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Rodney Crowell: Forty Years, Seven Songs

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If country music had an equivalent to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Rodney Crowell could never be the focal point because the game would be too easy. The 65-year-old singer, songwriter and producer (who plays at Knuckleheads on Sunday, May 8) has throughout his life forged connections that link him to the music’s deepest traditions and its finest contemporary iterations. His first major break came in the mid-1970s when he signed a publishing deal with Jerry Reed (leaving him one degree away from Elvis Presley and Chet Atkins), and shortly thereafter he was invited to join Emmylou Harris’s band, putting him just one step from Emmylou’s previous musical partner, Gram Parsons, and her future collaborators Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Then Crowell formed a musical and marital partnership with Rosanne Cash, which made him Johnny Cash’s son-in-law and a member of the First Family of Country Music, until they divorced in 1992. He wrote songs that became huge hits for the Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle and Bob Seger. His old friend Steuart Smith, who plays guitar in Crowell’s current touring band, played with the Eagles from 2001 on.  Most recently, Crowell employed his encyclopedic knowledge of Hank Williams’s life and music to help transform British actor Tom Hiddleston (best known as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) into the legendary and tragic figure for the recent film “I Saw The Light.”

Anyone who knows much about country music can get from Rodney Crowell to just about any other significant artist in three steps or less.

And still he accomplished something that no Nashville artist who came before him ever did: He scored five consecutive number one country hits from a single album.

Rodney Crowell possesses one of the most peculiar career arcs imaginable. His first three solo albums met with far more critical than commercial success, leading Warner Brothers to drop him from the label. After producing a string of successful albums for Rosanne Cash, he was signed by Columbia Records, but 1986’s Street Language (his first LP in 5 years) became only a modest hit. By 1988, Crowell was 11 years into a recording career that had failed to produce an album or single that cracked the country top 20.

Then came Diamonds & Dirt. Country to its core, but subtly kissed with the sounds of the British Invasion and new wave rock, the album produced five singles, and all of them – “It’s Such a Small World,” “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leavin’,” “After All This Time,” and “Above And Beyond” – reached number one, making him the first country artist ever to achieve that feat.

Despite the unprecedented success, Crowell was more meteor than star. He streaked brightly across the sky and then all but disappeared from the country charts. He never hit number one again, and after 1992 he never even cracked the top 40.

After all but vanishing as a recording artist in the second half of the 1990s, Crowell emerged in the new century as one of the leading elder statesmen of the Americana movement. His devotion to a style that had fallen out of favor on country radio marked him as an artist of principle, one unwilling to change his music in order to chase his former fame and commercial success. A string of highly-acclaimed albums (including 2001’s “The Houston Kid” and 2003’s “Fate’s Right Hand”) helped earn him a new set of fans more in tune to Wilco and the Jayhawks than Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith.

His most recent albums have seen Crowell cast an eye toward his past. Two of the last three have been duet recordings with old friend Emmylou Harris. Their 2013 collaboration “Old Yellow Moon” won the Grammy for Best Americana Album. In between his records with Emmylou, Crowell reassembled the band that made “Diamonds & Dirt” and the resulting album, “Tarpaper Sky,” is warm and satisfying, the work of a great artist completely at ease with himself.

A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Crowell’s greatest legacy is likely to be the songs he composed for himself and others. Here are seven of the best.

“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”

The title track of Crowell’s debut album, it was later recorded by country legend Waylon Jennings, whose version became a number one country single in 1979.

“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”

Co-written with songwriter and recording engineer Donivan Cowart, this song first appeared on Crowell’s debut , before being recorded by Emmylou Harris. But the best-known version is by the Oak Ridge Boys, who took it to the top of the country charts.

“’Til I Gain Control Again”

First recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1975, this Crowell original became a number one country hit for Crystal Gayle in 1982.

“Shame on the Moon”

This song originally appeared on Crowell’s self-titled 1981 album, but it broke through in a big way the next year when Bob Seger’s version ascended to number two on the pop charts. The terrific version in the video features Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and guitarist Albert Lee.

“Stars on the Water”

Though never a major hit, the opening track from Crowell’s third album is a confident strut that gets under the skin and stays there. It was later recorded by both Jimmy Buffett and George Strait.

“After All This Time”

The fourth number one single from “Diamonds & Dirt,” it earned Crowell the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1990.

“Fate’s Right Hand”

One of the finest efforts from Crowell’s more recent work, this track won Song of the Year at the 2004 Americana Music Honors & Awards.

Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of two books, including the rock and roll novel XL, which is available from Amazon. He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.