Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell
Photograph by Deborah Feingold

Before Mary Karr began working on Kin (Vanguard), the 57-year-old poet and author of the celebrated memoirs The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit had never written a song in her life and was reluctant to give it a try. But the 61-year-old singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell realized that he and Karr had something valuable in common: both of them grew up in tough circumstances on the Texas Gulf Coast, and both of them left for greener pastures. When they finally started working together, they came up with an album’s worth of songs compelling enough to draw guest appearances from the likes of Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, and Kris Kristofferson.

Rodney, it was you who contacted Mary?
RC: Yeah, I did, sort of ingeniously. I put her name in a song.

MK: On Rodney’s [2003] song “Earthbound,” I get name-checked right next to Tom Waits and Aretha Franklin. There’s no list of names I would rather be included in.

Then we wound up meeting in New York, and it was like we had known each other our entire lives. Rodney and I went to the same juke joints when we were kids, we both rode our bikes behind mosquito trucks.

RC: We come from hardworking people. There’s something about that influx of people who came from sharecrop farms to the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s not that different in some ways from Detroit—people could get labor jobs, have a chance of a little bit better future. My people came from western Tennessee and western Kentucky.

MK: My family came from Tennessee.

Both of you have brought so much of that part of Texas into your art over the years. What is it about it that stays with you?
MK: It’s the ugliest place on the planet in some ways. There’s a lot of misery and suffering. But there’s also enormous humor and great poetry. The people know how to take an ass-whooping, but they also know how to get back up.

RC: People ask me, “What is the mystique of the Texas songwriter?” Well, we ran barefoot from March until November. I think there’s something about being a barefoot kid that gets you closer to the place—you take root. Of course, I don’t think either one of us could wait to get out of there.

Rodney, after you read The Liars’ Club , did you have the idea of collaborating with Mary right away?
RC: When I finished that book, I said, “This writer is a born songwriter.”

MK: Rodney kept saying, “We can make a record.” I was like, “Rodney, I don’t know anything about writing a song. You know everything, and I feel like a dumbass.”

What convinced you?
MK: We were talking on the phone, and I told him that when I was younger they always said about me, “If the law don’t want you, neither do I.” He said, “That’s a great title for a song.” And not long after, Rodney was in New York with his guitar on his knee and we were banging out that song. It just came naturally.

Were you involved in the recording?
MK: Rodney would let me come to the studio because I was so awestruck.

RC: Let me interject here. Rodney didn’t let Mary come to the studio, Rodney wanted Mary in the studio. People like Vince and Emmy have been around me for a while and love me, but Mary comes in the room and they perk up a little bit because they want to sparkle for her. So you get more than if it had just been me there.

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