11:43am

Wed June 6, 2012
Music Reviews

Making Music From Messy Relationships With 'Kin'

Originally published on Fri June 8, 2012 11:08 am

It's not unusual for poets to try their hands at pop music-making. Patti Smith was a poet before she was a rock star. In recent years, print-poets such as David Berman and Wyn Cooper have put out more-than-credible song collections. But Mary Karr, known more for prize-winning memoirs such as The Liars Club and Lit than for her excellent poetry, has taken a high-profile risk that's paid off.

Teaming with Rodney Crowell, who once name-checked her in a song, Karr has crafted a series of tunes that, while in the country tradition, convey a lot of Karr's own obsessions with family. Not just songs about fathers and mothers and siblings, but memories of parents and siblings, and how memory and maturity alter the sense of one's own history.

I should make clear that these songs are collaborations, not just Mary Karr's words set to Rodney Crowell's music. As she puts it in her liner notes, during writing sessions, "we were badmintoning words back" at each other. Some of the songs rely on a country-music standby, the rueful pun, as in the song Norah Jones sings, with the refrain, "If the law don't want you, neither do I." But the best songs smuggle poetic diction into the honky tonk, as in Vince Gill's super-fine rendition of "Just Pleasing You."

"I had a mask inside my mind / that I hid behind" is the couplet in that song, and as it progresses, you begin to realize that the personage the singer wants to please may not be a wife or a lover, but God Himself. Elsewhere, the songs strip away ambiguity to tell vivid stories with colorful images. One of these is powered by Lee Ann Womack's vocal in "Momma's on a Roll."

There are lots of songs about mamas and daddies in country music. There are far fewer about sisters, but Karr and Crowell come up with a fine one called "Sister Oh Sister." The creativity here is completed by a superb vocal from Rosanne Cash, who performs what I mentioned earlier: that magical liberation of memory unmoored from the drift of nostalgia.

If there's a theme running through these songs, it's that, to very loosely paraphrase Philip Larkin, your kinfolk, they mess you up. Karr and Crowell know that harsh or cruel experiences can mingle with sweeter ones and the passage of time to achieve not rosy harmony, but an acceptance of life as you live it, one day at a time, adding them up and trying to make art out of mess.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The new album "Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell" is just what its title says - a collaboration between Karr, the best-selling memoirist and poet, and the maverick singer-songwriter Crowell. They've written 10 songs that are performed on this album by a variety of singers.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING BUT TAME")

RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) When our feet were tough as horn, and our eyes were sharp as flint, our hearts beat like two war drums. And you tracked me by my scent across a scape of shining asphalt that blacked our soles with tar. And we ran like brave Comanches on a moonlit reservoir. And you said, I don't want to be tamed...

KEN TUCKER: It's not unusual for poets to try their hands at pop music-making. Patti Smith was a poet before she was a rock star. In recent years, print poets such as David Berman and Wyn Cooper, have put out more-than-credible song collections. But Mary Karr, known more for prize-winning memoirs such as "The Liars Club" and "Lit" than for her excellent poetry, has taken a high-profile risk that's paid off.

Teaming with Rodney Crowell, who once name-checked her in a song, Karr has crafted a series of tunes that while in the country tradition, have a lot of Karr's own obsessions with family. Not just songs about fathers and mothers and siblings, but memories of parents and siblings, and how memory and maturity alter the sense of one's own history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG TIME GIRL GONE BY")

EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) If I could live my life again awake, think of all the chances I could take. I'd love with all abandon just to say 'cause that's the game. If I could cross a bridge from now till then, open up my chest and let it in, I wouldn't fight so hard against the pain. I'd let it rain. Long time girl gone by.

TUCKER: That was Emmylou Harris. I should make clear that these songs are collaborations, not just Mary Karr's words set to Rodney Crowell's music. As she puts it in her liner notes, during writing sessions, quote, "We were badmintoning words back and forth."

Some of the songs rely on a country music standby, the rueful pun - as in the song Norah Jones sings with the refrain: If the law don't want you, neither do I. But the best songs smuggle poetic diction into the honky tonk. A good example is Vince Gill's super-fine rendition of "Just Pleasing You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST PLEASING YOU")

VINCE GILL: (Singing) I used to get drunk all by myself. I wanted to be somebody else. There was a mask inside my mind that I hid behind. Out on the point of no return, I crossed a bridge I couldn't burn. Turned down a road that led straight to just pleasing you.

TUCKER: There was a mask inside my mind that I hid behind - that's the key couplet in that song. And as it progresses, it might occur to you that the personage the singer wants to please may not be a wife or a lover, but God himself. Elsewhere, the songs strip away ambiguity, to tell vivid stories with colorful images. One of these is powered by Lee Ann Womack's vocal on "Momma's on a Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMMA'S ON A ROLL")

LEE ANN WOMACK: (Singing) Daddy loves Momma like he's spreading on molasses thick. Momma thinks Daddy's just a backwoods, corn-bred hick. Momma plus Daddy equals trouble when they start to drink. Me and my sister pouring liquor down the kitchen sink. Momma's on a roll. Daddy's looking old. Well, Momma's on a kick, Daddy's looking sick...

TUCKER: There are lots of songs about mamas and daddies in country music. There are far fewer about sisters, but Karr and Crowell have come up with an excellently detailed one, called "Sister Oh Sister." The creativity here is completed by a superb vocal from Rosanne Cash, who performs what I mentioned earlier - that magic liberation of memory unmoored from the drift of nostalgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER OH SISTER")

ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) Sister, oh, sister, I miss your shadow. I miss your shade. When I was afraid, you'd pull me through. Sister, big sister, you set the standard. You set the curve. You showed the nerve when I needed you.

TUCKER: If there's a theme running through these songs, it's that - to very loosely paraphrase Philip Larkin - your kinfolk, they mess you up. Karr and Crowell know that harsh and cruel experiences can mingle with sweeter ones and the passage of time. This achieves not rosy harmony, but an acceptance of life as you live it - one day at a time, adding them up and trying to make art out of mess.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell." You can hear two songs from it on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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