Of all the reams of awards churned out by the country music establishment, the Academy of Country Music's decision in April, 1989, to tab Rodney Crowell as the best new male singer of 1988 has to be one of the strangest.
It's not that Crowell wasn't deserving: He is, in fact, such a strong all-around talent that most of the names higher on country's commercial totem pole probably know better than to look down on him.
It's just that the award was a little late in coming. When it arrived, Crowell had been a force in country music for more than a decade--first as guitarist and a key songwriter in Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, and, since 1978, with his own solo career. In fact, "Diamonds & Dirt," the 1988 album that won him the best new singer accolade, was the Houston native's fifth.
"Diamonds & Dirt" yielded five No. 1 singles for Crowell, including "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried," one of the most infectious swinging honky-tonk numbers in memory.
But before "Diamonds & Dirt," Crowell had achieved more success putting a distinctive stamp on other singers' careers than in pushing forward with his own.
He has produced almost all of the recordings by his wife, Rosanne Cash, whose greater success, Crowell acknowledged in an interview last year, used to cause him a twinge of jealousy. He also wrote a number of hits made famous by other singers: Crowell's "Ain't Living Long Like This" is practically a signature song for Waylon Jennings, "Shame on the Moon" was one of Bob Seger's biggest hits, and "Leaving Louisiana" has been a staple song for the Oak Ridge Boys and for Harris.
Simplicity was the key to Crowell's own breakthrough on "Diamonds & Dirt." The production was less elaborate than on past efforts and a bit more tinged with such traditional country ingredients as a weeping steel guitar.
Crowell has stuck to that pattern, with more good results, on his current album, "Keys to the Highway." His stylistic range continues to serve him well--he can weave between straight-out rockabilly, ringing country rock and traditional honky-tonk music without any loss of assurance. Crowell's other strengths include a knack for the wry turn of phrase, and for expressing naked emotion without sounding overwrought. Crowell, who has a lot of Don Everly in his voice, is able to take situations that many country singers would make maudlin or treacly and present them with dignity. A case in point is "Things I Wish I'd Said," which Crowell wrote last year after his father's death as a song of thanks that they became reconciled before it was too late.
"The best thing about being an artist is telling the truth," Crowell once said of his willingness to explore his own life in songs. "If it's the truth you know, you've got to tell it."
* POP LISTINGS, Page 22.
* NIGHTCLUB LISTINGS, Page 22.
Who: Rodney Crowell.
When: Sunday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Harbor Boulevard exit; go north to Broadway, then east to the theater.
Where to call: (714) 999-9536.