How Mary Karr, acclaimed author of The Liar's Club and Cherry, made a country record without irritating critics or her fans
Breaking into a new field is the riskiest career move a famous person can make: For every couple hundred celebrities who try, there are only a few Nora Ephrons or Will Smiths or Steve Martins who move gracefully from stage to screen or from bookshelf to record store. Last month, poet Mary Karr, beloved for her bestselling memoir trilogy, The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit, dispatched her debut record of Americana music. At the peak of her career and bedecked with the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 57-year-old wordsmith applied her rough-hewn Texas style to a ten-track album called Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell. NPR called it "a high-profile risk that paid off." The New York Daily News praised the "wealth of winking new country odes." Flavorwire deemed the songs "as painfully honest and simply beautiful as any of Karr's memoirs." The album has spent four weeks charting on
Karr ventured stubbornly and unexpectedly into songwriting, the result of a long professional courtship with country music legend Rodney Crowell, a Grammy Award-winner and recent Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee. Crowell identified so strongly with Karr's savage upbringing in The Liars' Club that he name-checked her in "Earthbound," a track off his 2003 album, Fate's Right Hand. Soon the two met for dinner in Manhattan, where Karr lives. "I didn't know who he was," Karr told me, with a slight drawl. "He'd mentioned his wife, so I didn't think he was a crazy stalker or anything." The pair sat down at a restaurant "all dressed up in our 'we're adults' clothes," but minutes in, they were talking in the shorthand of old friends from East Texas, where they spent their youth less than 100 miles apart. Crowell called their instant rapport "a brother-sister thing." Karr deferred to Nabokov: "'The years by year are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.'" In other words, she said, "Rodney just knew shit about me that nobody else knew—nobody who didn't grow up with rednecks who were drinking and shooting Colts and beating each other." Crowell asked his fellow Lone Star savant to join forces with him and pen songs. "Never [gonna] happen," Karr insisted. "It'd been a long time since I'd done something I didn't know how to do." A great way to become a media punch line is to try something new and fail, and she wasn't in the mood for humiliation.