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Layton Howerton And Rodney Crowell
By Bill Ede
Layton Howerton, substituting for the Shivering Siblings, did a fine seven-song set of originals as opener for Rodney Crowell and the Dixie Pearls at November l1th's concert at the Macauley Theatre. Howerton included songs he has performed as host of Butchertown Pub's former Tuesday-night SongMarket. Among these were his ode for the road-weary, "Motel Melodies," with its driving pulse and highway images. and his bluesy "Fear of the flame," where he counsels, "Once you get burned, you don't forget the pain, and there's always the fear of the flame." It's a fine song from an earlier era – a not-too-distant cousin to songs like Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." The first time I heard it, I was immediately struck by how integrated his music is – the songs, the singing, the guitar playing. Everything supports everything else, which is uncommon in the singer-songwriters I'm used to listening to. Usually, one element overshadows the rest and defines the artist. But Layton can be taken on any number of levels, which may make him hard to package somewhere down the road. Let's hope not.
He then asks the musical question, "How can I ask you to leave when my heart stands in the way?" I'm not sure if that's the song's exact title, but it sure expresses its theme. It's pure country, hook-line and sinker, and leads directly into his next tune, the Exile-like "(ls This A) Shakedown," followed by another bluesy tune about "lady luck," and then his collaboration with Shivering Sibling member Barbara Carter, "Tick Tock." The latter song was dedicated to working women, and struck an immediate chord with the women in the audience. It is a hypnotic song, with singular power – a mini-masterpiece of synchronization. Word has it that it will be one of the songs featured on the upcoming Shaking Family LP early next year, and possibly one of the singles. Guess we'll soon be finding out.
Layton performed one more song and then closed his set – a set with Howerton's powerful voice properly showcased, although I would've been more comfortable with its length if he had mentioned that he was performing "in place of" Barbara Carter and Vince Emmett (the Siblings) rather than opening for the openers. Sensing the crowd's anticipation for the main act, I wasn't sure how a lengthy third act would go over at the time. (Or maybe I was sure.) Nonetheless, as Rodney Crowell's sole opening act, Layton Howerton did a fine job of introducing his music to the Louisville audience, a sentiment echoed in the remarks of WAMZ disc jockey Coyote Calhoun, who then proceeded to introduce Crowell. (Layton's informal plug of Diet Coke during his act as having helped him shed 107 pounds in little over a year was greeted with warm applause and shouts of approval – not to mention pockets of envy – by empathic listeners, both male and female.)
Around I975, songwriter Rodney Crowell found himself in the enviable position of being a member of Emmylou Harris's Hot Band. Like Don Williams' guitar player Danny Flowers and few others, he was afforded the opportunity of having his songs listened to in a non-pressured atmosphere by a major artist, resulting in any number of cuts by Emmylou, and an opportunity to bypass some of the "stonewalling" normally encountered by songwriters in Nashville, and quite prevalent at that particular time (and becoming more so). It also gave other artists outside the musical mainstream a chance to sample his music and decide for themselves that they liked what they heard. By this time, Rodney had already gone up against "the biggies" in Nashville. and had scored some minor successes. but it was as Emmylou's guitar player (and songwriter) that he really started making a name for himself, which helped to activate the song catalogue he had been nurturing along.
Crowell first became interested in songwriting while a political science major at Stephen F. Austin College in Nacogdoches, Texas, from which after three years he "finally flunked out." Around 1971, he decided to go the route of other Houston-based songwriters such as Mickey Newbury, Gene Thomas and Mark James, and moved to Nashville, where he "slept in the streets, hung out and knocked on doors," a not-uncommon lifestyle for songwriters at the time (or now, I guess). He and sometime co-writer Donivan Cowart spent more than one night in Centennial Park when they first found their way to Music City. But that was, of course, a long time ago, and Crowell's come a long way since those leaner years. He is not only recognized as one of the finest songwriters of the last decade and a half, but is also making quite a name for himself as a performing artist in his own right.
After taking the stage on November ll, Crowell and band launched immediately into his 1981 hit, "Stars on the Water," which he followed with the rockabilly "Tell Me the Truth" from his current Keys to the Highway LP.
