About 10 years ago, when Rodney Crowell started the memoir that would be published last year as Chinaberry Sidewalks, he was talking about the challenges of writing prose with his pal Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player. Raphael handed Crowell a copy of Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club, and said, “Here’s an example of how to do it right.”
“As soon as I started reading it,” Crowell recalls, “I said, ‘This is my cousin.’ I instantly recognized the vernacular, the rhythm, the undertone of that colloquial existence down there. The Gulf Coast from Texas City to Beaumont is this low, black gumbo mud, and she grew up on the east side of the swamp while I grew up on the west side. She’s from Port Arthur, and I’m from Houston.”
The connection was so strong, in fact, that Crowell and Karr wound up co-writing 10 songs for the new album, Kin. Crowell sings three-and-a-half of the songs, but the other lead vocals are handled by his ex-wife Rosanne Cash, his ex-employer Emmylou Harris and his ex-bandmate Vince Gill as well as Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Lee Ann Womack and Kris Kristofferson. The result is a hillbilly portrait of memorable Gulf Coast characters, all told in their own colorful language.
Before he even met her, though, Crowell saluted his new literary hero in the song, “Earthbound,” on the 2003 album, Fate’s Right Hand. At the end of the song, Crowell ticks off a list of his artistic inspirations: “Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Mary Karr…, Walter Cronkite, Seamus Heaney, Ringo Starr.” Karr, of course, was the only one on that list from the East Texas coast.
“Both Rodney and I had run from that place like our hair was on fire,” Karr writes in the liner notes for Kin. “Then paradoxically we’d gone on to make our livings writing about it. Haunted, I guess you’d say. He said not quite that much in the letter he sent to Syracuse University where I teach, introducing himself and suggesting dinner in New York the next time he passed through. A suggestion I’d never have agreed to had he not flattered the shit out of me by including a record with a hit song that name-checked me—first and last name, by God, big as Jesus. Not even the beau who’d gotten my name tattooed on his arm had committed to a surname.
“When Rodney and I finally met in a New York restaurant,… the same stinky oil refinery fires flamed somewhere deep in both our heads. Pretty soon, New York vanished, and the grownups we were impersonating peeled away. We ourselves devolved back to about age 10. I could almost swear we spent the evening riding our banana-seat bikes side by side behind the mosquito-truck, breathing its DDT fog for the poisonous mystery it afforded us.”
Karr offered her new friend much helpful advice about how to turn those childhood memories into a prose memoir. When he got to the editing stage, he asked her, “What’s the biggest mistake your students make?” and she told him, “Falling in love with their own writing.” As a result he was willing to listen to his editor and let big chunks of the book go. If he could make the transition from songwriter to memoirist, Crowell reasoned, perhaps Karr could make the transition from memoirist to songwriter.
Around 2008, as the two friends were talking about their teenage years in Texas, Karr explained her adolescent attraction to drug-dealing surfers by recalling her one-time motto: “If the law don’t want you, neither do I.” Crowell exclaimed, “That sounds like a song,” and Karr responded, “You should write it.” “No,” he said, “we should write it.” Within a week, Crowell was in her apartment with an acoustic guitar, while Karr scribbled down elaborations of the title line on a yellow legal pad.
Norah Jones sings the results over a rippling string-band melody on the new album. After Larry Franklin’s fiddle solo, she seems to swoon over “some snake-hip shirt-rip giving me lip, riflin’ my purse and stealin’ my tips…. Play Born To Lose and light my fuse; I’m a sucker for a bald face lie. If the law don’t want you, neither do I.”
Jones and the other singers were brought in, because so many of the Crowell/Karr co-writes were told from a female perspective. Crowell professes a liking for Karr’s voice, but when he invited her to sing on the record, she said, “No fucking way.” So Jones, Cash, Harris, Womack and Williams were brought in to portray the female characters. With all those female guests, Crowell didn’t feel right singing all the male characters himself, so he invited Kristofferson to do the patriarch on “My Father’s Advice” and Gill to do the reformed ne’er-do-well on “Just Pleasing You.”
The collaboration didn’t radically alter Crowell’s songwriting style; you can still hear the echoes of Guy Clark and Willie Nelson in these honky-tonk vignettes, but there’s a new density of language, a new vocabulary that’s seldom heard in a Texas dancehall. That’s Karr’s contribution—an insistence that every word be as surprising and as specific as possible.
“For example,” Crowell says, “the opening line of ‘Anything But Tame,’ the way I was singing it, was, ‘When our feet were tough as nails.’ That’s an easy metaphor that I probably would have let stand. Mary said, ‘No, it’s when your feet were tough as horn,’ and that was right, the physiognomy is more like horn. So I decided to let the language of poetry stand over the language of songwriting. The beauty of someone like Mary, who was learning on the job, was she had no habits to fall back on. On the other hand, there were times when I would say, ‘This sings better,’ and I’d show her. She’d say, ‘OK, I get it.’”
Karr’s other contribution was to pull Crowell’s attention away from the broad-stroke, Dylanesque social commentary of his weaker albums, such as Street Language, Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider, and shift it to the sharp-focus family-storytelling of his best albums, such as Rodney Crowell, Diamonds & Dirt and The Houston Kid.
Few people have ever written better country songs about warm but rough-edged working-class marriages, and Karr has helped him write a fistful more. Womack captures that ambivalence when sings “Momma’s On A Roll” on the new album: “I love my daddy. Lord knows that he ain’t no saint, drunk-calling Momma from a beer joint, saying he ain’t. When momma left Daddy, he flat refused to sleep; me and my sister watch him staring in the TV deep.”
In songs like that one, Crowell and Karr make us believe in the good times as much as the bad, the affection as much as the anger—and that’s no easy trick. You can hear the same rich ambiguity in their prose memoirs, books that reveal how their mixed feelings and uninhibited storytelling were inherited directly from their parents.
“During the process of writing these songs,” Crowell points out, “Mary told me, ‘My mother was a frustrated artist, and your father was a frustrated artist, and here we are. It’s no surprise that we ended up like we did.’ She was right. Storytelling is a big part of the culture down there, but it’s a different kind of storytelling; it’s tall tales driven by a lot of audacity. Growing up down there was so impressionistic—the sun didn’t just go down; it went down in flames, the end of another day at war.”