The tradition of Texas troubadours is vast, and it’s spangled with plenty of heroes and legends: Willie Nelson. Waylon Jennings. Guy Clark. Susanna Clark. Kris Kristofferson. Townes Van Zandt. Steve Earle. Lyle Lovett. Nanci Griffith. Billy Joe Shaver.
Rodney Crowell’s name doesn’t always come up in discussions about that tradition, but it deserves to. For more than 35 years, the native of Crosby, Texas, (and former spouse of Rosanne Cash) has been writing, recording and performing his own personal narratives about life, loss, love, sorrow and redemption, many with the kind of poetic, homespun flair that is true to that tradition.
Friday night, Crowell and his three-piece band spent two hours serenading a crowd of more than 450 attentive and appreciative fans at the Folly Theater, performing a mix of hymns, ballads, anthems and odes in various musical styles.
He opened with a solo version of “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” and then, with his band, “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” tracks from “Tarpaper Sky,” the solid full-length recording he released in April. Both are love songs and each is rife with details and sentiment: “So far I’ve kept every promise/And this I’ll continue to do/I love you like nobody’s business/I wouldn’t be me without you.”
Love and all its rewards and tribulations were themes all night, but he preached a bit, too, during “Sex and Gasoline,” a country-rock anthem about our obsession with beauty and pleasure: “Here’s the skinny/Indulge the urge/Then sometime later/You can binge and purge.”
And in “Wandering Boy,” which received a loud ovation, he sang of a man who surrenders his anti-gay bias as he tends to his brother, who is dying of AIDS: “I used to cast my judgments like a net / All those California gay boys deserved just what they get / Little did I know there would come a day /When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay.”
His backing trio was led by guitarist Jedd Hughes. Hughes colored Crowell’s songs with a variety of leads, fills and filigrees, some of them subtle, others demonstrative, as during the stormy end of “Wandering Boy.” He also knows his way around a mandolin. Crowell can pick and strum, too, as he showed on “Come Back, Baby” an acoustic blues number.
For several songs, Crowell and his mates were joined by vocalist Joanne Gardner, a Lawrence native who struck it big in the corporate world of the music biz before retiring to Montana, where she is a promoter, manager and musician. She also is Crowell’s social media manager. With Hughes, she contributed some stellar harmonies.
She helped bring variety to a set that showcased Crowell’s catalog, which comprises a few styles — country, rock, folk, blues — but adheres to the singer/songwriter traditions. Crowell coaxed the crowd in to a rowdy sing-along during a cover of “Like A Rolling Stone,” one of the evening’s highlights. Another was “Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight,” one of the more invigorating numbers of the set.
Mostly, this was a night to kick back and enjoy the confluence of songcraft and musicianship: evocative storytelling set to great music, which is the spirit of the Texas tradition.
I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You; Grandma Loved That Old Man; Anything But Tame; Open Season On My Heart; Sex and Gasoline; Dancin’ Circles Around the Sun; Moving Work of Art; Come Back, Baby; God I’m Missing You; Earthbound; Jewel of the South; Fever on the Bayou; Respect Yourself; Frankie, Please; Like A Rolling Stone; Wandering Boy; Say You Love Me; ’Till I Gain Control Again; Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight. Encores: Stars on the Water; Song for Life.