Music Reviews - Rodney Crowell: The Houston Kid

      Date posted: February 20, 2002

The Houston Kid
      Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-1065

       Whether these songs are autobiographical or not is really irrelevant. The stories Crowell shares on this record are told and played with such conviction that they live and breathe their own lives. Here we have an artist with a comfortable foot in the door of the country music establishment singing about a crack-addicted gigolo spreading HIV to whoever will give him enough money to get through the day. Not exactly Grand Ol’ Opry or Shania Twain cover material.

       On the very next track Crowell introduces us to the brother of perhaps that same character, coming to terms with his own guilt as he watches the virus he thought was someone else’s problem destroy a member of his family. AIDS, domestic violence, and senseless acts of crime haunt all of these songs, resonating like a nightmare through even its happiest moments.

       Every song is a brave confession, including perhaps most courageous of all, a retelling of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” Rather than covering the classic song Crowell attacks it like a hip-hop producer might, sampling the drive of the song and placing it in a different context. Crowell’s retelling of “I Walk the Line” is really an ode to Cash, singing about how the song has impacted his life and career. Cash himself appears on the record, singing some of the best lines from his song with great energy, suggesting that he too was excited to have some new life injected into a melody he’s played a thousand times. It’s a neat trick that works like a charm, and adds a remarkably perceptive and original wrinkle on “The Houston Kid’s” themes of reflection, confession, and resolution.

       Crowell has thirty years of recording under his belt, separating himself from the pretenders. “Wandering Boy” and “I Know Love is All I Need” find a quiet momentum, circling throung their acoustic environment and picking up pieces that so often go missing or unnoticed on less accomplished records. This is a class act from start to finish, a unique blend of listenability while never allowing the audience to be passive listeners.

Darryl Stenabaugh

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