It’s an unlikely pairing with a stunning product. This month, author, poet, and memoirist Mary Karr released her first musical foray alongside country singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell. Karr, known for her best-selling memoirs The Liars’ Club and Lit, has long considered herself a poet. Crowell, a Grammy Award winner and former member of Emmylou Harris’s backing band, has long considered himself a Mary Karr fan, even mentioning the author in his 2003 song “Earthbound.”
As the story goes, the pair eventually decided to meet up at a small Greenwich Village bistro. Not long after that, Karr and Crowell started collaborating on songs. The result, this month’s Kin, is an impressive first effort featuring the pair’s sonic co-creations, sung by Crowell and Harris, as well as Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Lee Ann Womack, and Crowell’s ex-wife, Rosanne Cash. Thematically, Kin draws from Crowell’s and Karr’s similarly troubled upbringings; both grew up with alcohol and abuse in the home, as evidenced on the Womack-sung standout “Momma’s on a Roll.” Familial relationships, troubled and life affirming, play a large role throughout the record, surfacing on songs like “Sister Oh Sister” and “My Father’s Advice.”
Still, what makes Kin groundbreaking isn’t its all-star cast or its achingly personal subject matter — it’s Karr’s didactic approach to lyricizing. Take, for example, Harris’s lines on “Long Time Girl Gone By”: “Hiding in my bridal veil of smoke / I sipped my lies ’til I thought I’d choke,” she sings.
“There are certain choices you make as a songwriter, based on vowel sounds and melody and chord changes,” Crowell recently told NPR. “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.”
This Saturday, June 16, Karr and Crowell bring the songs of Kin to Santa Barbara for a performance at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) as part of the monthly Sings Like Hell concert series. The show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.org.