Personnel: Rodney Crowell (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar); Shannon McNally (vocals); Steuart Smith (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, harmonica, organ); Will Kimbrough (acoustic guitar, accordion); Dan Knobler (electric guitar); Steve Fishell (steel guitar); Jerry Douglas (dobro); Fats Kaplan (mandolin); Deanie Richardson (fiddle); Jim Horn (saxophone); Eddie Bayers (piano, drums); John Hobbs, Michael Rojas (piano); Tim Lauer (harmonium, pump organ); Jerry Roe (drums).
Audio Mixer: Justin Niebank.
Recording information: Flearoy's House Of No Low End; Sound Emporium; Treasure Isle.
Photographer: David McClister.
Arrangers: Rodney Crowell; Steuart Smith.
Rodney Crowell's last two offerings have been collaborative albums. First was 2011's Kin, an uneven collection written and recorded with novelist Mary Karr; 2013's Old Yellow Moon marked his reunion with Emmylou Harris. It was a decent record, but steeped in nostalgia rather than fresh energy. Tarpaper Sky is a no-nonsense collection of Crowell songs unrestricted by concept, played by the core band from 1988's Diamonds & Dirt--guitarist Steuart Smith, drummer Eddie Bayers and bassist Michael Rhodes--as well friends. Justin Neibank helmed and mixed these sessions; he gets the essence of Crowell's sound perfectly. The standouts tend to be the mid-to uptempo numbers. The opener "The Long Journey Home" references in feel and architecture -- if not anthemic force -- Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender," but it's more empathic and tender than dramatic. "Fever on the Bayou," co-written with Will Jennings, tosses just a touch of Louisiana into Crowell's Texas-cum-Nashville gumbo. "Frankie Please" is raucous modern rockabilly with killer guitar from Smith. It draws from the same untamed root sources that Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain" does. The rough and tumble honky tonk blues of "Somebody's Shadow," co-written with Quinten Collier, has an uncharacteristic tenor saxophone in its barroom swagger, and it works. "Jesus Talk to Mama" is swinging country rockabilly with Smith's licks adding to its strut and a gospel backing vocal courtesy of Vicki Hampton. "The Flyboy & The Kid" is classic Texas Americana (and dedicated to mentor Guy Clark). The simple melody adorned with accordion, mandolin, Jerry Douglas' dobro, and Bayers' popping snare, underscores an inspired vocal delivering exceptionally poetic lyrics. Among the slower tunes, "Famous Last Words of a Fool in Love," a duet with Shannon McNally reveals that life's twilight may be visible on the horizon, but the present moment is meant to be fully embraced. Likewise, the country waltz "I Wouldn't Be Me Without You" is one of Crowell's finest love songs in years. Themes of of memory and gratitude wind their way through some of Tarpaper Sky 's songs, but they don't frame the album as a whole. This is Crowell at his best: focused, balanced, clever, at times profound. It's a welcome return to form. ~ Thom Jurek