It starts somewhere around Cisco Pike, a man with a hard-shell case walking in profile, going to meet a man — probably not about a horse. The sun is sharp, and judging by his coat, there's some chill in that sunlight. There's music playing, accoustic guitar surrounded by a full arrangement, and a voice singing about the past, and how remembering it is a hell of a lot easier than facing what's ahead.
The man, of course, is a drug dealer played by Kris Kristofferson, and he's coming to give a guitar and a way of seeing to some teenage mug from the Midwest named Patrick Crowson. There'd be other heroes, too. The late, great Townes, the Willie Nelson of Red Headed Stranger, and Haggard, naturally, (though it's not in Crowson's fingers to pick you to pieces like Merle, or, hell, Jerry Reed for that matter.) But the particular method of conveying that longing, with a mixture of physical detail followed by a summary line you can hang your hat on — the way of being elegiac and clear-eyed at the same time — strikes me as coming from that man and his hard-shell case.
Crowson never quite learned to tap his feet in regular time, so the circular, rather than linear, shape of his songs comes as much from that god-given disequilibrium than from some notion that you make things more interesting by making them harder to follow. His songs are elusive without being obscure. They slither, they wander, they double back, and just when you think you recognize a landmark, you realize, nope, you're still lost. But you've seen something interesting along the way.
In earlier times, Crowson was more of a three-chords-and-the-truth type songwriter, if only because G, C, and D and about one rhythm to strum them in was all he knew how to do. But even back then, his chucka chucka rhythm, which had some Bakersfield giddy-up and some Johnny Cash freight train, sounded pretty different. It was country music without being an imitation of country music. Some of us didn't know what the hell it was or what to do with it.
Glad to say, that old rhythm is still around, if slowed down in tempo, and is now played with more care and feeling. In the intervening years, Crowson added a pretty good Jimmie Rodgers claw to better separate the rhythm notes from the melody. There it is on "Poison Water" and again on "Old Man". And not only has the pallet expanded greatly in terms of chords, there are some totally different rhythmic ideas on this record. Listen to the Bert Jansch-like descending lines on "Little Rose", for instance, or the murder ballad country blues runs that punctuate "What the Sun Can See."
Then there's Josh Allen, Meanwhiles auteur, soundtrack composer, with a suitcase in his hand, bringing temperature to the air outside the rooms where loss is taking place. There's a little more light on the proceedings thanks to this man, both candle and electric. It's a neat trick, to clarify the shadows without taking them away. But bless him, Josh let's the man do his one thing he does well, well — I'd have had to kick his ass if he hadn't.
So is this music sad, dark — too sad, too dark? Well, to steal from Mark Strand, who supposedly titled the book Darker in response to the overkill with which poets in the '60s used the word "dark",
"The present is always dark." Crowson allows how he wrote the songs for this record at a particularly trying time, and it may be that it's not the music they put you on hold to when you call the suicide hotline. However, I'd say the sadness of "Dogs Running Around" is like the sadness of Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" — there's a handkerchief being offered, a hand to the jumper. And damn it if Allen doesn't have bells and something that sounds like the vibraphone from "Just the Other Side of Nowhere" in there.
Finally, it's about splitting a bottle with Crowson, sitting back and listening to a new song of his weave four, five minutes late at night. There are empties underfoot, a cat somewhere around the toe of your boot. It's pleasantly dark, but maybe that's your vision fading. Crowson plays his new song. You listen to its crooked path without trying to follow it. Your head starts nodding, not with sleep, but in agreement, not like for what Townes did when he reduced a whiskeyed-up farrier to a red-eyed mess, but like for what Dylan did to Peckinpah when he sang him, "Billy, you're such a long, long way from home" over coke, weed and tequila until Sam broke down and said, "You cocksucker, you son of a bitch," with tears in his eyes.
April 5, 2006