Any seasoned songwriter would’ve backed Rodney Crowell up on this one. “When I originally came up with the verse, I was singing, ‘When our feet were tough as nails,’” he recounts from Nashville. “I got it to Mary, the idea in its infant stages, and she said ‘No, our feet were tough as horns.’”
The Mary he’s referring to is poet-memoirist-Syracuse lit professor Mary Karr, who’s happy to explain her logic: “‘Your feet aren’t tough as nails. They aren’t. They’re like an animal horn or something.’”
“‘Nails’ sings better than ‘horns,’” was Crowell’s response. “But as we pushed on through the song,” he adds, “I recognized that that was a [word] choice I wouldn’t have made, and the very reason I wanted to be collaborating with Mary.”
The song in question is “Anything But Tame,” the first of ten songs on Crowell’s fourteenth album and Karr’s first-ever, Kin, Songs By Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, and one that captures the common ground they share, despite having devoted their lives to excelling at disparate writerly disciplines. In the sprightly, swinging folk tune, you hear them imagining what it would have been like if they’d known each other growing up on Texas’s rough-and-tumble Gulf Coast.
“Her on the east side and me on the west side of that swamp down there,” says Crowell, “we laughed at the same things … Then you’re well ahead of the curve in terms of collaborating, because if you laugh at the same things, chances are you’re gonna cry over the same things, too … Then we both had colorful parents – I think that is required to grow up down there where we grew up. And we both realized that my father was a frustrated artist, and Mary’s mother was a frustrated artist. We talked about that a lot, and just went from there.”
The conversation picked up steam over time. Taken with Karr’s lauded memoirs The Liar’s Club and Cherry, Crowell name-checked her alongside Tom Waits and Aretha Franklin in his song “Earthbound.” They struck up a friendship (now more like a sibling bond), and she helped him find his footing when he wrote his own memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. Somewhere along the way, he started campaigning for her to try his native medium.
“Rodney said, ‘Let’s write some songs together,’” recalls Karr. “And I said, ‘Rodney, you just want to make fun of me, because I’m going to be a dipshit at this. I knew how to write a memoir and you didn’t, and so you just want to be the boss of me.’ You know, we teased each other. And then he said, ‘No, no! We’ll write a bunch of songs and maybe we’ll do a record.’ I literally thought that was a joke.”
Crowell’s written with poetic lyricists before – Guy Clark chief among them – but partnering with someone who’d dare ask that music bend to lyrics, rather than automatically molding lyrics to music, was new for him, as new as working up melodic ideas to carry the words was for Karr. (She knows her music, but doesn’t sing.)
The experiment was clearly a success. Karr and Crowell can’t say enough about each other’s contributions. “He has a way of drawing the best out of everybody, in addition to his profound musical and lyrical talent,” she says. “She was a natural, flat natural,” he says. “She’s a language scholar, you know?”
Since Karr isn’t a performer, she and Crowell called on guests to inhabit their characters, from a wistful Rosanne Cash (who hadn’t recorded with Crowell since their married days some two decades ago) to a bruised and soulful Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Chely Wright and Lee Ann Womack. Crowell did quite a bit of singing himself, but couldn’t resist casting teetotaler Vince Gill as the recovering-alcoholic narrator of “Just Pleasing You” and Kris Kristofferson as the gruff dad in “My Father’s Advice.”
That Crowell sings lead on that last song doesn’t mean it’s meant to be heard as his autobiography. “You would more or less think that was coming from my reality,” he says. “But the truth is, it’s Mary writing about her father through me, channeling me as the male narrator and writing from that point-of-view.”
This being Karr’s songwriting debut, not to mention the most literary entry in Crowell’s catalog – which is saying something, considering the increasingly ambitious work he’s done over the past dozen years – there’s some sleight of hand in the name of transportive storytelling. And that’s a source of pride for a guy who has long since secured his spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I take the liberty,” he says, “of presuming that our writing together is seamless enough that it would be a guessing game to try to figure out who’s who.”