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")
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")
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")
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")
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")
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.
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