By Paul T. Mueller –
Sometimes seeing what a performer is overcoming to deliver a performance is as impressive as the performance itself. Early in his Oct. 18 show at Houston’s Heights Theater, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell announced that he was battling “the mother of all colds.” But despite a voice that often sounded hoarse and strained, and taking an occasional break to cough (“It’s not COVID!”) or swig from a water bottle, he pushed on for nearly two hours, delighting the capacity crowd with signature songs from his long career and readings from his recent book, Word for Word.
Crowell is the closest thing to royalty in country and Americana music, and he looks the part – still slim at 72, with white hair and a vintage black Gibson acoustic. Without a band to back him up, he played and sang with a confidence born of decades onstage, clearly basking in the love of the hometown crowd.
He led off with “Highway 17,” the tale of a career criminal who buries his ill-gotten gains and spends years in prison dreaming of what he’ll do when he gets out and recovers it – only to find that it’s been forever lost under a newly built interstate highway. Afterward he explained that the song is based on a true story involving a family he knew as a child. “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” about his beloved grandfather and the wife who put up with his faults and flaws, got a similar treatment. And so it went, with fine renditions of instantly recognizable songs interspersed with funny stories about how they came to be, and about how their author became a top-tier songwriter and performer.
The show, something of a career retrospective, included songs from Crowell’s days as a hotshot mainstream Nashville artist (“I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “She’s Crazy for Leaving,” “ ‘Til I Gain Control Again”) as well as several from his more recent phase as an independent, more introspective artist (“East Houston Blues,” “Anything But Tame,” “Telephone Road,” “I Don’t Care Anymore”).
Crowell won enthusiastic responses for some songs he wrote with or about the late Guy Clark, a good friend of his for decades – “Stuff That Works,” co-written in the wake of his divorce from Rosanne Cash, and “It Ain’t Over Yet,” an imagined conversation between Crowell, Clark and Clark’s wife, Susanna.
After wrapping up the main set with “Please Remember Me,” Crowell acknowledged the standing ovation, put in one final plug for his book (“Christmas is coming, just saying,” he had noted earlier) and finished with “The Flyboy & the Kid” from his Tarpaper Sky album, a song he’d dedicated to Clark.
Health issues notwithstanding, Crowell headed quickly for the venue’s lobby, where he spent quite a while posing for pictures with fans and writing personalized inscriptions in the books they’d bought – and apparently loving every minute of it.