WASHINGTON, June 16, 2014 – Rodney Crowell is about as perfect an encapsulation of the Country genre as anyone is going to find. That’s not to say he’s an example of the best Country has to offer, although he consistently hits those high points enough to make a good argument in his favor. But when someone describes what a Country singer actually is, the description would probably fit Crowell perfectly.
Crowell is an artist who has performed Country over the vast majority of his 60+ years on this planet. In that role, he has become something of a touchstone for what Country is, a definition he’s more or less shaped over the course of his career.
His recent show at the Hamilton was part of what could be labeled a reunion tour for Rodney Crowell and some of his past musical associates. Back in 1988, he released “Diamonds and Dirt,” which is the most successful album he’s released and arguably his artistic.
The rest of band he put together to fill out that album consisted of guitarist Steuart Smith, bassist Michael Rhodes, and drummer Eddie Bayers, all of whom contributed the excellence of the album the contents of which revolved around Crowell’s artistic framework.
As the story goes, the foursome meant to follow up “Diamonds and Dirt.” They did not appear on Crowell’s later releases, however, for the most part leaving that album to stand on its own for the next two-plus decades as their careers shifted in different directions.
Fast forward to 2014, which saw the release of “Tarpaper Sky.” This recent album features a reformation of sorts among the members of that 1988 quartet. Back together for this tour, their show at the Hamilton can be considered a culmination of that reunion effort, although it’s not generally the focus of the tour.
At least it never quite felt that way despite Crowell’s showering of attention on Smith, Rhodes, and Bayers throughout their show. In this show, they’re labeled as “special guests” and the focus is clearly on Crowell as the headline artist. He is, after all, a dynamic figure despite his unassuming demeanor, so it’s hard to draw focus elsewhere, regardless of his efforts to the contrary.
On the other hand, the show managed to achieve the feeling of a typical band rather than a solo performer being supported by a number of hired musicians.
There’s an inclusiveness to the way Crowell performs which isn’t just evident in the way he treats his bandmates but also in the way he’s able to draw the audience in. Even though he never quite says so during the set, one gets the feeling he’s fighting the urge to sit down in front of the audience to say “let me tell you a story” before he eases into each musical number in that well-worn Texas accent of his.
And that’s a key in understanding Crowell. He’s not trying to blow the audience away with musicality, or with an unexpected batch of genre crossover surprises. This is straight Country all the way. He’s instead engaging the hearts and minds of the audience with musical stories using, the rhythms of each song to ease the transition between beats.
Crowell’s approach leaves behind a lot of the vague melancholy and weathered heartbreak that still makes up so much of Country’s content, even today. Instead, his current story line is more distinctly modern, emphasizing the life of a Country everyman who has acknowledged that he’s had a fairly fortunate life as things go as he departs the territory of middle age.
Crowell presents his life as it is without sugarcoating or contrived sadness, but his emotional content is still present and effective. The best Country singers are those able to tap into their own honesty with sincerity and turn it into something more universal. This Crowell does with ease, to the point where it seems like the essence of his nature.
That’s why bringing Smith, Rhodes, and Bayers back to join with him is such a poignant element of his show – and to a larger extent the tour itself. There’s a possibility Crowell’s sees the four of them together as part of the fabric of his life.
Yet any nostalgia trip, such as it might be, is in the end irrelevant to the high quality this show has achieved. Crowell and his three touring compatriots produced some excellent music. As evidenced by their recent show at the Hamilton that’s still very much the case.