You can almost overlook just how important ol’ Rodney Crowell has been if you’re not careful. Almost. He’s never been one for grandiose self-promotion like some artists. And instead of focusing on singing, or playing, or writing, or producing exclusively, he’s been active in all of these disciplines. You have to put the entire body of work together to understand just how impressive it is. In fact, someday it may even be considered Hall of Fame worthy. And as Crowell proves here, age has done little to impinge on his creativity.
The Chicago Sessions in many ways is a hearkening back to the original Rodney Crowell, indicated by how the cover is similar to the one for his debut album Ain’t Living Long Like This in 1978, whose title track was covered by Gary Stewart and later Waylon Jennings. Instead of deftly crafting out arrangements and taking weeks to record, this album was cut mostly live with producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the Windy City. The sessions take on a decidedly loose attitude and bluesy disposition.
Rodney Crowell was never super country, even when he was stringing together five #1 country singles back in the late 80s. He was also responsible for Roseanne Cash’s decidedly non-country-sounding “country” stuff from that same period as a producer. They both helped seed alt-country, or what we consider Americana today, which is an amalgam of roots music that includes blues. Rodney leans on heavily on the blues here, though not exclusively. The songwriting is still what matters most.
But even in that respect, Crowell keeps it a little bit more free and easy on this album. The more bluesy tracks like “Somebody Loves You,” “Oh Miss Claudia,” and “Ever The Dark” are just as much about sticking a groove as saying something. The style may be blues, but the sentiments are more grateful, including in the bouncy opening track “Lucky,” and the sweet and sentimental “Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly.”
The songwriting arguably reaches its peak at the end of the album, with “Making Lovers Out Of Friends” imparting some useful wisdom of how to not damage friendships, appropriately co-sung by Emmylou Harris who’s been a close friend and collaborator of Rodney Crowell’s for many years. The song is also co-written with Ashley McBryde. This leads to perhaps the album’s greatest contribution, the ascendant “Ready To Move On,” which proves Rodney can match the songwriting acumen of his old buddies Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt when he wants to.
The Chicago Sessions also includes a cover of Van Zant’s “No Place to Fall,” and the song “You’re Supposed to be Feeling Good” that Emmylou Harris originally recorded on her 1976 album Luxury Liner. Rodney’s version feels a bit strange here, almost like it was given the ’70s soft rock treatment. But that’s about the only slight to give this album.
More than any individual song, The Chicago Sessions is just a great listening record—one to put on in the background and/or lose yourself in, with a good vibe, a grateful outlook, and a favorable temperament. Rodney Crowell is an old master at this album making business, and his time in Chicago was fruitful.
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