We got a fine duets album with Emmylou Harris last year, and the multi-artist collection Kin in 2011, but Tarpaper Sky is the first record in some time now that’s straight-up Rodney Crowell, firmly within his wheelhouse and doing what he does best. It’s just a Rodney Crowell album, in other words, but referring to it as such downplays both how good it is and how significant it is to have a new recording of original songs from a singer and songwriter of such distinction.
It also happens to be a reunion with many of the musicians who played on the landmark Diamonds & Dirt sessions, but that might make it sound like a bit of a throwback: Truthfully, there’s nothing retro or nostalgic about this one, even if it does find Crowell engaging the same milieu of country, rock, blues, folk, and Cajun idioms that he’s long tangled with, borrowing from them at different times and in unequal measures. What makes the record special is that he’s approaching his music from a place of contentment, a place where he can bank everything on the warmth, humor, and wisdom in his songs, never sounding like he’s out to prove anything but never sounding like he’s phoning it in, either; Tarpaper Sky isn’t a lazy album, but rather it’s the sound of a consummate pro doing what he does best, and it’s a delight to hear it.
The highlights are many, and they include one of the tunes he co-wrote with memoirist and poet Mary Karr for the Kin album: “God I’m Missing You” sounded rather pained when Lucinda Williams sang it, but Crowell takes it to a different place, inhabiting the song with a warm melancholy, a weary kind of sadness. Not everything is so forlorn, and in fact much of the record rocks and rolls with surprising energy, hard-won hope, and the sheer joy of making music. “Frankie Please” is a driving rock and roll number in the old-fashioned sense, and it pairs off nicely with the excellent roadhouse blues song “Somebody’s Shadow.” Opener “The Long Journey Home” is part anthem, part travelogue, written from the perspective of a seasoned journeyman who knows he doesn’t have all the answers but is increasingly content in the journey itself. Of the gentler numbers, “Grandma Loved That Old Man” is especially charming, a character study made warm by the intimacy and specificity of its details. Like much of Tarpaper Sky, it’s written from a place where memories inform the present, where yesterday’s dreams and heartaches point the way forward.
The record has a song dedicated to John Denver and another written “for Guy,” presumably Clark—all of which points to Crowell’s frame of mind here, but he’s not merely looking to the past: He’s actively engaging it, building from it—and what he’s built is one of his most satisfying records yet.