Rodney CrowellPerhaps best known as one of Emmylou Harris' chief songwriters and also as Rosanne Cash's husband and musical partner of a dozen years, Rodney Crowell is a man whose legacy is assured in annals of modern country music, not least because of his solo career, which commenced in 1977 and included the landmark 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, which included five chart-topping country hits. Lesser noted is the Texas-born singer/songwriter's credentials as a first-rate producer: in 1981 alone he produced albums by himself (Rodney Crowell), his then-wife Rosanne Cash (Seven Year Ache), Guy Clark (The South Coast of Texas), and Bobby Bare (As Is). Each of these albums is notable amid the respective artist's discography, marking 1981 as a year of remarkable accomplishment for Crowell.

Rodney Crowell - Rodney CrowellRodney Crowell, his third solo album overall, was his first to be self-produced. His previous solo releases, Ain't Living Long Like This (1977) and But What Will the Neighbors Think (1980), had been produced respectively by Brian Ahern (Emmylou's long-time producer and then-husband) and Craig Leon (an unlikely collaborator, having produced the debut albums of the Ramones and Suicide). A relatively slick production job by Crowell, his self-titled album was far and away his most successful to date, spawning a pair of Top 40 country hits ("Stars on the Water," "Victim of a Fool") as well as "'Til I Gain Control Again," which Crystal Gayle would cover for a number one hit in 1982, and "Shame on the Moon," which Bob Seger would cover memorably in 1982 to much success, sending it up both the pop and country charts (number two and 15, respectively). Featuring an esteemed cast of musicians, including Rosanne Cash (harmony vocals), Vince Gill (harmony vocals, guitar), Hank DeVito (guitar), Albert Lee (guitar, harmony vocals), Emory Gordy (bass), Larri Londin (drums), Tony Brown (piano, keyboards), and Booker T. Jones (piano), Rodney Crowell is a mostly great album -- admittedly, there are a few relatively weak songs sequenced throughout -- that positioned him as one of country's most promising young talents of the time.
    Rodney Crowell - Stars on the Water
    Rodney Crowell - Shame on the Moon
    Rodney Crowell - 'Til I Gain Control Again

Rosanne Cash - Seven Year AcheHis promise was compounded by the even greater success of Seven Year Ache, the breakthrough second album by his then-wife, Rosanne Cash. Featuring essentially the same stable of musicians, plus Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs on harmony vocals, Seven Year Ache understandably sounds a lot like Rodney Crowell -- slick enough to be commercially viable in the urban cowboy era, yet still emphasizing the musicianship at hand rather than smothering it with strings and keyboards -- with the difference being Cash's vocal presence and songwriting rather than her husband's. The title track, of course, is one of the signature country songs of its era; not only did it top the country chart, but it crossed over to both the adult contemporary and pop charts (number six and 22, respectively). "My Baby Thinks He's a Train" and "Blue Moon With a Heartache" were also country chart-toppers, as was the album itself. Besides the hits, one of the more memorable album tracks is a cover of Tom Petty's "Hometown Blues" featuring Emmylou on harmony, and also a pair of songs by Keith Sykes, including the storming opener, "Rainin'."
    Rosanne Cash - Seven Year Ache
    Rosanne Cash - Blue Moon with Heartache
    Rosanne Cash - My Baby Thinks He's a Train

Guy Clark - The South Coast of TexasOne of Guy Clark's few albums of the 1980s, The South Coast of Texas also features many of the same musicians who were featured on the other albums produced by Crowell in 1981 -- Emory Gordy, Hank DeVito, Larri Londin, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash -- and is perhaps most notable for featuring a cache of masterfully written songs that later became hits for others: Skaggs would take "Heartbroke" to number one in 1982, Crowell would take his co-penned "She's Crazy for Leavin'" to number one in 1988, and Bobby Bare would take "New Cut Road" to number 18 in 1982. Also notable is the re-recorded update of "Rita Ballou," one of Clark's greatest songs, originally released in 1975 as the album-opener on his classic debut, Old No. 1. Oddly, out of all these wonderful songs on The South Coast of Texas, only "The Partner Nobody Chose," another Crowell co-write, managed to chart. It's no wonder Clark -- presumably frustrated by his inability to attain commercial success -- would refrain from recording solo albums for a five-year period, beginning in 1983 after Better Days, also produced by Crowell and also a fine album.
    Guy Clark - Rita Ballou
    Guy Clark - Heartbroke
    Guy Clark - She's Crazy for Leavin'

Bobby Bare - As IsThe last of Crowell's notable productions of 1981 is Bobby Bare's As Is, the only to never be pressed on CD. It's a shame the album has been out of print all these years, because it was the last of several great albums Bare recorded during his 1978-1983 tenure with Columbia. (Recent Australian deluxe reissues of Down & Dirty [1979] and Drunk & Crazy [1980] by Raven thankfully offer some hope for an eventual reissue of As Is.) Once again, the usual stable of musicians showed up for As Is, including Rosanne Cash and Ricky Skaggs, and the sound is in line with Crowell's concurrent productions rather than Bare's other work at Columbia (which varied from album to album). The album's one charting single, "New Cut Road," written by Guy Clark and debuted on his South Coast of Texas album -- enhanced here by Skaggs on fiddle -- became the final Top 20 hit of Bare's career. Another song penned by Clark, "Let Him Roll," is a highlight, as is Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues" and Ian Tyson's "Summer Wages." In fact, As Is is filled with highlights; the album-opening "Dollar Pool Fool" could well have been a hit, for instance. Also notable is at the absence of Shel Silversteen, who had penned the bulk of Bare's previous album, Drunk & Crazy.
    Bobby Bare - New Cut Road
    Bobby Bare - Summer Wages
    Bobby Bare - Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)