(Columbia Records, CD)
Texas songwriter Rodney Crowell  might not enjoy the name recognition of some of his peers, but he has still done pretty well for himself. Back in 1970s Nashville, he rubbed elbows with the legendary Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Both men served as musical mentors, as well as drinking buddies -- talk about an education. Crowell's work with Emmylou Harris took him around the world, while his 11 solo records showcased an artist who follows his gut. His latest, The Outsider, confirms his reputation as one of the world's finest country-rock tunesmiths.
Opener "Say You Love Me" kicks off the album in high gear. A straight-out rocker, the song places Crowell's down-home drawl front and center. The tune has bite; raunchy guitars and a steam-driven drum shuffle make for a true barroom rave-up. The disc isn't just all beers and bluster, however. "The Obscenity Prayer (Give It to Me)" is a cunning indictment of consumerism wrapped in a snug honky-tonk arrangement. "You're trying to get me to show compassion / Man that's so out of fashion," Crowell mockingly sings. "Give to me my tax cut outsource / Build me my own private golf course / The Dixie Chicks can kiss my ass / But I still need that backstage pass," he continues, as the band lays down a muscular groove.
The title track bumps and grinds, fleshed out by crunchy guitars and a bevy of backup singers. Musically it's straightforward, but that's not a problem -- Crowell's playful voice and canny lyrics are the real focus. "I don't have to be white as a ghost and you don't have to be dumb as a post," he intones over the nuts 'n' bolts instrumentation. "Beautiful Despair" boasts a fantastic opening line that will ring true for many songwriters. "Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan when you're drunk at 3 a.m. / Knowing that the chances are no matter what, you'll never write like him," he confides.
The production -- credited to Crowell and Peter Coleman -- is clean and crisp. Although the album is instrumentally direct, it's so well recorded you could hear a pin drop. Crowell definitely knows the sounds he wants and how to get 'em.
Crowell's music is as comfy and durable as a favorite T-shirt. The Outsider features the same intelligence and low-key charisma fans have come to expect from the songwriter, with a few modern twists. Hear him Friday, July 15, at the Higher Ground Ballroom with Will Kimbrough and Jed Hughes.