***: Rodney Crowell: "Keys To The Highway" Colunbia

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic)

Now that the country music Establishment has granted official recognition of Crowell's right to exist via a "Top New Male Artist" award, he is spared the burden of "proving" himself and has gone back to simply being one of the most insightful songwriters of the last two decades. And since he isn't striving so hard to win rock radio airplay, as he did for a good portion of the '80s, the result is an unforced, deceptively natural display of writing and singing.

The album's theme, as the title suggests, is livin', lovin' and leavin', and how those three L's are often one and the same. "Things I Wish I'd Said," inspired by the death of his father, is a poignant farewell that never turns maudlin. An attempt at gospel, "The Faith Is Mine," is one of the rare instances where Crowell's writing is obvious and a bit clumsy. But that just makes the waltz that follows, "Don't Let Your Feet Slow You Down," all the more impressive for its succinct grasp of the Big Picture: "The trouble with lovin' is the trouble with livin' / You feel like you're givin' and you feel like it's gone."

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