Last decade, in a burst of creativity in his 50s, Rodney Crowell made the three best albums of a storied but never settled career. The new "Tarpaper Sky" (New West) does not, however, hark back to the deeply personal, wildly poetic trilogy that began with 2001's "The Houston Kid."
Rather, it is a return for the celebrated songwriter, country star, sideman (to Emmylou Harris) and husband (to Rosanne Cash) to a more direct style and the collaboration with guitarist Steuart Smith that produced 1988's "Diamonds and Dirt" and its five No. 1 country hits.
While it's hard to imagine today's Nashville machine going for any of this — Crowell has zero songs about his truck, his favorite cocktail or his patriotism — "I Wouldn't Be Me Without You" sounds like classic country, a lost chart-topper of the early 1960s, while the similarly stark "God I'm Missing You" could have been its B-side. When it picks up the pace, the record still shimmers, including on the bawdy "Fever on the Bayou" and "Frankie Please," a foot-stomper about a woman who "tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park."
With effortless melodies played with the grace and unforced power from a veteran band, "Tarpaper Sky" showcases Crowell's still-potent voice, all honey and cedar and sly inflection, and his knack for finding the words to make simple wisdom and an older man's reflections resonate. When he sings "Oh What a Beautiful World" in the closer, one of the reasons it's true is because of song craft like this.
3 1/2 (out of 4)