Photo credit: Alisa B. CherryFor the past 40 years, Rodney Crowell has been firmly entrenched within the upper pantheon of classic American songwriters, a group that includes such legends as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and a select few others who reside on the highest tier of artistry and accomplishment. A two-time Grammy Award winner and multiple recipient of accolades awarded by the Americana Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, he’s written dozens of hits and certifiable standards recorded himself and by others. They include songs such as “Til I Can Gain Control Again,” “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” and “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” a small sample firmly entrenched in the annals of classic contemporary country songs.At age 71, Crowell appears as exuberant as ever, and when he headlined a free concert presented by radio station WDVX and the ORNL Federal Credit Union at Bissell Park in Oak Ridge Tennessee, his energy and enthusiasm were clearly evident. Naturally, he got a standing ovation as soon as he stepped out onstage, a feat made all the more impressive considering the appreciative applause accorded earlier for opening act, the Alex Leach Band. After all, the fact that Leach also deejays a pair of bluegrass show on WDVX might otherwise have indicated a home town advantage.Nevertheless, outshining Crowell always proves to be a daunting proposition, and on this particular Saturday, that certainly stood to be the case. With a well-seasoned quartet of ace session players in tow — Glen Caruba on drums, Zachariah Hickman playing bass, Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle, and Catherine Marks playing piano and singing back-up — Crowell delivered his material with clear confidence, veering little from the recorded versions while keeping the familiarity factor intact. Several of the songs were culled from his excellent new album Fringe, but that still left plenty of room to reprise his standards. “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” and “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” were high on the order in terms of immediate recognition. “It Ain’t Over Yet,” originally recorded with Roseanne Cash and John Paul White, was well reprised by having Marks and Hickman standing in for Cash and White. “Ashes By Now,” another early standard covered by both Emmylou Harris and Lee Ann Womack, and “The Weight of the World,” a track that figured prominently on Crowell’s joint effort with Harris, The Traveling Kind, qualified as standouts as well.Other special moments followed, hardly a surprise considering Crowell’s ample credentials. “Earthbound” offered a rollicking repast courtesy of its reverberating refrain. “Ain’t No Money,” culled from Crowell’s landmark third album, But What Will the Neighbors Think, sounded steady and assured. “Ashes By Now,” another standout included in that same set of songs, rang with its inherent desire and determination. Even so, it was “Still Learning To Fly,” drawn from a more recent album, the brilliant Fate’s Right Hand, that seemed to sum up his current status,appropriately and, apparently, also unapologetically.
“Life’s been good, I guessMy ragged old heart’s been blessedWith so much more than meets the eyeI’ve got a past I won’t soon forgetYou ain’t seen nothing yetI’m still learning how to fly”That may be the case, but it was clear from the audience’s applause that Crowell still soars, at least as far as their appreciation is concerned. Even when he started a song in the wrong chord, or admitted to some subliminal cheating in his introduction to the haunting and harrowing “Reckless,” all was forgiven.
Aside from the fact that Crowell’s credence was affirmed, he provided another service as well.With a threat of rain lingering on the horizon, that particular song offered an example of how one can best dodge a bullet.