More than just a regular concert, eTown is a unique live experience! Audience members will watch the eTown Broadcast recorded before their very eyes, complete with performances and interviews with both of our visiting artists, as well as the eChievement Award segment, eTown's opportunity to honor everyday heroes who are doing their part to make the world a better place. You won't want to miss it!
Show Start: 7:00pm
Show End: 9:00pm
In 2010, Rodney Crowell took a notion. He called up most of the band that had played with him on his 1988 commercial breakthrough album Diamonds & Dirt and got them together in a recording studio. Here it was, two decades later. Bass player Michael Rhodes, drummer Eddie Bayers and guitarist Steuart Smith had become Nashville session royalty. Crowell had become one of the most admired songwriter/artists in America. But even they don’t often take the opportunity to record like this. In a circle, facing one another and truly hearing one another, with no headphones or glass walls to separate them, they cut live as a band, with the honesty and no-fixes spontaneity of the records that first inspired all of them as teenagers.
Crowell and his old friends laid down a lot of great music in a timeless rocking country vein, but before a full album’s worth of material was finished, other projects intervened. Crowell made the album Kin with his literary confidant, author Mary Karr, and a host of top roots and pop vocalists. Then came Old Yellow Moon with lifelong friend Emmylou Harris, which led to a triumphant tour and a Grammy win for Best Americana Album. But eventually, that unfinished project beckoned, and after the band regrouped and it was all pulled together, Crowell realized he had something special. He’s called it Tarpaper Sky, an allusion to the rickety house with a bad roof in which he spent much of his Houston childhood.
And suddenly here he is – 63 years old – coming off two acclaimed projects, singing with the depth and nuance to which he’s always aspired and writing with his trademark blend of literary precision and plainspoken country soul. Crowell is a multi-Grammy winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the recipient of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association. His songs have been covered and performed by an eminent group of musicians, including Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Etta James, George Strait, Royksopp, Tim McGraw and Bob Seger. Yet he’s taken his place among America’s greatest songwriters not with laurels and banquets but with excellent new work.
Crowell says the songs on Tarpaper Sky are mostly pastorals – pictures from an imaginary countryside that tell unadorned stories with straightforward language and energetic musicianship. It begins with “Long Journey Home,” whose archetypal folk title speaks to its ageless theme of wanderlust and its uncomplicated melody. Then as “Fever On The Bayou” segues into “Frankie Please,” we realize we’re in for a rich and varied roots experience.
The former features accordion and mandolin, evoking The Band playing on a back porch, while Crowell sings a love song to a Louisiana belle. Then it’s twisting rock and roll rhythms and passionate vocals that definitely make us want to get a look at Frankie. It’s under three minutes long, but it worked for Chuck Berry then and it works for Crowell now.
We also find some graceful ballads scattered through the project, including the poignant country waltz “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” and the self-explanatory and vulnerable “God, I’m Missing You.” And the artist’s inclination to search his own story for material comes forward on “Jesus Talk To Mama,” where he celebrates the mystery of his mother’s faith, and “The Flyboy & The Kid,” an allusion to his relationship with Guy Clark. Helmed by the production team of Justin Niebank, Steuart Smith, and Dan Knobler, the album is a rich sonic experience as well, with guest vocals from Vince Gill, John Cowan, Ronnie McCoury and Shannon McNally, plus instrumental contributions by Nashville’s finest, including Jerry Douglas, Will Kimbrough, Fats Kaplin and Steve Fishell. The continuity comes from that core of musicians and old friends with whom Crowell made some of his career defining music.
Crowell’s remarkable story was not unknown during the years he achieved fame as a country music radio star, but it took on a vivid, cinematic quality with the publication of his 2011 memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks. There, we learn the details of his Houston childhood, marked by poverty and tumult. His father, volatile though he was, pulled Rodney into country music, taking him to seminal shows and recruiting him to his hillbilly band. Crowell began to write songs in college and moved to Nashville in 1972, where he was drawn to a bohemian community of future legends that included Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Crowell’s suspicion that he was born to be a songwriter bore fruit in that fertile ground. Some of his greatest and most beloved songs came early in his Nashville career, including “Til I Gain Control Again,” “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” “Song For The Life” and “Ashes By Now.” So his reputation as a songwriter grew substantially, even if his own recording career required patience. He released four albums before Diamonds & Dirt fulfilled the commercial promise that so many had seen in him, producing an astonishing five number one singles in succession.
Crowell has conceded he didn’t accept or handle well the fame that came with that radio success. But if his prickly and independent spirit alienated him from some parts of the radio industry, it led him back to the artist’s path. And while some wondered for a time in the late 1990s if Crowell’s best work was behind him, some downtime gave way to a trio of semi-autobiographical albums in the 2000s that redefined his legacy. The Houston Kid, Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider were uniformly praised as his most revealing and musically complete albums. Crowell believes with these projects he finally hit his stride as a singer and performer. The historians will tell you they were the projects that sealed his elevated place in American music at large.
With that comes freedom, so recent years have seen Crowell pursuing the directions he felt he needed to go, from spontaneous recording sessions with old friends or collaborations with admired colleagues.
And if Old Yellow Moon was a historic reunion and Kin was a literary adventure with his prose writing mentor, Tarpaper Sky is that more ordinary and yet blessed thing – an opus of new songs, tracked with a common sensibility and put in a carefully considered sequence.
It’s an album, and as we’ve come to expect from Rodney Crowell, a very fine one. It’s the sound of Crowell fusing his considerable experience with the same unbridled passion for American music that drew him to music as a kid and to Nashville and his road to greatness forty years ago.
