Rodney Crowell and the Outsiders at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (July 13). $20. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Most singer/songwriters who've been at it as long as Rodney Crowell are by now too busy trying to avoid self-parody to worry about being relevant.
No such problem for the one-time Hot Band guitarist who stepped out of Emmylou Harris's shadow with the roots-rockin' Ain't Living Long Like This (Reprise/Warner) debut in 78 and hasn't looked back since. Three decades on, his songs are more pointed and poignant than ever.
In fact, after compiling a formidable catalogue of frequently covered hits and memorable misses - documented on the excellent 14-track overview The Essential Rodney Crowell (Columbia-Legacy) - Crowell's most recent recordings are his most accomplished work yet. Crowell doesn't disagree.
"You're right - I think they are my best," he concedes from Belize, where he's recharging for the current tour, which brings him to the Horseshoe Wednesday. "Anyone who says different, well, them's fightin' words.
"I'm not slagging off what I've written on the way from the 70s to where I am now, because I know I've come up with some good songs, but I don't feel like I've made any record that stands up to these last three. From beginning to end, they're more fully informed from song to song to song, and that's just a consequence of my coming of age as a recording artist, beyond what I've accomplished as a songwriter."
The deeper soul-searching reflected in 2001's autobiographical The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill), continuing with 2003's introspective Fate's Right Hand (Sony) seems to have been leading up The Outsider (Sony-BMG) - set for release August 16 - on which Crowell takes a closer look at what's been happening in his country and doesn't like what he sees.
While it's a much looser, more rockin' affair than his two prior brooding ruminations, the songwriting is no less weighty. Crowell openly questions his government's domestic and foreign policy in ways rarely heard from a Nashville artist, particularly one with a mega-selling hit song currently on the country charts.
"I guess I'm an odd duck in Nashville, being both an outsider and insider. As an artist, I've chosen an outside path, avoiding commercial fluff to try to join the ranks of people with something to say. But then again, I just had the number-one song on the charts for five weeks with Keith Urban's [version of my] Making Memories Of Us.
"In my song The Outsider, I'm suggesting that the outsider is actually God. The verses are polarized by the voice of the political right and left, who are each saying, 'God is on my side' and 'God will kick your ass.' The way I see it, that scenerio makes an outsider out of the God of my understanding. My concept is that God is all-inclusive - a God of love, not of separation." firstname.lastname@example.org