Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
If you can judge a party by its guest list, Rodney Crowell’s Texas is a serious rager. Ronnie Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and Willie Nelson are on board, and that’s just on a single track. Crowell flexed his Rolodex muscle for a cycle of songs that sometimes clearly references the Lone Star State or, at the very least, conjures a Texas state of mind.
Some might expect such an album to focus on issues surrounding the state, and there a few songs of that ilk. “The Border” yields an even-handed account of one of the hot topics of the day through the eyes of a seen-it-all border patrol agent. “Brown And Root, Brown And Root” details industrial malaise and includes a spoken-word intro from Steve Earle as a kind of history lesson. Closing track “Texas Drought Part 1” features Crowell at his most mid-tempo melodic and effortlessly eloquent.
But Crowell mostly uses the theme in a light-hearted manner, recounting both the charms and foibles of the state’s citizens. Opening track “Flatland Hillbillies” sets the tone with knowing humor, Crowell and guests Womack and Randy Rogers explaining how “Living on the edge of nowhere/ Isn’t for the faint of heart.” And what better way to celebrate the merits of a cherry machine than to allow Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to growl his way through “56 Fury.”
Even when the connection to the location seems tangential at best, there is a sense of ease and fun that makes Texas pretty irresistible. On “What You Gonna Do Now,” Crowell and Lyle Lovett lob one-liners at one another like benevolent grenades. And on “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable,” a catchy takedown of a perennial pessimist, Ringo Starr bashes out the beat as an honorary Texan. But the album’s constant is Crowell, whose songs are always where it’s at no matter the location of their influence.