There's more to Rodney Crowell than meets the eye -- or so he keeps telling us. A country music maverick, he's written some great songs, been a top-line country star with videos and the whole enchilada, was married to Rosanne Cash for over a dozen years, and has collaborated with Emmylou Harris and countless others as a songwriter, musician, and producer. His songwriting has gotten increasingly autobiographical in recent years, and in 2011 he published a memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, that detailed a childhood in Texas full of dysfunction and abuse -- which brings us to Mary Karr, a poet and writer whose best-selling 1995 memoir The Liar's Club kicked off a whole craze for such things. Karr also spent her childhood in Texas, and her story mirrored Crowell's. Crowell even name-checked Karr in a song, "Earthbound," on his 2003 album Fate's Right Hand, and in truth, they could have been brother and sister, so similar were their childhoods. Kin, if you will. This set finds them writing songs together, and with the help of Crowell's musical kin (who fortunately include Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Chely Wright, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and, of course, Rosanne Cash), recording them with producer Joe Henry. That's the story. So what kinds of songs did this unlikely (and yet likely) duo come up with? Well, the songs on Kin are smart, literary, lyrical, full of great lines, full of thought, and very specific, and they fall right in line with the kind of autobiographical roots country Crowell has been doing with his last few albums, and any of these songs would fit right in there. A couple of them, "Anything But Tame" (sung by Crowell, who sings three songs here, and duets with Kris Kristofferson on "My Father's Advice") and "If the Law Don't Want You" (sung wonderfully by Norah Jones) have killer vocal hooks when the chorus comes around. Crowell knows how to write songs, and maybe Karr does too, but nothing on Kin rings as clearly as Crowell's earlier gems like "Ain't Living Long Like This," "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," "Shame on the Moon," or even "Life Is Messy," and part of the reason is that these earlier songs are, well, less specific, less literary, and thus they actually reverberate in a wider arc. It's hard to set fire to too much thought, the poet Robinson Jeffers once said. Perhaps that's doubly true when it comes to a song. Songs can be confessional, certainly, but songs are not memoirs. Songs can also be poetic, but they're not poems. Crowell and Karr have written an interesting album here, but it's no Diamonds & Dirt, the 1988 album that is Crowell's best, and an album that deftly straddles the personal and the general in a way this one does not, however intelligently wrought it is.
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