Rodney Crowell, Mary Karr, et al. (Vanguard, 2012)
Over the past 16 years as I’ve read Mary Karr’s three memoirs, I’ve always heard Rodney Crowell’s music as the soundtrack. Now these two great East Texans have found each other and delivered an album that stands up to the best of either artist’s previous work.
Both Crowell and Karr had hard-scrabble, working-class childhoods with lots of parental drinking. Karr got a scholarship to Carleton College and became a respected poet. Crowell picked up a guitar and found success in Nashville. But the demons of childhood pursued them, and both artists eventually became alcoholics themselves.
The ensuing struggle for sobriety is the material of Karr’s last memoir, Lit (which ends with her conversion to Catholicism), and of Crowell’s 2001 album The Houston Kid and his own 2011 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks. Here they revisit that territory with 10 songs that are genuine collaborations. Crowell sings four of them. The rest are voiced by an all-star cast of country singers that includes Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Crowell’s ex-wife, Rosanne Cash. The production by Joe Henry delivers a consistent honky-tonk setting that twangs and whines its heart out with fiddles and steel guitars.
The two strongest tracks on the album are also the ones most plainly rooted in Karr’s life story. “Momma’s on a Roll,” sung by Lee Ann Womack, has an infectious chorus (“Momma’s on a roll, Daddy’s looking old. . . ”), verses full of drunken violence, and even a little stray gunplay. “Sister, Oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is a tender hymn to Karr’s older sibling who is the real hero of her autobiographical trilogy.
But for those who are new to the mad poetry of the East Texas swamps, this album is a great place to start, especially if it leads you back into the rest of Crowell’s and Karr’s profound and hilariously tragic bodies of work.
This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 9, page 42).