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Fri June 1, 2012
Music Interviews

How An Author And A Singer Became Musical 'Kin'

Originally published on Fri June 1, 2012 6:13 pm

In 2003, in a song called "Earthbound," singer Rodney Crowell name-checked a writer he admires a lot: Mary Karr, who has written searing memoirs, including the best-seller The Liars' Club, as well as several books of poetry.

Crowell sent that song to Karr, along with a letter. Now, almost a decade later, the two have collaborated on an album of songs they wrote together. It's called Kin, a nod to their parallel lives growing up along the Texas Gulf Coast. Crowell sings some of the songs; other singers include Norah Jones and Emmylou Harris.

"I admired Mary's work very much," Crowell tells NPR's Melissa Block. "From the time someone gave me The Liars' Club, I immediately went into a world where I grew up. And I remember, when I finished the book, I actually thought, 'You know what, I need to write songs with her.' "

Crowell and Karr's partnership was strengthened by the common experiences in their upbringing.

"We met in this Greenwich Village bistro, all dressed up in our cool clothes and our short black jackets," Karr says. "Within about 10 minutes, we both knew that we had ridden our bikes behind mosquito trucks and breathed in all that DDT. We both left that place like our hair was on fire, and then neither of us wrote about anything else for 30 years. So we were both haunted by the same place."

Both came from families troubled by alcoholism and violence in the home. They explore that theme in "Momma's on a Roll," sung by Lee Ann Womack.

"I remember he had those first two lines: 'My momma loves daddy like he's spreading on molasses thick / Momma thinks daddy's just a backwoods, cornbread hick,' " Karr says. "And I remembered, when I was a little kid, saying, 'Momma plus Daddy equals trouble.' We used to say it when they'd start to drink."

Kin is Karr's first musical project of any kind. Crowell says that's one of the things that excited him most about the collaboration.

"There are certain choices you make as a songwriter, based on vowel sounds and melody and chord changes," he says. "I was looking for those opportunities where the choices that the poet would make would make the songs more interesting. I love it. [I thought], these songs are taking a shape that they wouldn't have taken if I was doing this on my own."

"And Rodney was able to shoehorn those phrases, like 'salt grass open plain,' " Karr adds. "It's hard to get a phrase like that into somebody's mouth in the course of a melody. And he was able to wedge those things in in a way they felt natural."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Back in 2003, in a song called "Earthbound," the singer Rodney Crowell name-checked a writer he admires a whole lot...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARTHBOUND")

RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) Earthbound - Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Mary Karr.

BLOCK: ...Mary Karr, who's written searing memoirs, including the best seller "The Liars' Club" and several books of poetry. Well, Rodney Crowell sent that song to Mary Karr, along with a letter. And now, almost a decade later, the two have collaborated on an album of songs they wrote together. It's called "Kin," a nod to their parallel lives growing up along the Texas Gulf Coast. Rodney sings some of the songs; other singers include Norah Jones and Emmylou Harris. And the two songwriters join me from Nashville. Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr, welcome to the program.

MARY KARR: Thanks for having us, Melissa.

CROWELL: Yeah. Thank you.

BLOCK: Rodney, what was it about Mary's writing that inspired you to put her in the song?

CROWELL: I admired Mary's work very much. You know, from the time someone hand - gave me "The Liars' Club," as I got - I immediately went into a world where I grew up. And I remember, when I finished the book, I actually thought, you know what, I need to write songs with her. And one of the songs on the record, "Momma's on a Roll," actually, a short time after that, I sort of started tinkering with the idea which we later got together and finished off and made into a real song. So it all worked.

BLOCK: Let's listen to "Momma's on a Roll." This is Lee Ann Womack singing here.

(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 cornbread 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.

BLOCK: You know, I'm listening to this song and thinking about what I know about both of your backgrounds from the writing that you've done, both of you from families with a lot of alcoholism, a lot of violence in the home. Tell me about this song and how the songwriting worked together.

KARR: I remember he had those first two lines - my momma loves daddy like he's spreading on molasses thick, momma thinks daddy's just a backwoods cornbread hick - and I remembered when I was a little kid saying, momma plus daddy equals trouble. We used to say, you know, when they start to drink.

BLOCK: And that's the next line of the song.

KARR: Exactly. It was very much a collaboration, very much back and forth, and you never know who you're going to meet when you meet somebody. Rodney and I talked on the phone. We meet in this Greenwich Village bistro all dressed up in our cool clothes and our short black jackets. And within about 10 minutes, we both knew that we had ridden our bikes behind mosquito trucks, you know, breathed in all that DDT, and we both left that place like our hair was on fire, and then neither of us wrote about anything else for 30 years. So we were both haunted by the same place.

