Diamonds and Dirt (Columbia Legacy) The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)

Rodney Crowell 

Diamonds and Dirt (Columbia Legacy)
The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)

Diamonds and Dirt transformed Rodney Crowell from one of Nashville's most respected guitarists, songwriters and producers into, briefly, one of its biggest stars. Just reissued as part of Sony's American Milestones series, the 1988 album gave Crowell five chart-topping country singles. It certainly didn't hurt that the album's lead single ("It's Such a Small World") was a duet with the already white-hot Rosanne Cash, Crowell's wife at the time. But it was the quality of his songs that made the difference. "Crazy for You," "I Couldn't Leave You if I Tried," "I Didn't Know I Could Lose You" and the rest linked the songwriting eras of in-his-heyday Harlan Howard to '90s hit factory Jim Lauderdale. Musically, and particularly rhythmically, this meant Crowell's conception of great country included Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison every bit as much as Ray Price and Buck Owens. Conceptually, it meant Crowell's modern country songs deliberately walked a line between head-over-heels love and a creeping codependency. In fact, to the extent to which its themes can be summarized so neatly, Diamonds and Dirt depicts how romantic obsession can lead directly to the very condition it can least abide: loss of the beloved.

Diamonds and Dirt was among the best country albums of the '80s, but Crowell's first new album in five years is even better. The Houston Kid filters biography (Crowell's and his childhood neighborhood's) through an artist's imagination to convey complicated, unpopular truths. Specifically, the album reveals what happens when dreams bump their heads against the realities of poor white lives and how even bigoted, violent histories don't cancel out the possibility of redemption. Typically, when the so-called "white trash" are acknowledged at all, that slur gets thrown around like a rock or a punch line. But while the songs here round up the usual suspects -- petty thieves, alcoholics, wife beaters, hookers -- what Crowell delivers are not monsters or cartoons but real, conflicted human beings.

The title character hates his abusive father yet fondly recalls bouncing on his daddy's knee. Their Houston neighborhood is "dirt-poor" but hardly joyless: Kids race for the ice-cream man, thrill to their first Johnny Cash record, run laughing and barefoot through the dew. In such a complex and contradictory world, you can't even begin to touch on the truth without knowing where everyone's coming from and that points of view are never static. So we hear from a man who contracts AIDS turning tricks, then we hear from his gay-bashing brother, who nurses the man through his final days. We catch the misery of living under a common criminal's roof, then we learn what it's like to be that criminal and to feel the hatred of your own sons. You don't know how much I hate you, Crowell declares to an old lover, right before he launches into a list of every wonderful thing about her that he'll never forget.

Crowell's melodies here are universally memorable, and their settings alternate between rootsy power pop and naked acoustic balladry. Details and phrases appear and reappear like curses, only to return as unexpected gifts. You may want to judge me or treat me with disdain, one down-on-his-luck character sings, but Crowell never does. Instead, by the end he's embraced a much more powerful, more difficult response. I know love is all I need, he sings after a dream has shown him a vision of his deceased parents, reunited and happy again, and that's ALL I know.

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