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Let the Picture Paint Itself

The Houston Kid hits his stride a quarter-century into his recording career

"The chugging rhythm of a freight train came out of the glowing dashboard," he says, "and a guitar that sounded like sandpaper started strumming. Then this voice that sounded like Abraham Lincoln started humming those long, low notes. It was Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line.' And a hallucination overtook me; it knocked me out of my body and took me to another place. I can still see the headlights ahead of us, and I can still hear that song. I was filled with a longing to know where that song came from, and that longing has sustained me ever since."

The moment was so important that it became a song called "I Walk the Line Revisited," which was the centerpiece of The Houston Kid. He even got Cash to sing the chorus. In similar fashion, the title track from Fate's Right Hand is based on another childhood encounter with a seminal song. This time it was the spring of 1965, and the 14-year-old ninth-grader was visiting his friend's house in east Houston.

"I remember so vividly the first time I heard 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' " Crowell says. "My friend David Warren had a copy of Bob Dylan's new album, Bringing It All Back Home, and he said, 'You've got to hear this.' 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' was the first track, and we listened to that one song at least 50 times before we heard the rest of the album. Dylan later said that 'Maybelline' inspired him to write 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' and Chuck Berry said 'Maybelline' was inspired by 'Ida Red' by Bob Wills, so it can all be traced back to country music in Texas.

"Dylan was like a laser beam on that song. Even as a 12-year-old kid, I knew this was something extra-special. It hit me the same way Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line' had hit me when I was five. It hit me the way Elvis Costello's 'Pump It Up' hit me when I was 26. I was waiting to hear Rockpile at Dingwalls, a club in London, when that song come blasting over the PA. All these songs were more than great songs; they were unprecedented in some way. In each case, you could say, 'Nothing like that has ever happened before.' "

If The Houston Kid was inspired by Cash's example of singing stories about the reality of growing up poor and uncertain in the South, Fate's Right Hand was inspired by Dylan's example of frenzied, word-drunk commentary on the world around him. To write the new album's title track, for example, Crowell stuck a blank tape in his cassette player, played a repeating rockabilly vamp and let the words pour out. After 45 minutes of improvisation, he had an overflow of rhyme-filled observations on modern life and his own adolescence; all he needed to do was edit and polish. On several other songs he took a similar approach.

So these last two albums are distinguished by Crowell's return to his greatest songwriting inspirations. And they sound different. The brittle new-wave-meets-country sound that Crowell pioneered in the '80s has been replaced by something warmer, more relaxed, more confident. He gives much of the credit to his engineer and co-producer, Pete Coleman.

"I call Pete my lab-coat limey," Crowell says with a chuckle. "He's one of those Englishmen who really know the studio, because they train their engineers better over there. He's from the Glyn Johns school of engineering; he made all those records with Mike Chapman, Blondie and the Knack. Better than anyone over here, he knows how to make a dry record sound big, and the key is mike placement.

"A dry record sounds better," Crowell insists. "I'm not a fan of reverb. I listen to my records from the '80s and go, 'My God, how much reverb can you put on one record?' We got seduced by gated reverb on snares back then; Pete weaned me off of those and taught me a lot about sonics. A dry record sounds more human; putting the voice in a hallway doesn't make sense. I'm telling stories in these songs, and I can't tell you a story from down the hall; I've got to be close to you."

It also helped that Crowell financed the recording sessions himself -- emptied out his bank account, in fact -- and offered the masters to various record companies only after they were completed. This had two advantages. For one, he could follow his own instincts without a lot of unsolicited advice from record company suits. For another, it meant Crowell had a financial incentive to work quickly and efficiently. Without enough money to fuss over the tracks, he didn't.

But the biggest single change has been the vocals. On many of his earlier albums, you often felt that the singing was an afterthought to the writing of the song, as if you were hearing a story told for the fifth or sixth time, long after the teller had lost interest in it. On these two new albums, however, you feel as if you're hearing the story in the same moment that the teller remembered it. This is a trick, of course, for these songs were written and rewritten long before the recording sessions, but it's an essential trick, and it's one that Crowell has finally mastered.

"I never liked my voice till Pete recorded it," he insists. "You don't know what a private hell that is -- to be a singer and not like your own voice. You don't know what a relief it is to finally like it. I like how I sound now."

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