Mary Karr figures it took about 20 minutes for her and Rodney Crowell to cut the crap.
“Rodney and I were all dressed up in our New York cool clothes to meet for dinner,” the critically acclaimed, best-selling writer recalls with a laugh of her first encounter with the equally revered Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter in 2004.
Karr, a poet, essayist, author, and professor who has taught at Tufts University and Harvard, has risen to prominence with her searing memoirs, including 1995’s “The Liar’s Club.” Crowell’s career as a sideman, songwriter, producer, and performer stretches back to the mid-’70s and encompasses a string of his own hits — including “She’s Crazy for Leavin’ ” and “After All This Time” — as well as those penned for or covered by others including “Shame on the Moon” by Bob Seger and “Making Memories of Us” by Keith Urban.
But the sophisticate veneer of accomplished artists quickly melted away as the pair got lost in shared childhood memories of hot, itchy nights growing up in East Texas.
RODNEY CROWELL & MARY KARR
As it turned out, geography was not all that Crowell and Karr had in common. Each was also shaped by family members who hit the bottle — and whom the bottle hit back — and was blessed with a need and a gift to express what it meant to grow up in that world.
‘My thought was I really need to find her and write songs with her.’
On the phone with the duo, they sound just like what the title of their new collaborative album implies: “KIN — Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell.” They tease, banter, and set up each other’s punch lines like the old friends they’ve become.
“Rodney, don’t you think the poetry of where we grew up is exceptional?” asks Karr, dialing in from New York City.
“When you get it right, yes,” answers Crowell, on the road on his way to a gig in Nashville. “Two degrees off is just [expletive]. But if you get it right, it’s vivid, it’s emotional and sarcastic and ironic and smart and stupid all at the same time. As you call it, it’s the milieu.”
He says this last word with a fusty,
uppercrust accent which cracks Karr up, as they will each do to each other throughout the call discussing the genesis of “KIN,” which will be released on Tuesday.
The pair wrote all 10 songs together, a dusty Americana suite of memories and moments that evoke the ways that family, friends, and lovers imprint upon us. Crowell sings on four tracks and, since Karr is not a vocalist, reached out to his friends for help, including Vince Gill, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams.
“I swear to God I thought he was joking when he said ‘Let’s get some people up for our record.’ I was like ‘What record?’,” says Karr with a hearty laugh. “If I invited all of my friends to make a record it would be four of the most depressed people in New York City all dressed in black, sitting around my apartment drinking espresso.”
The road to “KIN,” which Karr and Crowell are promoting with a tour that stops for two shows at Cafe 939 on Wednesday, began, appropriately enough, with a song.
On his 2003 album, “Fate’s Right Hand,” Crowell name-checked Karr alongside Tom Waits and Aretha Franklin in a song called “Earthbound.”
Karr heard the song and realized “this guy can write!” That same skill drew Crowell to Karr. “Of course, Mary hadn’t heard of me, nor had I heard of her until someone gave me ‘The Liar’s Club.’ And then I read it and went ‘whoa’ like a million and a half other people. But here’s the thing, my thought was I really need to find her and write songs with her. And trust me I’m not looking for people to write songs with. I do just fine on my own.”
At this point Karr tries to self-deprecatingly interject and Crowell won’t have it. “Let me finish my point,” he asks nicely. “OK, I’ll shut up,” she responds with a grin you can hear through the telephone line.
“It was really real writing when I came up with rhyming Mary Karr and Ringo Starr [on that song]. I was sitting working on a song and those people that came to me were indeed reasons for the narrator in the song to go on living on this earth. But I also recognize that it was an unconscious calling out to Mary.”
“If Tom Waits has a nickel’s worth of sense he’s the next one on the line,” quips Karr.
“But hang on a second,” retorts Crowell. “Tom Waits ain’t from the same swamp that [you] and I are from, and that’s the truer connection.”
And that connection is clear as they bicker a bit good-naturedly about who brought more to the table creatively. At the end of the day, Crowell observes, it doesn’t matter since “we’re both broke and that makes us poets.”
Crowell credits another person he considers a poet, “KIN” producer Joe Henry, with drawing out their best work.
Henry wasn’t surprised at how well the collaboration turned out even thought it was Karr’s first attempt at songwriting. “She understands you can use your intellect to clear away the debris and get to the heart of the matter and I knew between the two of them that they would challenge each other until it got good,” Henry says.
They hope to do the same on the road, although Karr is a little unclear about what the show will be exactly. Says Crowell, “There’ll be a lot of stories told. There’ll be poetry, there’ll be singing, there will even be dancing I assume.” Karr responds, “He thinks he can get me on the pole. I’m not getting on the pole.”
They both laugh and Crowell concludes, “You’ve got to get out there and make a living Mary.”