Rodney Crowell, "Close Ties" (New West)
Rodney Crowell was headlining a music festival recently, speaking from the stage to a large, admiring audience, when he confessed with a chuckle that songwriter's block sometimes lasts a decade or more.
At 66, Crowell knows music can be a humbling business, but he has plenty to brag about with "Close Ties."
It's his first album in more than three years, which might seem like a decade to Crowell, but the set ranks among his best. His character studies are so sharply drawn they fit comfortably next to autobiographical material such as the closing "Nashville 1972," an amusing reminiscence of his early career.
The centerpiece is "It Ain't Over Yet," a requiem for Crowell's close friend, the late songwriter Guy Clark. It's like sharing family secrets, and to underscore the point Crowell recruits for singing assistance Rosanne Cash, who appears on an album with her ex-husband for the first time in more than 20 years. John Paul White serves as a third lead vocalist, and Mickey Raphael's harp provides a fitting epitaph.
Elsewhere the arrangements also match the creativity of the lyrics. "East Houston Blues" is the raw Texas kind. "Storm Warning" rocks thanks to a swirl of strings and Steuart Smith's guitar. "I Don't Care Anymore" has Crowell convincingly doing Texas rap on the last verse.
From start to finish, there's no sign of songwriter's block.