition as the folk tradition, and many of the lyrics are put across through gnarled dialects and hyper-specific signifiers. In the lithe rock and roller “Flatland Hillbillies,” he zeroes in on a particular genus of redneck who seem to have a firm grasp on their particular social station: “River rats and jon boat shrimpers/ Trouble in our DNA/ It wouldn’t be the same Port Arthur/ If we got up and moved away.” He captures a working-class value system with even greater specificity in “56 Fury,” where the dialog is so terse and so hardscrabble it feels like it could have come from a Cormac McCarthy novel (“Pontiac and Cadillac ain’t even fit for hauling hay.”) Crowell’s records often exude a gentlemanly elegance, but he’s always sounded gleeful whenever he has a chance to get down and dirty, and he finds plenty of them on Texas; listen to “Treetop Slim & Billy Lowgrass,” a crime farce set to jutting Texas two-step blues. It’s essentially the film Hell or High Water as directed by the Coen Brothers (“Treetop Slim and Billy Lowgrass/ Fredonia rangers dogging your ass”). Elsewhere, Crowell ratifies a longstanding Texas storytelling tradition that encompasses everyone from his mentor Guy Clark to up-and-comers like Hayes Carll; “I’ll Show Me” is grimly comedic, full of sadsack brags from a man defiantly self-destructive (“Man seeking unemployment/ no gig too big to blow”).

But if Texas draws its power from nuance, it also finds resonance in Crowell’s knack for writing microcosmically. The album-closing “Texas Drought, Part 1” chronicles scarcity and desperation, tumblin’ tumbleweeds and last-ditch prayers; its austere beleaguerment is translatable across all kinds of weather, and the second half of its title suggests that if some problems have solutions, others just leave you hanging. Crowell’s Steve Earle team-up is a mudraker’s chronicle in the Woody Guthrie vein, and a psalm of lament for all the human collateral that’s left in the wake of capital progress. And a wispy song called “The Border,” featuring John Jorgenson, uses a political hot zone to meditate on the moral contradictions and psychic corrosion that we all keep in close proximity. In it, a law enforcement agent arrives home to his wife and takes off his bulletproof vest, but he can’t shake the things he saw on the job. He tells himself “it’s just the border,” hoping the misery he sees is tied to a place and not endemic to the human heart; he hardly sounds sure of it. It’s one of several songs here where you feel like, the more geographically particular Crowell gets, the more he speaks for us all.

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