Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell takes an unflinching look at his rough-and-tumble Texas upbringing with his new album, "The Houston Kid," due Feb. 13 on Sugar Hill Records.

Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell takes an unflinching look at his rough-and-tumble Texas upbringing with his new album, "The Houston Kid," due Feb. 13 on Sugar Hill Records.

The rootsy, acoustic-rock record relies heavily on imagery-often unpleasant-conjured from Crowell's memories of his youth on the wrong side of the tracks in Houston. "For the most part, this record is autobiographical," the artist says. "At some point, the story of 'The Houston Kid' takes my experiences from 6 to 15 years old, and it sort of cross-pollinates with other kids in my neighborhood. It fuses their experiences with what was going on in my life."

The picture isn't always pretty. Songs like "Telephone Road," "The Rock Of My Soul," and "Topsy Turvy" paint a picture of exuberant survival instincts put in use by an environment of alcohol and abuse.

Stylistically, the set leans more toward Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" than Crowell's past, more commercial efforts. Yet in spite of the grittiness, Crowell maintains an affection for those times. "Even in the really dark years, I was having fun," he says. "My spirit wasn't killed by the abuse that was going on."

While "Telephone Road" is a colorful homage to the ice houses and honky-tonks of East Houston, the smoldering "Rock Of My Soul" addresses tougher themes-mainly, domestic violence-with lyrics like "I'm a firsthand witness to an age-old crime/A man who hits a woman isn't worth a dime."

Crowell says the Tom Petty-esque "Why Don't We Talk About It" takes the point of view that "the Houston Kid grows up." Such lyrics as "Guess my reputation says I'm flaky/Hey, my whole situation's kinda shaky" bring to mind Crowell's sometimes tenuous relationship with the Nashville music business.

"Have I felt misunderstood by Music Row at times?" he asks. "Of course."

Regardless, Crowell continues to forge his own creative path. In a departure from more commercially palatable Nashville fare, he takes a hard look at prejudices, AIDS, and familial love with a pair of songs midway through the record: the haunting "I Wish It Would Rain" and the gently thrumming "Wandering Boy." The artist says the two songs tell the tale of twin brothers, one of whom runs away and becomes a "bisexual street hustler," returning to Houston to die with the brother who "once cast his judgments like a net." The edgy subject matter and Crowell's skill as a lyricist make for a poignant pair of songs.

"Sometimes the better writing comes when the song speaks through me and tells me what the song wants to say," he says. "I tried to keep my own point of view out of it. Those songs should hit hard if they're doing their job."

Songs like "Topsy Turvy" portray Crowell's admittedly "white trash" upbringing. The record's most lighthearted moment is "I Walk The Line Revisited," featuring Johnny Cash, Crowell's former father-in-law.

Crowell wraps up the album with the lilting redemption of "I Know Love Is All I Need." He says the final song, in which his now-deceased parents speak to him in a dream, made the record complete.

"I had been walking around with an uneasy feeling, like 'what am I missing to make this record complete?' " Crowell says. "Then I dreamed my parents came and showed me around their new house. They said they liked the [new] record, but they didn't think I was telling the whole story."

When he awoke, Crowell agreed. "What was missing was forgiveness," he says. "I lived through this, I'm a better man for it, and toward the end, my relationship with both parents was really good."

Crowell is pleased with the final results on "The Houston Kid." "I feel like this was the first time I could walk away from making a record with all my self-respect," he says. He admits, though, that the set doesn't fit squarely in any musical format.

"I feel like it's Americana music with kind of a folk underpinning," he says. "No way this gets played on country radio. But it does have the sensibility country comes from-and the traditions of country music, like honesty and story-telling."

Crowell produced "The Houston Kid," with multi-instrumentalist and former Cicadas collaborator Steuart Smith co-producing several tracks. A group of top-shelf musicians participated in the project: Smith, keyboardist John Hobbs, vocalist John Cowan, bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Paul Leim, and guitarist Fletcher Watson III.

"This was one of those records for me where it all came together," Crowell says. "The musicians all said they felt like they were working on something special."

Crowell had completed "The Houston Kid" before he took it to any label, and Sugar Hill eventually got the nod.

"When I was shopping it around, [Sugar Hill] were the ones that gave me the most confidence that they knew where the market was and how to get [the record] to it," Crowell says. "I got the feeling from the bigger labels of 'we'll take this record because of who you are, not because it's a special piece of work.' Sugar Hill gave me the feeling they'd be proud to have this record."

An upcoming Texas tour will begin with dates in Houston (Feb. 21), Austin (Feb. 23), and Fort Worth (Feb. 24). Crowell also performed a live concert for Yahoo! to be Webcast around the time of the album's release, and online chats and a cross-promotion with Amazon are planned.

As a side project, Crowell returned to his hometown with a student film crew from the Watkins College of Art and Design to shoot a companion video documentary for "The Houston Kid."

Regardless of the album's commercial outcome at radio and retail, "The Houston Kid" is a project Crowell is proud of and a process he wants to repeat. "It may not be the flavor of the month, but that's not what it's about for me," he says. "I captured something I had longed to capture. And I want to do it again.