Album: Rodney Crowell

The Outsider, COLUMBIA
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The Independent Culture

It's easy to forget what precocious talents they were in the 1970s - ambitious tyros at the feet of mentors Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt until, in Crowell's case, a couple of early songs provided an entrée into Emmylou Harris's Hot Band. There, playing with such stalwarts of Presley's band as James Burton and Glen D Hardin, the callow youth had a crash course in arrangement, performance and life on the road before emerging, rough edges knocked off, as a solo artist in 1978.

Since then, Crowell's fortunes have ridden the usual peaks and troughs, from 1988's hit-laden Diamonds and Dirt to a six-year hiatus in the 1990s. Since 2001, he's been working with renewed fire, with the semi-autobiographical The Houston Kid followed by last year's angry, philosophical Fate's Right Hand.

Now, at 55, he's come up with probably his finest work, an album fired by misgivings about his country's political direction and shaped by Crowell's attempts to reconcile his individualism with what are, in effect, socialist principles. It's the classic dilemma of country music, and Crowell meets it head on in songs like "Don't Get Me Started", an anti-war rant couched in big Springsteen chords and lyrical swipes from the first line, "We ran into trouble scamming for oil," and the Creedence-style rocker "Things that Go Bump in the Day", warning how "the things that we don't understand/ get up and bite your hand".

The concluding "We Can't Turn Back Now" is a political rumination in which a blend of skirling fiddle, whistle and concertina underscore Crowell's conviction that "Democracy won't work if we're asleep/ That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep".

"The Obscenity Prayer" is a scathing satire in which Crowell adopts the position of an indefensible right-wing hedonist yahoo; it succeeds through sheer vitriol. A more sympathetic approach to individualism is taken in "The Outsider", a sinuous slice of swamp-funk, and "Dancin' Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)", a testament to self-realisation.

This song's name-checking of Picasso and Miles Davis is probably enough to get Crowell's membership of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame revoked. But the truth is that he's gone beyond that parochial (albeit powerful) level, and is now operating on a broader stage. The Outsider bears scant resemblance to the homogenised, big-hat country music with which Nashville preens its audience's prejudices - and both we, and Crowell, are the better for it.

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