Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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***1/2

RODNEY CROWELL
The Houston Kid
Sugar Hill

Rodney Crowell has always rocked harder than the Nashville norm, and his mentoring of ex-wife Rosanne Cash is the kind of credit few country pros can claim. But on recent reissues of 1992's Life Is Messy and 1988's Diamonds and Dirt, the overstatement that has generally burdened his well-crafted shows of feeling comes through loud and clear. The Houston Kid, on the same bluegrass label where Dolly Parton's been reclaiming her history, is a successful attempt to get a little realer.

No bluegrass here--Crowell is indeed a Houston kid, and if we're to believe him, "Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and the Killer" put the rockabilly devil in him when he was just six. But can we believe him? The answer's complicated, and that's one reason the album works. Minute details in the opening "Telephone Road" and "The Rock of My Soul"--cherry Cokes, 13 stitches, confetti in a classroom--pack an autobiographical authority belied by other details, including a reference to jail time; throughout, songs sound remembered, only to function like fictions when you listen up. With Crowell's uncommonly light and easy vocals negotiating the reality riddles with something like grace, The Houston Kid has the aura of an old pro meditating on his past. And that sure beats regurgitating it.

Rolling Stone, 2001