- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2001

RODNEY CROWELLThe Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)Diamonds & Dirt (Expanded) (Columbia)

In a world of J-Los and artificial boys, thank God America still can produce music like this.

Rodney Crowell has been a major influence on contemporary popular music for more than 25 years, from his debut days with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band through a slew of solo albums that have produced hits for some of the biggest names in country music. A writer who can capture heartbreak or the ache of longing in a single incredible line, he was adding the spark of intelligence to country songs back when they were being played only in honky-tonks and other blue-collar watering holes.

Mr. Crowell can rest comfortably on his songwriting royalties, but it is one of the bigger musical mysteries of recent times why someone who sings as well as he writes and is far more handsome than most of his contemporaries can't buy a hit on his own. In fact, he has been reduced in the past five years to burying himself in a band (the Cicadas) and releasing his latest solo record, "The Houston Kid," on the small independent Sugar Hill label.

The new album, a concept work of sorts harking back to his childhood in Houston and reportedly in the works for years, is made up of songs with an autobiographical touch that he held back from prior releases. This may explain why "The Houston Kid" is uniformly the strongest record Mr. Crowell has ever made, from the driving opener, "Telephone Road," through the beautiful extended closing number, "I Know Love Is All I Need."

"Autobiographical" is stretching it, though. The truly stunning cuts here deal with an abusive father ("The Rock of My Soul"), a brother dying of AIDS ("I Wish It Would Rain") and a criminal loser struggling to hold his family together ("Highway 17"). None of those situations are found in Mr. Crowell's life story. As trite as these topics may sound, he manages, as always, to find new ways to frame them: The musical settings alone are stunning.

The highlight for many listeners, though, will be "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," a duet with former father-in-law Johnny Cash that mixes a new Crowell song with Mr. Cash's country classic.

Mr. Crowell's one burst of solo success came in 1988 with the release of his Grammy-winning "Diamonds & Dirt," which produced an unbelievable five No. 1 country singles, including "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried" and the haunting "After All This Time." Columbia Legacy has released a beautifully remastered edition of that record. My favorite among the three bonus cuts, demos from the same period that rank with the album's original cuts, is the wonderfully titled "I've Got My Pride but I Got to Feed the Kids."

These records, and all of Mr. Crowell's works for that matter, are American "folk" music at its best. The Houston Kid is slated to be at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis April 17; you don't want to miss him.— Fran Coombs CONWAY TWITTYLove Songs(MCA Nashville)

During the golden age of country music in the 1960s and 1970s — long before country radio's consultants gave us playlists of the sound-alike Hat Pack of today — we easily could identify the players without a scorecard.

Because of the singers' distinctive voices, we could tell George from Merle from Buck from Jerry Lee (and for that matter, Loretta from Dolly from Tammy) as soon as we turned on the radio. One of the most distinctive of those voices belonged to Conway Twitty.

Sadly, that voice was silenced in June 1993 by Mr. Twitty's death at age 59 after a career that spanned 35 years. MCA has released a remastered collection of some his best love songs (of which, according to the liner notes, he recorded "relatively few"), and what a pleasure it is for country purists to hear them again — or for the first time, as the case may be.

The 14-song set is a mix of singles and album tracks, recorded mostly from 1972 to 1981, but don't look for "You've Never Been This Far Before" here.

These are mostly songs of love of the romanticized pinch-me-so-I-know-I'm-not-dreaming variety, from the playful opener "I'd Love to Lay You Down" (which is not nearly as risque as the title suggests) and a cover of Charlie Pride's "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" to "It's True Love" and "Lovin' What Your Lovin' Does to Me," a pair of early-1980s duets with Loretta Lynn.

Easily the most emotionally affecting of the 14 is another song more often associated with Mr. Pride, "All I Have to Offer You Is Me," which is hardscrabble country at its most gut-level, tear-jerking best.

If you're expecting "There's a Honky Tonk Angel (Who'll Take Me Back In)," "Linda on My Mind," "Hello, Darlin' ," or other Twitty classics, they're not here. They'll have to wait for a "falling-out-of-love songs" package. Are you listening, MCA?— Peter Parisi

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