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Pop Music Reviews : Cash-Crowell Breakup: Adding by Division

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a couple divorces, often friends feel forced to take sides. Whose version do you buy of their war between the sheets? Who suffered more and who is the villain? And, in the more acrimonious cases, who of the two do you stay friends with?

Being a fan shouldn’t be confused with being a friend, but it can be a hard distinction to make in country music, where artists so often wear their hearts on their sleeves and fans feel emotional bonds with them, perhaps equaled only by their feelings toward soap opera stars.

Scarcely has there been a more creative or emotionally revealing couple in country music than Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, and the breakup a few years ago of their 12-year marriage has yielded a bumper crop of songs about dissolution and rebirth.

Monday night presented a tough choice for their mutual fans: See Crowell at the Crazy Horse, or see Cash at the Coach House. Actually, for those with the dough for both shows and a willingness to achieve warp factor 9 on the 405, it was possible to see both. And what a rich night of pain-inspired music that made for.

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It would be tabloid-like at best to speculate on which songs were about whom, or to regard their songs as letters to each other (as critics attempted with the post-divorce tunes of Richard and Linda Thompson. Some writers even posited that one Richard song was about his ex-wife when the actual subject was a serial killer.)

But there was no denying that several of Cash and Crowell’s songs are informed by their division. And even though several of those songs are about spiritual growth and finding oneself anew, one couldn’t help being touched by the sad question: If two such sensitive, creative people can’t make a go of it, what hope is there for us mere mortals?

Crowell’s 7 p.m. show at the Crazy Horse fell short of the artistic heights he hit there last year when, accompanied only by stellar guitarist John Jorgenson, he delivered a loose, intimate, emotional two-hour show at which he introduced many of the songs that would become his current “Let the Picture Paint Itself” album.

Where that had seemed like a visit on a front porch, for Crowell this was more of a standard performance, which is still exceptional by most measures. He may be one of the most healthy-subversive forces in country music, writing songs so catchy that they’re accepted by radio even while being of artistic depth usually foreign to the airwaves.

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He was backed by a new, and hot, five-piece band that included local pedal steel player Doug Livingston (usually with Chris Gaffney) in his debut gig with Crowell. Livingston and lead guitarist Kenny Vaughn spun off peppery, inventive licks throughout the 15-song set.

Crowell sidestepped some of the stronger songs from “Let the Picture Paint Itself,” but did perform the title tune, with its message of accepting life as it comes, and “Loving You Makes Me Strong,” about renewed hopes.

As usual, he introduced a couple of new numbers. One was about a resilient, hard-drinking rodeo rider he’d met in his youth. The other, “Long Enough to Change My Mind,” was Crowell at his best, melding a catchy hook with a lyric that actually catches some of the complexities of being human.

It’s about a relationship the perseveres and grows, though the manner in which it occurs is hardly the stuff of romance novels. Indeed, the singer has seen the relationship out due to the weight of entropy and his conflicting emotions about love and the world:

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Sometimes I miss the world out there, so cold, hard and unkind,

But I’ve been thinking about leaving long enough to change my mind.

He also delivered some inspired covers: Buck Owens’ “Above and Beyond” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The moments where time stood still, though, were his during ballads “After All This Time” and “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway,” as lyrical reflection joined with a soaring, aching delivery reminiscent of the late Roy Orbison.

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As deep as Crowell went, Cash’s quietly stunning show at the Coach House made him seem merely a glib tunesmith by comparison. With her last couple of albums, she evidently has given up on mainstream country acceptance to forge an intensely personal sound of her own. Her songs from last year’s “The Wheel” and 1990’s “Interiors” seemed all the more personal Monday in a mood-laden, primarily acoustic setting, with her three band members moving freely from cello to bongos.

Even the Broadway show tune “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from “My Fair Lady,” was transformed into a moment of introspective grace. Meanwhile, many of Cash’s own songs seemed so deep, soulful and true that they gave a listener the chills.

Back when Crowell was producing her records, Cash didn’t write many of the songs, though ones such as “The Real Me” on 1987’s “King’s Record Shop” revealed an uncompromising artistry. Now, she writes or co-writes all her songs, and her skill has crystallized so there’s scarcely an unrevealing line among them. Similarly, little in her performance seemed less than essential.

The standout in the set dealt not with the wall between souls but about Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which she had seen on childhood trips to Israel with her parents, Johnny and June Carter Cash. She said she’d been moved by the centuries of collective prayers that had been shared with the wall, and in the song she pondered:

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I stand by the Western Wall.

Maybe a little of that wall,

Stands inside us all. . .

I don’t know if God was ever a man,

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But if she was I think I understand

Why he chose to break his fall

By the Western Wall.

Neither Crowell nor Cash made any reference to the other’s being in the vicinity. But when one fan at Cash’s show called out for the Crowell-penned “I Don’t Have to Crawl,” she curtly responded “I don’t either, man,” and declined to do the song.

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