July 27, 2012
KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.
The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.
In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together. It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life. Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together. However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.
Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook. While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator. Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.
The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar. Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement. A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.” In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity. Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog. Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years. Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.
Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife. It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals. “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr. “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”
Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found. The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music. One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.