Robert Ellis has named his new album after himself and the reason is clear. The album is both his most personal statement yet and a summation of his career thus far. Robert Ellis opens with “Perfect Strangers,” a meditation on what brings people together (and how tenuous that connection can be), and ends with “It's Not OK,” a raw look at emotional compromise. Between those two powerful bookends are nine other songs that set Ellis's soaring vocals and knowing melodies against his sharp, dark observations, and that show him in full command of a vibrant set of songwriting skills—irony, distance, character, narrative, a thoughtful relationship between sound and sense.
Ellis was born and raised in Lake Jackson, a town about an hour from Houston whose other famous residents have included the Pauls (Ron and Rand) and Selena (the original Queen of Tejano, not the current pop sensation). From an early age, he escaped small-town boredom through music. At first, his tastes ran toward traditional hits. “I remember having a bunch of pop records when I was really young: No Doubt and Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. That was when I was pretty passive as a listener—I liked them, but maybe I got to them because my mom or one of my sisters had them. The first I really got obsessed with was a Doc Watson collection. I was already starting to play guitar, and my uncle told my mom to get it for me. He was my first guitar hero.”
As he developed as a writer, though, he found himself drawn toward the smartest and sharpest of the class of songwriters who developed in the 1970s: artists like Paul Simon, John Prine, and Randy Newman. And he didn’t just listen to them. He learned from them. Specifically, he learned the finer points of songcraft. “I've been a big fan of Paul Simon for a long time,” he says. “He has this capacity to surprise you with his music and his lyrics. With John Prine's songs, I grew from believing that they happened to him to understanding that it didn’t matter if they really happened to him. And Randy Newman? Wow. I especially love a record like Trouble in Paradise, when there are all these artificial 1980s production techniques, but they’re being used in the service of this master composer.”
That respect for tradition—but more specifically for the fact that so-called traditional artists were in fact consistent risk-takers—fuel Ellis’s new record. “With this record,” he says, “I feel like I’ve gotten to where I can use the material of my own life as a jumping-off point. But now I can do different things with that material.” In this case, of course, the material has an element of melancholy. Much of the record revolves around the dissolution of Ellis’s marriage. It’s a breakup album, but not one that dissects its subject with straightforward rage and regret—Ellis and his ex-wife remain friends, and she is even featured in the album art, which was created after the divorce. Rather, it’s an album that finds Ellis reaching back into the trick bags of masters like Simon, Prine, and Newman, and employing the full complement of skills that he’s learned from them. “‘Perfect Strangers,’ took a month,” he says. “I had a notepad and walked around New York, giving myself personal therapy through the eyes of the city.”
Other songs came faster. “I wrote ‘Elephant” quickly,” he says. “It's about my misunderstanding of monogamy and my complete bewilderment with some of the ideas that I grew up with. I felt that in the past year, lots of constructs I took for granted were turned on their head. But I was careful to express those ideas in a way where the gray areas got to stay gray. If what you’re saying is that you’re confused, you shouldn't say you're confused. You should betray a contradiction.”
Ellis isn’t afraid of sophistication. The beautifully orchestrated “You’re Not the One” has more complex origins than its title might suggest. “For that one, I woke up from a nightmare that was a kind of sex dream. In the dream, the faces around me kept changing. It was very eerie, like a David Lynch movie. The song has that sense of unease but also this Ellington bridge that’s unrelated to the key of the song. I’m really proud of that one.” But he can make his point with simplicity also, as in the chorus to “Drivin’,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley: “This don’t feel like living, it’s just surviving / I’m ain’t going nowhere, I’m just driving.” And then there’s “High Road,” the emotional center of the record, co-written with friend Jonny Fritz, a song about professional and personal insecurity that builds from lonesome shivers to almost operatic melodrama—all the while riding a lovely, fragile melody.
While Ellis wrote nine of the album’s songs, he is also a generous collaborator dedicated to finding songs from other writers who advance his vision. “Once I knew that much of the record would be composed of these extremely personal songs like ‘Elephant’ or ‘High Road,’ but I was aware from the start that I couldn’t have a whole record of them. Putting it together was like assembling a collection of short stories. You need different tones and colors. So that’s why I included a song like ‘How I Love You,’ which was written by my friend Matt Vasquez, from Delta Spirit. We were hanging out, and I asked him if he had any good uptempo songs, and he showed me that one. And ‘Screw’ was written by Kelly Doyle, who plays guitar in our band. Listening to him work on his solo record, I was amazed by the sound. His process and palette were really inspirational to me.”
The album ends with “It's Not OK,” which holds its ground as a traditional busted-love song before hurtling headlong into a dark thicket of guitars. “In that case, because the song is about that kind of emotional trouble, part of me that wanted dissonance and chaos. The melodic and rhythmic ideas to me are a different kind of information from the lyrics, but they’re still information.”
As thoughtful as Ellis is about the process, his album also has plenty of pop pleasures. “California” is a jaunty, intimate travelogue that elevates into his chorus. “Amanda Jane” has an almost bossa nova shuffle and a melody that splits the difference between power pop and 70s soft rock. And “Couples Skate” reaches back even further. “I wrote that one while were on tour with Richard Thompson. It’s a green room song. I was just journaling, and I remembered holding this girl’s hand in second grade. It’s a nostalgic idea, which is why I reached for a 50s soul vibe. But it’s also nineties, in a way—something about it that reminds me of the rock and roll I was listening to around that time.”
In the end, Robert Ellis (the album) is the most accurate reflection yet of Robert Ellis (the man). It’s analytical and emotional, calculated in spots and improvisational in others, restless, peaceful, never indifferent, never dispassionate.