Aside from being among the greatest Americana music artists, Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill have a lot in common.
They have been best-of-friends for more than four decades.
They are life-time members of Nashville’s “nice guys” club.
They owe Emmylou Harris for much of their success.
They’re both in the sixties, yet still churning out as much musical content as ever.
And to prove it, they’ve just released two of the year’s best Americana albums – Texas & Okie, named after their respective home states.
Though all the tracks on Texas were either written or co-written by Crowell, the album, which honours his Texas roots, is somewhat of a collaboration with some of the best artists the Lone Star State has to offer – Steve Earle, Lyle Lovell, Billy F Gibbons, Ronnie Dunn, Randy Rogers and Lee Ann Womack.
Okie, on the other hand, is more reflective and, at times, emotional as Gill pays tribute to people who have influenced his life – mother and wife – and those who have influenced his career – Merle Haggard and Guy Clark.
In a refreshing and candid interview with No Depression, Crowell and Gill recently recalled when they first met at an LA club in the mid-70’s.
Crowell walked in to find Gill singing Rodney’s classic “Til I Gain Control Again.”
“This tall skinny guy just singing like a bird. I remember the series of thoughts
‘That’s my song. Who is that guy? Why is he singing it so damn good?’ … As soon as they came off I grabbed a hold of him and said ‘Who are you?’”
And as Gill put it: “We’ve been best friends ever since.”
It is no surprise then that, apart from Ringo Starr, Vince is the only non-Texan featured on Texas. Crowell and Gill get together on “Caw Caw Blues”, the last song Rodney wrote with another Texan Guy Clark, shortly before his death in 2016. The other two Crowell-Clark co-writes are “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” and “I’ll Show Me.”
“Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” first emerged 36 years ago on Guy’s Better Days album, where it was simply titled “Uncertain Texas.” It has to be the star track of Texas, helped by the appearance of Nelson, Dunn and Womack. One line says it all not only about the song, but all Texans: I’ve tried hard to leave here but never did could
And, for the record, there is such a place in Texas called Uncertain - population: 94. Crowell used to go fishing there.
The Guy Clark connection continues on Gill’s album, where he includes what must be one of the more inspirational tributes to the man Nashville insiders called “the songwriter’s songwriter.” Titled, “Nothing Like A Guy Clark Song”, it brilliantly fuses lyrics and melodies from Clark’s best-known songs: Home-grown tomatoes and a Dallas whore/A girl named Rita doing a slow-dance bandera across a dance-hall floor.
And who was the first person to whom Gill sang this beautiful song? Yes, one Rodney Crowell, who even gets a lyrical mention.
Gill doesn’t end his tribute to the country-music greats there. “A World Without Haggard” is as equally nostalgic and endearing: I was on the road in Georgia/ I heard Merle had passed away/Hell I thought he’d live for ever/He shaped every note I played
Tributes aside, Gill also tackles social issues, as in sexual abuse (“Forever Changed”), teenage pregnancy (“What Choice Will You Make?”) and domestic abuse (“That Old Man of Mine”). These are not preaching songs, however, rather the singer-songwriter pondering life and lessons learnt.
Crowell, never shy to ignore a good cause, also puts his mind to the cost of living, this time in the state of Texas. “Brown & Root, Brown & Root”, a tale of man’s reliance on capitalism, was written by Crowell in the seventies and was adopted by Earle during his early touring days. So it’s no surprise that the Texas ex-pats team up for a stunning rendition, complete with memorable harmonies.
And it is a song about man and nature -“Texas Drought, Pt. 1” - which ends the 11-track line-up. Pt. 1 because? Well hopefully because there will be at least another part, and much more - from both nice guys!
Review by Paul Cutler, Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.