Other songs in the early part of the show included "Ashes By Now," a 1980 pop-crossover, co-written with wife Roseanne Cash, "The Best I Can" from 1986's Street Language LP, and Harlan Howard's "Above and Beyond," which was an early '60s hit for Buck Owens. (It's interesting to see what songs by other songwriters/artists like Crowell choose to cover. It could be argued that his 1978 recording of Dallas Frazier's classic "Elvira" led indirectly to the Oak Ridge Boys' grating recording of the song three years later, since that song and one of his own which the Oaks were also to score with, "Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight," were both contained in Rodney's 1978 debut Ain't Living Long Like This LP.)
We were next treated to a song Rodney had written two weeks before, "It's Gonna Be Fine," plus two songs from the new album, "Many A Long Lonesome Highway" and "My Past Is Present," a song about a chance encounter with an old flame, wherein he confesses "I'm glad to see her, but I wish I was blind." He then performed the first of several number-one songs from last year's much-acclaimed Diamonds and Dirt LP, "1 Couldn't Leave You If I Tried," with its bridge somewhat reminiscent of Ben King's 1960 hit, "Spanish Harlem," and "Now That We're Alone" from the Keys LP.
Drummer Vince Santoro is then given the stage, and steals the show with a version of the Beatles' "You Can't Do That," with guitarist Steuart Smith and Crowell sharing the same microphone a la McCartney and Harrison, a sight that was too perfect to have been "accidental." (Santoro is spotlighted again later with his version of David Edmunds' version of "l Hear You Knockin'," a song that was originally recorded in 1954 by Gale Storm. Talk about a song with a long life.)
Harrison, er Crowell, then steps up to render two self-penned classics, "Till I Can Gain Control Again" and "Ain't Living Long Like This," which gets at least some of the audience to wondering if he, in fact, wrote them as well, or was just covering them. (That's the problem with singer-songwriters like Crowell and friend and cohort Willie Nelson. After it finally dawns on people that you were the author of songs they've come to love over the years, the tendency is to assume that you also wrote all the songs you choose to cover – a situation made worse by the singer-songwriter phenomenon of the last two decades. Anymore, an audience almost needs a scorecard, or a very thorough disc jockey.)
Rodney Crowell now moves into the most emotional part of the evening with a song written for his recently deceased father, "Things I Wish I'd Said":
Travel lightly in my heart
You and I will never part
Far beyond this world we see
There's a place for you and me.
And I thank the moon and stars
We had a chance to heal our scars
Now I don't have to hang my head
Over things I wish I'd said.
It is the second reference of the evening to his father's May death, the first in the form of a line from the earlier "Many A Long Lonesome Highway," and hints at the depth of their relationship. He continues along this vein with "Highway l7," a song written about a man he remembers from his neighborhood when he was a child. The song is a powerful piece of literature that likely hit too close to home with some members of the audience, as more than a few people got up to leave the room. (Such is the fate of thought-provoking songs, or then again maybe they really did have to go to the bathroom or for some refreshments.)
After introducing the Dixie Pearls (Tommy Spurlock on steel, "Handsome" Jim Hanson on bass, Santoro on drums and truly unbelievable lead guitar player Steuart Smith), Crowell rebounds with two more number ones from the Diamonds and Dirt LP, "After All This Time," recently up for single of the year, and "She's Crazy for Leavin'," co-written with friend Guy Clark. These are followed by a medley of two pre-rock 'n' roll hits, "Ol' Pipeliner" and Big Joe Turner's "Flip, Flop and Fly," after which Rodney and band leave the stage.
Rodney comes out by himself for his encore, a medley of two country-pop standards, "A Fool Such As I" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," and is soon joined by band members in a soul-stirring rendition of the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself," also a non-original. Crowell then closes the show with 1978's "Song for the Life',' (minus Willie Nelson and Nicolette Larson):
In the magic that morning is bringing
There's a song for the life I have found
It helps keep my feet on the ground.
If there is one description that fits Rodney Crowell, it is that of an artist with his feet on the ground. His ability to leave the audience ecstatic without missing such classics as "Leaving Louisiana ln the Broad Daylight," "Voila, An American Dream," and "Shame On the Moon" is a testament to the man and his power.