BLOCK: Well, when you sat down to write songs together, did you find yourselves sort of changing the way you wrote to fit the other if you were swapping lines back and forth, that you maybe had to adapt a little bit so that it would sound like the same voice?

CROWELL: Oh, I really like addressing this question because one of the things that I wanted to do - there are certain choices that you make as a songwriter based on vowel sounds and melody and chord changes, and I was looking for those opportunities where the choices that the poet would make would make the songs more interesting. And I love it. I just could say, ah, these songs are taking a shape they wouldn't have taken it if I were doing this on my own.

BLOCK: Can you give me an example of that, Rodney?

CROWELL: Oh, it's a, you know, when I was tinkering with the melody on "Anything But Tame," which opens the album, I'm singing...

(Singing) ...when our feet were tough as nails...

...that a vowel sings in a way against the chord change, and Mary listened to it, you know, and I was really proud of this first version. She said, well, it's OK, you know, but she said you're - and our feet weren't like nails, they were like horn, which is true. You know, horn is an organic thing. It's like cuticle, really. And it really, truly is what our feet were like as children. They weren't like nails. They were like horn.

BLOCK: And that one won. That's the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING BUT TAME")

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.

The funny thing about the true word, the more I sing it, the more I became, ah, that's the word. That sings even better than I thought nails. So I learned something from Mary the poet there about that word and about choices we make, you know, at certain places in the melody, which I am the richer for having had that experience.

KARR: And Rodney was able to shoehorn those phrases, like salt grass open plain. It's hard to get a phrase like that into somebody's mouth...

BLOCK: That's a lot, yeah.

KARR: ...in the course of a melody. And he was able to wedge those things in in a way they felt natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING BUT TAME")

CROWELL: (Singing) And you said I don't want to be tamed down. I just want to saddle up, ride my broomstick pony along some salt grass open plain.

BLOCK: I'm talking to Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell about the album they wrote together. It's called "Kin."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER OH SISTER")

ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) Sister, oh sister...

BLOCK: "Sister Oh Sister," Rodney, this is your former wife Rosanne Cash singing this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER OH SISTER")

CASH: (Singing) ...I miss your shadow.

KARR: She knocks it out of the park. She does an amazing job.

BLOCK: There's this incredible image in this song of you and your sister, your older sister, dancing on the oyster shells in a parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER OH SISTER")

CASH: (Singing) Cross that parking lot expanse. On them oyster shells we danced while some cowboy watched you twisting through the porch screen.

KARR: That was actually a real story about my sister. There - Rodney and I went to the same juke joints in Vinton, Louisiana, where you could drink when you were 18. And my sister was 14 and I was 12. We drove to Vinton, Louisiana, to The Big Oaks Club where Jerry Lee Lewis used to play. I mean, it was one of the great Louisiana roadhouses. I was 12 years old. I looked like I was 7. And, of course, they wouldn't let us in, so we stood out in the parking lot and danced, did the twist in the moonlight. And, of course, all these old leering cowboys in The Big Oaks Club are looking at my 14-year-old sister like she's a pork chop.

(LAUGHTER)

KARR: And so I'd always wanted to write something for my sister who - oh, in some ways, all my books are for my sister in a way. She was my compadre with these lunatics we share DNA with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER OH SISTER")

CASH: (Singing) Sister, big sister, you've been my seawall. You've been my flood. You're in my blood. I thank God for you.

BLOCK: Mary, no temptation to sing on this album at all?

KARR: Rodney has tried to get me to sing, but Rodney wants me to humiliate myself. So, no, I have no temptation to sing.

BLOCK: What's it going to take?

KARR: Right now, you know, alcohol and firearms. And I haven't had a drink in 25 years.

CROWELL: Hey, I got her to write songs that became a record. I think I can get her to sing.

KARR: It's never going to happen.

BLOCK: I don't know.

KARR: Let's put some money on it, Miss Melissa.

(LAUGHTER)

KARR: I say 50 bucks. Fifty bucks says I'm not going to sing. If you...

BLOCK: Rodney, should I take that bet?

CROWELL: I think you should take it.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A MESS")

CROWELL: (Singing) Oh, God, yeah.

BLOCK: Well, Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, it's been so much fun to talk to you. Thanks so much.

CROWELL: Thank you.

KARR: Thanks, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A MESS")

CROWELL: (Singing) I'm a mess.

BLOCK: Musician Rodney Crowell and writer but not singer Mary Karr. Their album out next week is called "Kin."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A MESS")

CROWELL: (Singing) I'm a mess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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