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It's not unusual for poets to try their hands at pop music-making. Patti Smith was a poet before she was a rock star. In recent years, print-poets such as David Berman and Wyn Cooper have put out more-than-credible song collections. But Mary Karr, known more for prize-winning memoirs such as The Liars Club and Lit than for her excellent poetry, has taken a high-profile risk that's paid off.
Teaming with Rodney Crowell, who once name-checked her in a song, Karr has crafted a series of tunes that, while in the country tradition, convey a lot of Karr's own obsessions with family. Not just songs about fathers and mothers and siblings, but memories of parents and siblings, and how memory and maturity alter the sense of one's own history.
I should make clear that these songs are collaborations, not just Mary Karr's words set to Rodney Crowell's music. As she puts it in her liner notes, during writing sessions, "we were badmintoning words back" at each other. Some of the songs rely on a country-music standby, the rueful pun, as in the song Norah Jones sings, with the refrain, "If the law don't want you, neither do I." But the best songs smuggle poetic diction into the honky tonk, as in Vince Gill's super-fine rendition of "Just Pleasing You."
"I had a mask inside my mind / that I hid behind" is the couplet in that song, and as it progresses, you begin to realize that the personage the singer wants to please may not be a wife or a lover, but God Himself. Elsewhere, the songs strip away ambiguity to tell vivid stories with colorful images. One of these is powered by Lee Ann Womack's vocal in "Momma's on a Roll."
There are lots of songs about mamas and daddies in country music. There are far fewer about sisters, but Karr and Crowell come up with a fine one called "Sister Oh Sister." The creativity here is completed by a superb vocal from Rosanne Cash, who performs what I mentioned earlier: that magical liberation of memory unmoored from the drift of nostalgia.
If there's a theme running through these songs, it's that, to very loosely paraphrase Philip Larkin, your kinfolk, they mess you up. Karr and Crowell know that harsh or cruel experiences can mingle with sweeter ones and the passage of time to achieve not rosy harmony, but an acceptance of life as you live it, one day at a time, adding them up and trying to make art out of mess.