Rodney Crowell's new album looks back at East Texas beginnings

The album being promoting is, inevitably, the artist's best ever, the most complete statement yet of his or her artistry. Everybody says it, but Rodney Crowell really believes it of "The Houston Kid."

"It's the most realized and the most courageous album I've ever made," says the country-pop singer-songwriter, 50. "I made this music for the songs, for what they are. And I'm proud of it."

"The Houston Kid" is a semi-autobiographical look back at his East Texas beginnings. It recalls the first time Crowell heard the music of his future father-in-law, Johnny Cash, who appears on "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," and paints a vivid portrait of life with an alcoholic father in a household where "Momma's on the sofa with a big black eye/I cross my heart and tell myself I hope they die."

But the catchy "Houston" isn't strictly the Rodney Crowell story. (That's being handled in a book he's now writing.) The gorgeously crafted "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Wandering Boy" were inspired by Houston twins he knew who contracted AIDS. And "Rock of My Soul" ends up as a prison story, though Crowell has never done time.

"The album is really autobiographical of the environment I grew up in," says Crowell, a major fan of Mary Karr, whose memoirs "The Liar's Club" and "Cherry" also chronicle an East Texas childhood. "A lot of it is annexed from the lives of other people that lived around me."

From his '70s days in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band until the mid-'90s, the ace songwriter was a formidable presence in Nashville, where he now lives with his model-turned-singer wife Claudia Church. His breakthrough was 1989's "Diamonds & Dirt," which was just re-issued.

He'll get no argument, however, that "Let the Picture Paint Itself" and "Jewel of the South," the mediocre albums he made in the mid-'90s, were "schizophrenic."

Without a record deal, Crowell financed "The Houston Kid" himself. (He plans to tour extensively.) He was partly motivated by the desire to show up the Music City poobahs: "Some people 'round here think I've lost it," he sings. "Now I get a chance to know they'll eat their words."


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